St. Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to a Mohawk father and a Christian Algonquin mother in what is now upstate New York, near Albany. While a young girl, Kateri contracted smallpox. Although she survived the disease, she was left with poor eyesight and scars on her face and eyes. Because of this, she was given the name "Tekakwitha," which in Mohawk means, "She bumps into things." When she was 8 years old, her foster family arranged for Kateri to be betrothed, as per Iroquois tradition. Kateri refused to marry, stating that she wanted to dedicate her life to God. At the age of 18, she started to learn more about the Christian faith through Jesuit missionary Father Jacques de Lamberville. Her uncle eventually gave her permission to become a Christian as long as she did not leave the village. Kateri began incorporating aboriginal concepts into her understanding of Christianity, such as the presence of God in nature.
At the age of 21, Kateri was baptized and received First Holy Communion on Christmas Day in 1677. After being rejected by her community for her conversion, she walked to the St. Francis Xavier Mission near Montreal, Canada, to join a community of Native American women who had also converted to Christianity. Kateri, who attributed her name to Catherine of Siena at the time of her baptism, died on April 17th, 1680. Tradition holds that her dying words were "Jesus, I love you” and that after her death, the scars on Kateri’s body began to heal—restoring the radiant appearance of her face. She was canonized on October 21st, 2012 by Pope Benedict XVI in Rome. She has been named the Protectress of Canada and patroness of the environment, environmentalists, Native Americans, and several diocese, to name a few.
As someone who is interested in Native American culture and the environment, I enjoyed learning about Kateri and her dedication to the natural world and her faith. I was also surprised to learn that she was the first Native American saint in the Catholic Church. It was interesting to learn about her dedication and devotion to her faith, even when it meant rejection from her community. Kateri bravely stayed firm to her belief in Christ when she was pressured to reject her faith in Christ and adhere to the traditional native beliefs. She knew that her faith in Jesus was not misplaced, so these demands only reaffirmed her beliefs.
Kateri blended her faith in Christ with a respect for nature. She maintained a deep devotion to nature and its beauty after her conversion. In his second encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis emphasized the imminent need of protecting the environment. I also invite you to imitate Kateri’s respect of nature. I have personally found this greater call of environmentalism to be reinvigorating. As the world’s young people prepare to gather in Poland for WYD, we realize in a special way that we are all on this planet together. We are called to see how our actions affect the world, and that we can work together for a stronger response to protect God’s great gift of creation. The air, water, trees, birds, plants, and other animals are not confined to national borders and neither should our approach to protecting the earth. Kateri inspires me to take action to protect the environment. If we each do our part by recycling, taking public transportation, and keeping vigilant about our energy consumption, then we have a greater chance of protecting our world. In addition, we are called to educate ourselves by reading more about environmental issues. I recommend starting with Laudato Si.
As we pass down our faith from generation to generation, so do we also pass down our responsibility towards this Earth. It can be hard to keep in mind that this is the same Earth that Jesus Christ walked on. Kateri, “Lily of the Mohawks,” combines this love of nature and Christ. It is my hope, as we approach WYD later this month, that we will also consider how we are protecting the environment. May we be inspired by this phenomenal saint.
To learn more about St. Kateri Tekakwitha, click here.
For more information on World Youth Day 2016, click here.