St. Kateri Tekakwitha: Native Woman, Catholic Saint

A few years ago, a gentleman contacted Catholic Answers with a question about a candidate in the RCIA class he was teaching. According to our inquirer, the candidate was a Native American who was interested in becoming Catholic but wanted to know if she would have to give up certain Native American rituals to which she was attached. For her, giving up those rituals would be a “dealbreaker” to her conversion, and this gentleman wanted to know if he would have to turn her away from baptism.

Without knowing anything about the Native rituals this woman cherished, there was no way I could know whether or not practicing them posed an impediment to reception into the Church. All I could do was to explain to this gentleman that the Church never permanently turns away anyone interested in becoming Catholic. If individual circumstances warrant doing so, the Church may at times defer celebration of the sacraments, but no one should be permanently discouraged from becoming Catholic altogether (Code of Canon Law canon 868).

I also recommended to him that he contact the USCCB’s Subcommittee on Native American Affairs for assistance in determining if his candidate’s attachment to rituals that were part of her cultural heritage posed an impediment to baptism.

This situation did raise two important questions, though: to what extent do potential converts have to give up their former way of life to be received into the Church, and to what extent does the Church accommodate itself to new cultures where Christianity was previously unknown or unaccepted?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

By her very mission, “the Church . . . travels the same journey as all humanity and shares the same earthly lot with the world: she is to be a leaven and, as it were, the soul of human society in its renewal by Christ and transformation into the family of God.” Missionary endeavor requires patience. It begins with the proclamation of the gospel to peoples and groups who do not yet believe in Christ, continues with the establishment of Christian communities that are “a sign of God’s presence in the world,” and leads to the foundation of local churches.

It must involve a process of inculturation if the gospel is to take flesh in each people’s culture. There will be times of defeat. “With regard to individuals, groups, and peoples it is only by degrees that [the Church] touches and penetrates them and so receives them into a fullness which is Catholic” (CCC 854).

We can see the marriage of evangelization and inculturation at work in the life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha (1656–1680), the first Native of North America to be canonized a saint and whose feast we celebrate on July 14.

In the mid-seventeenth century, Jesuit missionaries were hard at work evangelizing the indigenous nations living in what would become the United States and Canada. A few years before St. Kateri was born, a group of Jesuits, including St. Isaac Jogues and St. Jean de Brébeuf, were killed by Natives, and would eventually become known as the North American Martyrs. These martyrs sowed the soil for the later conversions of Natives, not only with the blood they shed but also with the effort they made to make Christianity seem less foreign to potential Native converts.

The Jesuits learned the languages of the Natives so that they could catechize the Natives in their own tongue (which stands in stark contrast to later initiatives spearheaded by some Christians to force Natives to abandon their languages). They used Native concepts to symbolize Christian concepts. For example, when the Jesuits translated the Lord’s Prayer into Mohawk, they used the Mohawk word for “sky world” for the word “heaven.” St. Jean de Brébeuf is famous for including Native imagery in a Christmas carol he wrote in Huron. The carol’s lyrics include this verse:

Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp’d his beauty ’round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high
“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.”

This was the world into which St. Kateri was born in 1656. Her parents were a non-Christian Mohawk and a captive Algonquin Christian woman who had been assimilated into the Mohawk tribe. When Tekakwitha, which means “she who bumps into things,” was around four years old, her parents and baby brother succumbed to a smallpox epidemic. She survived, but was left with facial scarring and poor eyesight (which probably explains the name she was given by her people).

Tekakwitha seems to have had a natural aversion to marrying, which would put her at odds with her family’s way of life but which would prove to be a fine foundation for the actual grace that led her to seek baptism from the Jesuit missionaries. She was baptized in 1676, and given the Christian name “Catherine” for St. Catherine of Siena. Tekakwitha became known though as “Kateri Tekakwitha,” which is the Mohawk version of “Catherine” and her own Native name.

During the handful of years she lived after her baptism, she pursued a penitential life, sometimes adapting Native customs into her penitential practices (such as piercing herself with thorns, which was done by some Natives either as a way of offering thanks for receiving some benefit or as a personal sacrifice to obtain a good). In fact, her penances were so severe that her spiritual director counseled her to be more moderate in her penances and insisted she ask permission before taking up her penances.

St. Kateri Tekakwitha has been named by the Church as a patron of Native Americans, of ecologists, and of people ridiculed for their piety. In addition to traditional Christian emblems such as a lily and the cross, Kateri is also depicted by artists with a turtle, in honor of the Mohawk clan that raised Kateri after the death of her parents.

As demonstrated by St. Kateri, Christianity does require personal sacrifice, and it does require converts to be open to a new way of life. But, as Kateri shows us, acceptance of Christianity does not mean a renunciation of those aspects of our lives that prepared us to be attracted to Christ in the first place. Rather, God’s grace builds upon nature, and all that is good and true and life-giving in our families and culture can be transformed, in a sense “baptized,” right along with us.

The Second Vatican Council document Nostra Aetate teaches:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in [non-Christian] religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men (2).

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