Pope Benedict XVI has named seven new saints, including the first American Indian, Kateri Tekakwitha, known as "Lily of the Mohawks."
Tekakwitha, born in 1656 to an Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father, was converted by Jesuit missionaries as a child after she was orphaned. She had severe facial scarring from smallpox. She died at age 24 in 1680. Tradition holds her facial scars vanished at the time of her death -- considered a miracle that paved the way for her beatification in 1943. The disappearance of the scars was considered an example of God's love for her.
The second miracle along her route to sainthood was the recovery of an 11-year-old American Indian boy from flesh-eating bacteria after his parents prayed for divine intervention through Tekakwitha in 2006. The miracle was confirmed by the church in 2011. We ask American Indian and non-Indian clergy about this historical religious event.
The Rev. Mike Smith, Shinnecock Presbyterian Church, Shinnecock Reservation, Southampton:
The Catholic tradition first came here via the conquistadors in the 1500s. This sometimes violent relationship was not confined to the Catholics, but also among Protestants. Initially, it was a difficult relationship, to say the least.
It is difficult to maintain that someone is a Christian Indian at that time. You have to remember the message and the messenger, meaning that the goal was to convert Natives from their culture into Christianity.
I am very familiar with the life and works of Kateri Tekakwitha. When you look at [them], I think she is very worthy of canonization and sainthood. She was a special woman who was given a special gift by the creator. She used that gift to build up the body of her faith. That is a Christian calling, whether you are Catholic or Protestant.
Interestingly, my "relationship" with her goes back years. My children and grandchildren are Catholic. One of my granddaughters studied Kateri Tekakwitha's life and faith and chose her [name] as her confirmation name. She felt that Kateri Tekakwitha meant a great deal to her personal faith journey. It was gratifying to me for my granddaughter to choose a Native American. Kateri Tekakwitha exemplifies what it means to be a Native Christian and what struggles that entails. I realize it is a long process to canonization and sainthood, but I have to ask "What took so long?" The nice thing about her canonization and sainthood is it shows she made a difference in life, and the Catholic Church recognizes that she made a difference in the lives of others.
I don't look that strongly at saints. Any time you start putting people on a pedestal or develop a hierarchy of faithfulness, I don't agree with that. When you worship man, as some would consider praying to saints, you take away from your relationship with God. Sometimes, we put God in a box that has nothing to do with him. We surround him with rituals that have nothing to do with religion or our relationship with God.
As for Kateri Tekakwitha being Native American, I'd ask whether she practiced her Native culture along with her Catholic religion. Was she recognized as a Native American, as well as a Catholic nun?
As far as me and my congregation, it is interesting that she is Native American, but not particularly relevant. It is more a topic of conversation than something we would dwell upon. For those who are Native American and Catholic, I can appreciate that it would be exciting for them. If you show me the process of canonization and sainthood in the Bible, then I'll believe in it.
The naming of Kateri Tekakwitha, a Native American, as a saint is of great significance. She actually defied her culture and followed Christianity to become a member of the church. She is associated with other North American martyrs.
You can't compare what happened in her time with modern times. You have to understand the atmosphere at that time. The Iroquois, who were a confederation of six Native tribes, were very suspicious of the missionaries. At that time, the area was under French rule. And the missionaries wanted to make the area New France. It was a time of colonization. The missionaries and others wanted to make things comfortable for the French.
She went against her culture to be a Christian because her culture would not allow her to be a Christian and an Iroquois. This was the time she was living in, and her sacrifices were significant.