Oct. 21 will be an important day in the life of the Canadian Church. On this day in Rome, Pope Benedict will canonize Kateri Tekakwitha a saint.
Kateri was born over 350 years ago of an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father in upstate New York, not too far from current-day Albany.
When Kateri was only four years old, smallpox struck her village. Her mother, father and brother were killed by the disease. Kateri's face was disfigured and she was partially blinded. She lived in poor health for the rest of her life. She was raised by aunts and uncles in her extended family.
Kateri first heard of Christ from her mother as a very young child.
Jesuit missionary priests moved into her village when she was a young teenager. Kateri had long talks with them, committed her life to Christ, and lived a life of prayer and deep spirituality.
Members of her family were opposed to her becoming a Christian. She refused proposals of marriage, eventually making a vow of perpetual virginity.
She was, on occasion, bullied and mistreated by some members of her family and others in her village. Eventually she fled from her home village and escaped to a Kahnawake, a Christian Mohawk village south of modern-day Montreal. There she was baptized at the age of 20.
She continued her life of prayer and took on rigorous ascetical practices. Her health declined further, and she died at the age of 24.
Her reputation as a saint grew after her death. Missionary priests and community members saw that her pockmarked face became clear within minutes after her death. Villagers invoked her name in prayers of healing, and there were numerous reports of miraculous cures and healings.
Sister Eva Solomon, a Sister of St. Joseph, insists that this is an important day for aboriginal people in Canada. Writing as an Anishinaabe woman, Solomon says Kateri "gives us the courage to stand with dignity before those who continue to ridicule and discriminate against us."
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha
The official recognition of Kateri as a saint shows that "aboriginal peoples are important to God and to the Church." Canadian Catholics, through dialogue, can learn much from the cultural and spiritual gifts of aboriginal peoples.
Father Thomas Rosica gives one example as he describes Kateri as "a patron of ecology and spirituality," and says she has much to teach us today about "how to love and respect the created world and care for it."
The canonization of Kateri is also important for non-aboriginal Canadians. In a pastoral letter issued last June, the Saskatchewan bishops see Kateri in the context of the current work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada.
They state that "marking that tremendously important event will be a way of strengthening ties with aboriginal communities," and that this time of "walking closely with our Catholic brothers and sisters will open doors and teach us how to walk together with aboriginal communities as a whole."
In their letter, the bishops speak of healing and reconciliation in the context of the legacy of the residential schools, but they also speak of the many ongoing issues going beyond the residential schools that call forth parishes and dioceses "to walk with our aboriginal sisters and brothers in advocating for justice and healing in our society."
These issues can include addressing the racism and discrimination, the disproportionate rates of poverty, homelessness, imprisonment and the education, health and child welfare challenges being experienced by Aboriginal peoples in Canada today.
This can also include respect for treaty rights and land claims in the face of proposed pipelines and other resource development projects.
Sunday Oct. 21 will be a day of special celebration in our aboriginal Catholic parishes. Hopefully the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha will also be an important theme in Sunday celebrations in every parish across western and northern Canada.
By celebrating how God was present in Kateri's life in such a special way, we will be able to see better how God is present in our own lives and in the lives of our aboriginal and non-aboriginal neighbours, and strengthen in a visible way the bonds of love, justice and solidarity between us.
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)