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The Hand Of God At Work: St. Kateri Tekakwitha

October 14, 2021 Featured Today No Comments

By JAMES MONTI

Our Lord has an uncanny way of putting us precisely where we need to be, precisely when we need to be there, to accomplish His purposes for us. He often does this through seemingly insignificant incidents, or even events that seem to us sheer misfortunes.
In 1675, the French Jesuit missionary Fr. Jacques de Lamberville, who was serving in the Mohawk Indian village of Caughnawaga (Gandawague), near what is now Fonda, N.Y., had good reason to believe he would be joining a fellow Jesuit at the Iroquois mission of Onondaga when, quite unexpectedly, he received his superiors’ command to remain in Caughnawaga.
In fulfillment of this assignment, each day he led prayers and delivered a homily of catechetical instruction at Caughnawaga’s missionary chapel. The villagers seem to have attended these assemblies rather freely without necessarily making any commitment to acceptance of the Catholic faith. Thus when a 19-year-old orphan known simply as Tekakwitha began to show up at these instructions quite regularly, no one seemed to have taken much notice of it. Clearly, many came for no other reason than curiosity, and in the case of Tekakwitha, no one had heard her utter a word about wanting to become a Catholic. As was her habit, this shy young woman was keeping her thoughts to herself.
But a seemingly trivial accident was to change everything. During the corn harvest, Tekakwitha suffered a wound to one foot. It was sufficiently debilitating to confine her temporarily to her uncle’s long house at a time when most of the women were in the fields. The village was thus largely empty, affording Fr. de Lamberville what seemed to him a good opportunity to converse with the few who remained in the long houses. It was with this purpose in mind that the priest took a walk through the village.
When Fr. de Lamberville passed the long house of Tekakwitha’s uncle, it appeared to him that no one was within, so he did not stop there. He had continued on his way only a few steps when something, something within him, made him turn back. Upon entering the long house, he found himself enthusiastically greeted by a young woman he scarcely knew. The very first thing that struck him when he saw Tekakwitha at that moment was her face, in which he saw a deep modesty and shyness that captivated him.
The missionary listened with utter amazement as the girl poured out her heart to him, passionately confessing her ardent desire to become a Catholic, while explaining the obstacles that her family had posed to such a conversion. As Tekakwitha spoke, Fr. de Lamberville was moved to admiration not only of her quite evident vivacity on this occasion — a vivacity that no one could have anticipated from such a quiet girl — but also an admiration of her goodness, her modesty, her simplicity, and her candor.
The priest’s amazement only grew when he began to question the young woman, and discovered how virtuously she had been living. He invited her to attend the prayers in the mission chapel, a suggestion she took to heart and acted upon as soon as she had recovered from her foot injury. Fr. de Lamberville was later to relate that even during this first meeting he sensed that Tekakwitha was a chosen soul for whom God had great designs. He readily consented to her request that he begin preparing her for Baptism.
Over the winter that followed, Fr. de Lamberville intensively instructed his eager new catechumen. He was amazed to see how quickly and fervently the young woman learned her prayers. Her alacrity in this regard was motivated in part by her fear that the priest might defer her Baptism if he found her insufficiently prepared.
To assure himself that his quite favorable first impression of her had been correct, and that she was worthy and ready for Baptism, Fr. de Lamberville undertook a rigorous examination of her conduct. In making his inquiries regarding her character among the people of the village, he was surprised to find that everyone he asked spoke highly of her and attested to her virtue, even those who had persecuted her.

