Editor’s note: This is part of a series for Lent.
When I was in high school, someone in the parish gave me a copy of the life of a holy Native American woman and said that I should read it.
I had never really read a life of a holy person before, and so I was curious. I didn’t know what to expect. What does it mean that a person is holy, or that someone is close to being declared a saint?
The life of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha gave me some initial answers. She’s called “blessed,” which is the last step before being named a saint by the church.
In reading her life, I was inspired and influenced by her deep sense of providence and prayer, her understanding and acceptance of suffering, her love for purity of the heart and body, and the radical heroism of her faith. It was the way of life that I expected from a holy person, but not at all in the context that I expected.
Tekakwitha was born in 1656 near Auriesville, New York. She was the favored daughter of an esteemed Mohawk warrior. Her name in Mohawk meant “she moves things.”
When she was four, smallpox struck and took the life of her mother, father and brother. Tekakwitha also had smallpox but survived. The illness, however, deformed her face with multiple scars, and left her almost blind. She was adopted and raised by extended family members.
When she was a teenager, she was greatly moved on hearing the Gospel preached for the first time. She desired to know Jesus better, and to understand how he desired her to live.
At age 20, she was baptized and took the name, Kateri, which was the Mohawk version of Catherine.
The Lord Jesus teaches: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Mt 5:8). Kateri’s deep faith is a witness to this truth.
Her faith was a constant source of strength to her. Unfortunately, it was also a cause of hostility within her tribe. Kateri was pressured to compromise her beliefs or adjust her convictions, but she wanted her faith to be pure, a true gift to Jesus.
She was beaten, neglected, dismissed, mocked, and her life was threatened. Kateri’s life was not easy, but she wanted to see God.
For her own protection, Kateri moved to a Christian colony where new converts among the native peoples assembled and lived together.
In the colony, Kateri was noted for her life of prayer, penance, and the care of the sick and aged. She missed her tribe and family, but she wanted to love Jesus with everything in her life.
Kateri desired to enter the convent, but was not able to do so. Instead, she took a private vow of virginity and sought to live that life for Jesus as best she could.
She was known for the purity and fortitude of her faith, which had matured through difficulty and suffering. She was hailed as the “Lily of the Mohawks” and praised for her goodness and love for others.
She never let herself fall into self-pity, nor did she blame God for her struggles. Kateri saw Jesus as her friend and companion, the one who made sense of things and who could show her God’s face.
At her death in 1680, Kateri’s last words were: “Jesus, I love you!” In passing from this life, the body of Kateri Tekakwitha was healed of all its scars, and a disguised physical beauty showed itself.
The miracle was to prove that the pure of heart see God, since God is allowed to see them.
Father Jeffrey Kirby is a priest of the Diocese of Charleston currently studying moral theology in Rome.