By Angela Cave
AURIESVILLE, N.Y. (CNS) — As the sun set on the 73rd annual Tekakwitha Conference at its namesake’s birthplace July 21, dozens of pilgrims joined hands and formed a circle, launching a traditional dance symbolic of friendship.
It also seemed to represent what many attendees described as a feeling of coming full circle as members of the Catholic family.
More than 800 Native American Catholics converged in Albany July 18-22 for four days of workshops, liturgies and pilgrimages to two shrines in other locations in the Albany Diocese — the birth and baptismal places of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the conference’s patroness.
She was born and baptized in what is today Auriesville and Fonda, respectively.
This year’s gathering was scheduled to take place in “Kateri country,” as many natives call upstate New York, years before the Vatican approved the final miracle needed to make Blessed Kateri the first member of a North American tribe to become a saint.
With the long-anticipated canonization set for October in Rome, conference participants shared their joy over the news, their tales of Blessed Kateri’s influence on their lives and their hopes for the future of their people — a tiny portion of the American population that faces problems with poverty, addiction and depression. They say Blessed Kateri’s sainthood is an answer to generations-long prayers and an affirmation of their place in the Church and in the country.
“It’s going to do a lot to lift up our people, to lift up our spirits,” said Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Sister of St. Ann, who is executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference’s national office in Great Falls, Mont. “People are just so energized and high-spirited. We feel we belong now, definitely to a stronger degree, to that sacred circle.”
The nation’s more than 600,000 Native American Catholics — many of whom participate in about 130 Kateri Circles sponsored by the conference — will grow even stronger in their faith, Sister Kateri said. And those who have fallen away from the church — an issue that doesn’t discriminate — will seek to return, Sister Kateri said. This may even happen with non-native Catholics.
“More and more people want to know her story and will be able to embody that story,” Sister Kateri said.
In a homily on the last day of the conference, Bishop Robert J. Cunningham of Syracuse, seconded the idea that Blessed Kateri is an example for all Catholics. He called to mind the meaning of the soon-to-be-saint’s last name — “who walks groping for her way” — and said it transcends her impaired vision.
“In some sense, it can apply to us,” he said. “At times, the Gospel meets with indifference, misunderstanding or even hostility. We may fumble about us as we try to choose the right place and the right time to live our faith publicly.”
Blessed Kateri modeled living out the Catholic faith despite resistance. She was born to a Christian Algonquin mother and a Mohawk Turtle Clan war chief father in 1656. When she was 4, her parents died from a smallpox epidemic, which left her with vision loss and pockmarks.
She was raised by her anti-Christian uncle and began studying Catholicism in private at the age of 18. After she was baptized at the age of 20 in Fonda, her family and village ostracized and ridiculed her — she even received death threats.
She fled to a Christian village in Canada in 1677 to lead a life of prayer, intense penitential practices, love for the Eucharist and devotion to chastity. She taught prayers to children, worked with the sick and elderly and attended Mass several times a day.
“She has, as much as any human being can, embraced the Gospel,” said Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, who is a member of the Prairie Band of the Potawatomi Nation, in his homily during a July 20 Mass. “That means giving up things.”
“It’s not enough to receive the gift,” he continued. “We have to give it away. We’re cowards: We’re afraid to preach the Gospel to the Indians among us, aren’t we? I think it’s hard to imagine that Kateri would keep quiet.”
Archbishop Chaput encouraged Catholics to adopt virtues embodied by Blessed Kateri, starting with abstinence from vices such as addiction. Next up is the need to find time for prayer and listening to God, he said.
“Just show up,” he advised. “Because most of us don’t even do that.”
Archbishop Chaput also advised participants to surround themselves with Catholic friends, like Blessed Kateri did with her mother’s old friend, Anastasia, whom she met in Canada.
“She knew she couldn’t do well without support,” he said.
To many, the Tekakwitha Conference provides such fellowship.
“Sometimes in your life, you don’t have that connection with native people,” said Sylvia A. Spence, a member of an Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota. “I think it’s a real blessing.”
This was Spence’s 12th time attending the conference. “Every year, there’s something miraculous that gets me here.”
“I’m so excited” about Blessed Kateri’s canonization, she said. “I think it’s amazing.”
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Cave is a staff writer at The Evangelist, newspaper of the Diocese of Albany.
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