Devotion And Modesty

Hoping to maximize the advantage his fledgling mission parish would obtain from the addition of such a promising young convert to its ranks, the priest chose Easter Sunday, April 5, 1676, as the most fitting occasion for her Baptism. Two other catechumens were to be baptized with her.
To enhance the solemnity of this event, Fr. de Lamberville saw to it that every Catholic of Caughnawaga was present in St. Peter’s Chapel when he conferred the sacrament upon the girl they had hitherto known simply as Tekakwitha. She for her part listened and replied with extraordinary devotion and modesty as the missionary led her through the impressive baptismal rite for adults, which began at the church door and climaxed at the baptismal font.
It was at the font that Tekakwitha was addressed for the first time by her new name in Christ, a name Fr. de Lamberville had aptly chosen for her — Katharine — a name that had graced so many great virgin saints of the Church over the centuries, from Catherine of Alexandria to Catherine of Siena, and which was now to grace another. During the baptismal ceremony, she heard her new name in its Latin form, Catharina. But afterward, from that day until the end of her life, she was to hear herself addressed by the Iroquois rendering of this name — Kateri.
Kateri Tekakwitha knew from the outset that her decision to become a Catholic would entail hardships and persecution. The hostility and threats she subsequently encountered at every turn in her village compelled her at last to accept an offer to escape to a settlement for Indian converts founded by the Jesuits on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River in southern Quebec, the Mission St.-Francois-Xavier-du-Sault (Kahnawake).
Kateri reached the mission in October of 1677. The priests who greeted the girl upon her arrival, Fr. Jacques Fremin, director of the mission, and Fr. Peter Cholenec, responsible for instructing those preparing to receive the sacraments, immediately saw how relieved she was to be at the mission. Kateri gave them the letter that Fr. de Lamberville had written to Fr. Cholenec on her behalf, the contents of which were unknown to her:
“Katherine Tekakwitha is going to live at the Sault. Will you kindly undertake to direct her? You will soon know what a treasure we have sent you. Guard it well! May it profit in your hands, for the glory of God and the salvation of a soul that is certainly very dear to Him” (The Positio of the Historical Section of the Sacred Congregation of Rites on the Introduction of the Cause for Beatification and Canonization and on the Virtues of the Servant of God Katharine Tekakwitha. The Lily of the Mohawks, New York, Fordham University Press, 1940/2002, document 1, p. 69; document 10, p. 249).
Over the two and a half years that followed, the priests of Mission St.-Francois-Xavier-du-Sault would learn for themselves what a treasure had been entrusted to them. On weekdays, Kateri would come to church around 4:00 a.m., and often a little earlier, praying in front of the church door before it was opened, the first to arrive, that she might take advantage of the quiet within the church at this early hour to pray more attentively.
After blessing herself with holy water upon entering, making a point in doing so to recall her Baptism, she would head to a quiet corner of the church near the altar rail, that there she might avoid being distracted by anyone arriving or leaving. Kneeling before the Blessed Sacrament, she would veil her face with her shawl as she began her prayers with an act of faith in the Real Presence. She continued with interior acts of contrition, humility, and submission to the will of God. She prayed for the conversion of nonbelievers, and in particular for those of her own family and Mohawk tribe.
The tears that ran down her cheeks as she prayed bore witness to what lay hidden within her heart. She remained on her knees during her adoration, seldom supporting herself by leaning on anything, even when she felt weak. Kateri would conclude her adoration with the recitation of the rosary.
Kateri remained to attend the two morning Masses, the first at daybreak and the second at sunrise. During the day she conscientiously attended to all the labors entrusted to her, but found opportunities between chores to return time and again to the church for further prayer before the tabernacle, offering her labors to God. In the evening she returned to church for her fifth and final visit of the day to the Blessed Sacrament, remaining well into the night, always the last to leave.
On Sundays and holy days, the days of rest, Kateri spent virtually the entire day from morning to night in church, interrupting her devotions only briefly for the little refreshment she allowed herself. She likewise spent almost the entire day before the Blessed Sacrament when rain or snow prevented her from attending to her usual labors.

Canonization

Fr. de Lamberville had been entrusted by God with the duty of helping Kateri at the beginning of her spiritual journey. Fr. Peter Cholenec was to be entrusted with the completion of Kateri’s journey in April of 1680. He had long known that Kateri’s characteristic virtue had been her untainted purity of soul and body, which she had guarded with heroic vigilance. By the favor of God, her preservation of her innocence in this regard had begun from her childhood, long before she had received the light of faith.
Now that Kateri was close to death, Fr. Cholenec asked her for the final time whether in the course of her life she had ever committed anything against the virtue of chastity. The young woman was by this time so weak that it took a struggle to speak, but summoning the little energy she had left, she replied emphatically, in a firm tone of voice, “No, no” (Positio, doc. 10, pp. 297-298).
This answer was to confirm Fr. Cholenec in his determination to bear witness to Kateri’s heroic virtue after her death, which came on April 17, 1680. On October 21, 2012, Kateri Tekakwitha was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI.
Fr. de Lamberville and Fr. Cholenec had to be where God had put them and kept them to lead Kateri to sainthood. A wounded foot proved to be the unsuspected answer to Kateri’s prayers. May we all learn to let God have His way with us, that He may do great things for us!

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