By JOEL DAVIDSON
Dressed in a traditional Alaska Native kuspuk and on the threshold of Saint Peter’s Square in the Vatican, Ursuline Sister Josephine Aloralrea could hardly contain her joy.
She was among 50 Alaskans, including a group of Alaska Natives, who made a 17,000-mile roundtrip pilgrimage to Rome to witness the Oct. 21 canonization ceremony of seven saints including Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be recognized as a saint in the Catholic Church.
Prior to the ceremony, the steady beat of traditional Native American drums could be heard in Saint Peter’s Square. Sprinkled throughout the massive international crowd were Native men and women wearing eagle feathers, decorative moccasins and traditional tribal regalia.
‘ONE OF OUR OWN’
“This is a very important event for all the Native Americans and indigenous people around the world because one of our own is going to be canonized,” Sister Aloralrea said moments before the ceremony began.
An Alaska Native from the Diocese of Fairbanks, Sister Aloralrea was one of thousands of First Nation peoples in Rome. They were part of a larger international gathering of more than 80,000 pilgrims who came to celebrate the seven saints.
Francine Bolewicz, an Alaska Native from Anchorage, was moved by the global show of Catholic solidarity.
“I’m very excited, not only for myself but for all the other people in the world,” Bolewicz said.
THE WAIT IS OVER
While the seven newly canonized saints hail from various corners of the world, the Alaska Natives were most excited about Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Known as “The Lily of the Mohawks,” she was born in upstate New York in 1656 and orphaned at age four by a smallpox epidemic. As a young adult, after meeting Jesuit missionaries, she requested Christian baptism despite objections from her relatives who later disowned her. She was eventually forced to flee to Canada, where she devoted herself to an extraordinary life of prayer and penance.
Native American Catholics across the country were overjoyed at Saint Kateri’s canonization. Many had waited years for just such a moment to publicly reconcile their dual identities as both Catholic and Native American.
“I’ve waited a long, long time for this,” said Margaret La Tocha, an Eagle River resident who is of Lakota and Ojibwe decent.
La Tocha is part of the Kateri Circle at St. Anthony Church in Anchorage, one of more than 100 such groups across the nation that bring together Native cultures and Catholic faith. For years her group has prayed for the canonization of Saint Kateri.
“It means a lot that the church is acknowledging Native Americans and our practices,” La Tocha said while sitting in St. Peter’s Square. “That wasn’t always the case.”
HEALING THE PAST
Accounts of European colonists and even some early Christian missionaries forcing Native peoples to abandon their traditional languages and customs in order to become Christian left deep wounds in many Native American communities.
That approach to missions has long-been criticized both without and within the Catholic Church. As far back as the 6th century Pope Gregory the Great instructed pioneer missionaries to England to preserve as many indigenous customs as possible in order to let the Gospel redeem rather than destroy the traditional culture.
This method, however, was often ignored and the Catholic Church has formally acknowledged instances of wrongly mingling colonial interests with the spread of the Gospel in the Americas.
In recent times, the church has insisted that missionary work respect indigenous cultures.
On the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing in America the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated, as they have more recently, that “the coming of religious faith in this land began not five hundred years ago, but centuries before in the prayers, chants, dance, and other sacred celebrations of native people.”
And while some European Christians “failed to distinguish between what was crucial to the Gospel and what were matters of cultural preference,” the bishop note that this “is not the whole picture.”
The arrival of Christianity to America also “brought to the peoples of this land the gift of the Christian faith with its power of humanization and salvation, dignity and fraternity, justice and love,” the bishops stated.
‘TWO IN ONE’
This connection between the Gospel and traditional Native cultures was highlighted in Pope Benedict XVI’s address to those gathered for the recent canonization.
“In her, faith and culture enrich each other,” the pope said. “May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are.”
For La Tocha, Saint Tekakwitha’s life illustrates the fact that Native Americans can fully embrace the Catholic faith without denying their heritage.
“We aren’t alone in being Native American and being Catholic,” she said. “We are two in one.”
This sentiment was echoed by fellow pilgrim Lois Huntington, an Alaska Native from the remote village of Tanana.
As a cradle Catholic Huntington never personally struggled with reconciling her Catholic and Native identities, but she knows this has been a struggle for some, especially older generations.
“Everyone had their own beliefs and to be converted was hard for them to accept because they felt they were losing connection to themselves, who they were,” she said.
Huntington said Saint Kateri’s life is proof that another way is possible.
“Kateri is Native and she is part of me because I’m Native,” she said. “She didn’t give up and we can have that same faith.”
Steven Kakaruk, an Alaska Native from Fairbanks, said his first trip to Rome revealed that Native Americans have a unique place in the Catholic Church.
“We’re right here in the middle of where it all happens,” he said, looking out across a sea of humanity in St. Peter’s Square. “The Catholic Church is connected to the whole world and as Native Americans and Alaska Natives, there is a feeling of belonging and fitting in,” he said. “You can just feel it in the air.”
Traveling with the Alaska pilgrims throughout their week-long pilgrimage in Rome, Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz and Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler emphasized this sense of unity within the church.
Two days before the canonization ceremony, Archbishop Schwietz reminded the pilgrims that through faith, each person is connected to the whole life of the church, including the saints of the past.
“You may have noticed that we have been recalling this over and over again during our pilgrimage,” he said in a homily at the 4th century underground Basilica of the Martyrs Nereus and Achilleus.
“We are a people of memory,” he said, reminding the Alaskans that “we remember those who have gone before us — those who have lived out their faith with great courage — great saints who have given themselves in great faith to Christ so long ago.”
“These saints are models and intercessors for us,” Bishop Kettler told the Catholic Anchor on the last day of the pilgrimage.
In particular, the affinity that Native Americans have for Saint Kateri is a continuation of a long-standing Catholic practice of turning to patron saints for strength and inspiration, he said.
“We can go to the saints like we do a mother or father or a friend to pray for us,” Bishop Kettler said. “I hope to bring forth Saint Kateri Tekakwitha so she is better known among our people.”
SPREADING THE WORD
Alaska Natives hope also to spread the word of Saint Kateri.
“It’s very important for other Native Americans to know about her,” said Bolewicz, a member of the Anchorage Kateri Circle.
The fact that Saint Kateri endured suffering and persecution in her life, is great source of hope to many Natives, Bolewicz noted.
“She had to struggle and that is a connection we have,” Sister Aloralrea added. “Now she is in heaven and I feel this [canonization] is the closest to heaven we can be. All these tribes, all these peoples from across the nation and the world — we are coming together as one and that — physically I think — is the meaning of heaven on earth. That is what I feel. I’m happy, I’m very happy.”
Ultimately, it is Saint Kateri’s faithfulness to Christ, to prayer and to daily Mass that distinguishes her as a light to the world, the pope said during the canonization ceremony.
“[Saint Kateri’s] greatest wish was to know and to do what pleased God,” he said. “She lived a life radiant with faith and purity.”