A friend of mine quipped recently that the real religion of Americans has nothing to do with churches or synagogues. Our “real” religion is politics and the juggling for power it involves. He was being humorous. But as I write these words in late October, and we head into the final days of another, uniquely important, presidential election, his words don’t seem quite so funny.
In the heat of ugly political conflicts, we can easily lose sight of our real vocation as Christians: holiness. We’re called to be in the world but not of the world. Powers and nations – including our own – sooner or later pass away. God’s word does not pass away. Neither does the witness of the holy men and women we call saints, and whose memory we celebrate on All Saints Day and throughout the month of November.
Politics is important. But in the end, all of the passion, all of the egos and even all of the issues in this election will fade. In the end, as the great French Catholic writer Leon Bloy once said, the only thing that matters is to be a saint.
I remembered Bloy’s words in a vivid way on October 21 as I took part in the canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. Kateri – known around the world as the “Lily of the Mohawks” and now our nation’s first Native American saint – was born in 1656 and orphaned soon after by smallpox. She was raised by relatives who hated Christianity because of the arrogance and brutality of French colonists and the diseases they brought with them. But something in the beauty of the Gospel touched Kateri’s heart.
At the age of 18, she began instruction in the Catholic faith in secret. Her relatives eventually relented and allowed her to be baptized. But she suffered rough treatment and intense ridicule from her own people, and constant health problems. Throughout her short life she tended to the elderly and sick, taught the faith to children, and was known for her love of Mary and the Eucharist. She died at 24, in 1680. Her last words were “Jesus, Mary, I love you.”
Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization has been longed for by the American Indian community for many, many decades. As a member of the Potawatomi tribe myself, I grew up praying to her and asking for her intercession – and waiting for the Universal Church to someday celebrate the purity of her witness. Her life embodied a simple love for Jesus and his cross; a profound affection for her Native American community; and a heroic fidelity, humility and innocence.
One of the greatest issues for Native Americans and other ethnic communities in the Church today is inculturation, the process by which the Gospel becomes an integral part of a people’s soul and way of life. Blessed Pope John Paul II once said that whenever a new culture meets the Gospel in an authentic way, three things happen: The culture itself is purified; the gifts of the culture are brought into the life of the Church; and, as a result, both the culture and the Church are made stronger and more beautiful.
Kateri and saints like her are perfect examples of true inculturation. By their lives of holiness, their cultures are purified and enriched, and through their holiness, the Church is made stronger and more glorious in her diversity.
Today, the Native American Catholic community and the whole Church thank God for the gift of Saint Kateri. Holiness is always God’s work before it’s our work. But in Saint Kateri we now have an example of the Church becoming ever more Catholic, ever more holy; and the naturally good qualities of Native American culture are enlivened by the gift of the Gospel.
One final point is worth noting from my days in Rome. Kateri was canonized with six other new saints, among them Saint Marianne Cope, a Franciscan sister of the Diocese of Syracuse, New York. Saint Marianne died in service to the lepers of Hawaii. She belonged to a religious community that grew out of the Franciscan sisters founded by Saint John Neumann. So Philadelphia had a role – indirect and invisible, but real – in the development of yet another holy woman who became a saint.
It’s not surprising. Philadelphia is the diocese of American saints. But we can’t ever be content with sainthood as part of our past. God made each of us to be saints. That means you and me. The hunger for holiness needs to animate every moment of our lives – today, right now, and into the future.
The only thing that matters is to be a saint. Kateri understood that. More than 330 years later, what a joy and a glory it is to celebrate her memory. May she pray for all of us, and lead us on the same path of love she followed home to God.