Image: Saint Kateri Tekakwitha by Fr. Claude Chauchetière (c. 1696)
By Br. Bernard Mary Fonkalsrud OFM Conv.
As Australians, we have been brought up to show due respect and appreciation for the culture of our nation’s First People. In churches and liturgy, we can find examples of how appropriate inculturation has taken place in attempts to present worship that is distinct and recognisable to indigenous people, but also faithful to the universal sacred liturgy of the Church. This balance of traditions is essential for evangelisation, as people feel more receptive to concepts and ideas that are familiar, yet present a new context and perspective. We see how great missionaries like Saint Patrick and Saint Francis Xavier appropriated local symbols and stories to teach truths of the Catholic faith; we see too how the Blessed Virgin Mary has reportedly appeared to visionaries in traditional garb, as at Guadalupe, Kibeho, and La Vang.
Early French Jesuit missionaries ventured to the ‘New World’ in the 1600s with hopes of making Christ known and loved among the indigenous people of North America. They faced great challenges from aggressive tribesmen, and the Protestant Dutch, who attempted to keep the Catholics from establishing themselves on the continent. Through their prayer and hard work, the missionaries were able to make great progress among the Wendat nation of Lake Ontario and some Iroquois nations, particularly with the Mohawk who lived along the St. Lawrence River. Those early Jesuit missionaries were eventually martyred for their efforts, but their heroic witness and the seeds of faith were planted in the hearts of many of the native communities. After a great war between the people, the Wendat were adopted into the Iroquois nations, and through their strong adherence to their Catholic faith and oral culture, were able to evangelise the very people who had once been in conflict with them.
In 1956, Kateri Tekakwitha was born of a Catholic Algonquin woman named Kahontáke, and Kenneronkwa, a chief of the ‘Turtle Clan’ of Mohawk who was tolerant of the spread of the Catholic religion among the nation. It is likely that Kateri’s mother was her first encounter with the Christian faith, however, her father did not allow the children to be baptised. In the 1660s, a smallpox epidemic, transmitted by the European settlers, claimed the lives of many native people, including the father, mother, and brother of Kateri; she would survive, but her face was badly scarred from the disease. As Kateri grew, she would encounter the witness of many Catholic lay people among the tribe who encouraged and invited their countrymen to follow Jesus Christ. Though other Jesuit missionaries would arrive to catechise the people, it was these native Mohawk individuals who would impress her most, showing that she could embrace the Catholic faith, while still being faithful to her Mohawk culture.
As she began to take her faith seriously, she committed to living celibately and refused to accept any invitation to marriage. She was baptised in 1676, which, due to her status as the daughter of a chief, caused great scandal and the taunts and rebukes of many of her people. Tolerating the abuse for some time, Kateri eventually migrated to the newly established Catholic Mohawk clan in Kahnawake. Here, she was free to live her life dedicated to God and her people, united in prayer and the Sacraments under the traditional ‘longhouse’ which had been converted into the clan’s chapel.
Though she died at the young age of only 24, Kateri Tekakwitha, now a canonised saint for the Universal Church, was a model of faithfulness and a seeker of the truth. She expressed her love of her people, and Jesus. Many years later, in 1984, Pope St. John Paul II would describe her approach as “Christ animating the very centre of all culture.” He said:
“Through his Gospel Christ confirms the native peoples in their belief in God, their awareness of his presence, their ability to discover him in creation, their dependence on him, their desire to worship him, their sense of gratitude for the land, their responsible stewardship of the earth, their reverence for all his great works, their respect for their elders. The world needs to see these values — and so many more that they possess — pursued in the life of the community and made incarnate in a whole people.”
Br. Bernard Mary Fonkalsrud OFM Conv.
Order of Friars Minor Conventual
Provincial Delegation of Our Lady Help of Christians, Australia
Mt. St. Francis Friary, Kellyville, NSW