Thursday, October 18, 2012

Two New Saints for America

Most Rev. John Vlazny
Archbishop of Portland
Over the 15 years I’ve served as archbishop here in Portland, a number of planning meetings have taken place where we set some goals and objectives for our church here in western Oregon. The Archdiocesan Pastoral Council has been very helpful in helping me set these goals. But there was one goal that no one ever recommended that I hold deep in my heart.  Since the highest calling any one of us ever receives from God is to holiness, I remain hopeful that one day someone who was a Catholic in this archdiocese during my tenure as archbishop will be canonized a saint.  Naturally I want all the people to become saints, but recognition given to one special person would be the frosting on the cake!

Clearly, if that happens, I won’t be alive to witness it.  But I hope to be alive on Sunday, Oct. 21, when two Americans will be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. Altogether seven people will be canonized including a Filipino and some European founders of religious orders. The two Americans are Blessed Marianne Cope, a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of Syracuse, N.Y., who spent many years caring for the lepers on the island of Molokai, Hawaii, and Blessed Kateri Tekakiwitha, a 17th-century Mohawk girl who converted to Catholicism and died young. Folks in the state of New York have to be proud because these two women were New Yorkers.

They say that Blessed Marianne was a born leader. She worked many years at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Syracuse.  But eventually she volunteered to go to Hawaii to take care of lepers. There she met St. Damien de Veuster on the island of Molokai. She brought education and happiness to the leper colony and she was greatly revered. Unlike St. Damien, she died of natural causes on Aug. 9, 1918, and was buried in Hawaii.

There is great interest in Blessed Kateri here in the Pacific Northwest because she will be our first Native American saint.  She was known as the “Lily of the Mohawks.”  She was an orphan at the age of 4 and was raised by her uncle, a chief in a Mohawk village.  Jesuit priests who visited the village caught her attention and eventually she became a Catholic at age 20. Many of her relatives were displeased and her open practice of the faith, including Sunday Mass and lots of prayer and fasting, placed her life in jeopardy.  She eventually left her village and escaped to Montreal and a community where she was able to live her faith freely.  She took a vow of virginity and died in 1680 at the early age of 24.

A final miracle is needed for the canonization of any person after his or her beatification. The miracle attributed to Blessed Kateri’s intercession involved the full recovery of a young boy in Seattle. Last year in December Pope Benedict XVI signed the decree, which recognized the miracle as authentic. This cleared the way for Blessed Kateri’s canonization.

Because Blessed Kateri is so widely venerated among our Native American people, I would like to offer some more thoughts about this important canonization for our church here in the United States. It has taken a long time for her holiness to be recognized officially by the church. But her holiness was acknowledged throughout her life and she was honored almost immediately after her death by all those around her.  She has also been described as the “Mystic of the Wilderness,” a contemplative whose life was immersed in the presence of God which she found there in the wilderness of those days so long ago.

To be honest, we have to admit that many tribes of the Native American people suffered great travesties of justice during the early colonization of this great land.  Many misconceptions and tall tales spread about them quickly, which were nurtured by indifference or prejudice on the part of the newcomers to America. We all know that these Native Americans were commonly referred to as Indians until rather recently, an erroneous term attributed to the fact that Christopher Columbus believed that he had come to the “Indies.”  The Native Americans were also called Redskins, even though their coloring was quite varied in appearance, from very fair to dark brown.

The original ancestors of Kateri’s people were of Mongolian or some other Asiatic stock. They came here from Siberia some 20,000 years ago, maybe even earlier. They were nomadic or semi-nomadic in their lifestyle, human beings involved in the last stages of what is called the Great Ice Age.  They came without any notion of claiming a new continent for their own. They were primitive people whose far-ranging journeys crossed the United States, with many of them reaching South America and the Andes. 

Kateri’s people lived in the northeastern part of America. The early inhabitants were described as “the Forest People of North America.”  In reading some biographies of Blessed Kateri, one develops a great admiration for the Jesuit missionaries who made great sacrifices to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the new world.  French Jesuits, Sulpicians, Franciscans, the Sacred Heart Fathers and many other priests from the European Catholic world served unselfishly to make this new world Christian.  They overcame prejudices and they even gave their lives as a witness to their faith.  This, of course, made a deep impression on many people, including contemporaries of Kateri.  Even before she was baptized, Kateri had become a woman of prayer, much in the tradition of the native people.  The Jesuit missionary, Father De Lamberville, who catechized Kateri, did not rush her to the waters of Baptism.  She was eventually baptized on Easter Sunday, 1676.

Kateri’s resistance to marriage and her embrace of virginity confounded many of the villagers, especially the women.  She wanted to give herself exclusively to Christ and, as a woman of deep prayer, God’s grace flowered in her soul. She even suffered the indignity of a false accusation regarding her virginity.  In her innocence she trusted that God would provide her with his protection.  Not long thereafter the angel of death approached her.  She prepared to meet her God, strengthened by the sacramental gift of Viaticum, with serenity and great trust.  She died on April 17, 1680.  At the monument in her memory at Auriesville, New York, she is described as “the most beautiful flower that ever bloomed for the Indians.”

Many organizations were active in the cause for her canonization and in the spread of her message of peaceful surrender to the will of God.  This weekend we thank God for the gift of the canonization of Blessed Kateri and Blessed Marianne.  I continue to pray that one day one of you will be similarly recognized for your holiness of life.

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