Kateri Tekakwitha is a beacon of light during these confusing and challenging times. As the first Native American to be canonized in the Catholic Church in 2012, she may seem an unlikely choice because her canonization was subject to controversy. What took the church so long to recognize a Native American and did she turn her back on her People?
But what if, in this controversy, we lay the essence of what it is that makes America a haven for freedom and hope? Both timely battle armaments for you to decide.
Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk chief, both of whom died in a small pox epidemic with Tekakwitha’s brother. Adopted at four years of age by an uncle who replaced her father as chief of the Mohawk tribe, Tekakwitha was not like other members in her community. They despised the disease-bearing, conquering Europeans and missionaries.
But Tekakwitha was forgiving and moved past the illness that scared her face and caused her near blindness. She fell in love with the spiritual teachings of Jesus and the “blackrobe” missionaries who brought the gospel and the Catholic church to her community along the banks of the Mohawk River in what is now upstate New York.
As Tekakwitha’s grew in faith and turned 19, she refused to marry a Mohawk brave; begging instead to be baptized in the Christian faith. Her days were devoted to prayer and charitable works even though she was chastised for her service and beliefs because they clashed with her culture and customs. It must have taken an incredible spirit for Tekakwitha to exercise this freewill at a time when women were traded as brides for land and used to forge political ties.
Knowing her actions brought great shame, Tekakwitha eventually escaped North into Canada.
She walked 200 miles to a Christian village in Sault St. Louis, outside of Montreal, where she pledged herself to God with a vow of virginity; setting another precedent for Indian women whose futures are defined by marriage. But suddenly in 1680, she fell ill and died before her 24th birthday. Within days, peoples attributed miraculous healings and apparitions to her holiness.
After years of petitions and accounts of Tekakwitha’s miraculous interventions, Pope Benedict XVI recognized Tekakwitha as a saint after a young boy who prayed for her intercession in Washington was cured of a flesh-eating disease.
So what is it about this Indigenous woman of faith whose devotion to a conquering culture? She is more than the patron saint of the environment or people living in exile. “She inspires people to look within themselves in times of trouble” and is a symbol of the fundamental freedoms we must exercise for overcoming challenging situations like today’s COVID-centric reality.
When our liberties are totally controlled by the men who are there to uphold them, we lose sight of their origin; the tired and the poor, and not the politicians or any news channels bent on salacious divisions and telling us how to think, to vote, and what to do. Never forget our individual liberties were hard fought, and forged by women like Tekakwitha, Black Americans, the Japanese we wrongly interned, and a host of peoples of every color and origin. We must enshrine and respect each other’s freedoms like Saint Kateri Tekakwitha did.
These freedoms extend to decisions about masks, vaccines, and censorship; all things we must debate. My heart overflows with concern so we protect and respect each other with truth, without judging those who understand them differently; no matter how sensitive the subject. Because religious beliefs have long been a source of great wars and death throughout history in the world, I risk losing readers by talking about God and the saints.
Know that I am not arguing for a side today but for the right to have sides. We should not have to worry about the words credited to civil rights activist Abbey Hoffman in Aaron Sorkin’s Chicago Seven movie, “Can you give me a minute brother? I didn’t know my ideas were on trial.”
Since moving to America in 2001, I have coveted this sacred passage, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
But living in America now, nearly 20 years later, I find myself embroiled in polarized views that somehow think one side must crush the opposing side.
Republicans and Democrats, New York Mets or Yankees, it doesn’t matter. These differences are our divisions, as much as shameful periods in our nation’s are ours to learn and grow from.
Tekakwitha modeled tolerance and practiced her right to choose, to speak, to worship and to decide how she as a woman wanted to live her life. The soul of our nation must do the same and be unafraid. We left our Imperialist past to embrace a bold new course that will be forever be filled with the challenges manifest in our human fallibility. The best we can do is stand against fear, intolerance and anyone who profits from forfeited liberties. Embrace our differences and do what we Americans do best: help each other and heal our discord.