The ticket made it real at last. On Sunday, here in the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Kateri Tekakwitha, a young Mohawk woman from the 17th century, the first native American saint. The Swiss guard handed it to me: “The mass begins at 9:30. We expect twenty to thirty thousand. You should be here by eight.”

The ticket read: “Cappella Papale, presieduta dal Santo Padre Benedetto XVI per la Canonizzazione dei Beati Caterina Tekakwitha domenica 21 ottobre 2012 Piazza San Pietro – ore 9,30.”

Michelangelo designed the Swiss guard’s uniform. He designed St. Peter’s Basilica, and the great colonnades of the plaza. He carved the Pieta just inside the basilica. So, going down the wide stairs, I wondered what Michelangelo, the greatest of all artists, and Kateri Tekakwitha, the humble Mohawk maiden, had in common.

It was five o’clock and the crowds had thinned. I entered the basilica. I paused at the Pieta and thought about Mater Dolorosa, how young and fresh Michelangelo made Mary’s face, yet how bowed by sorrow in real life she must have been, approaching fifty, her dead son in her lap. I thought about the sorrows of another virgin, too, our Lily of the Mohawks, orphaned and scarred by smallpox, humble and retiring and shy, but with a will of steel when her heart and soul commanded it.

How far from the majestic marble and gold and stained glass had she lived. How remote from this seat and these hierarchies of ecclesiastical power lay the forests and rivers and lakes of her home. Back in time, over the stormy Atlantic, up the St. Lawrence Valley, the holy Jesuits paddled in canoes to reach that land and bring Christ’s word to the natives.

“Go out and teach all nations,” Christ commanded his apostles, and he advised us all, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor and follow me. That is how you will enter heaven.”

The Jesuits, Isaac Jogues and Claude Chauchetiere, did just that. Jogues, of course, was martyred for his effort. Father Claude became the prime witness to Kateri’s holiness, the originator of miraculous healings that have now, nearly 333 years later, raised her to sainthood.

But what about Tekakwitha herself? What would she think, what would she feel, what would she do with this great fuss if she were alive? Humility was her chief virtue. She hated pomp and attention. She was a painfully private person and wanted only to love and serve God. Unlike many other saints who served their fellow man with selfless charity, Kateri kept to herself and showed the mystical gifts of a hermit or a cloistered nun. No doubt she would stay away from Sunday’s mass gathering in her honor.

Panorama of St Peter’s Square in Vatican City. Panorama created using Hugin/Panotools and enblend. EXIF data is from first picture in sequence. Author: François Malan


* * *

Far back, beyond Bernini’s catafalque a dozen priests in red vestments were celebrating mass. A choir of children sang sweetly. The small congregation attending evening mass came from all corners of the earth, Filipino nuns, a tall Ethopian athlete, an Asian couple with a sleeping baby, a slim young girl from India who shook my hand at the greeting.

After mass, the mother of a girl in the choir revealed to me that the sweet children’s choir heralded from the Perrott Hill School in Somerset, UK, a Church of England school. They were Protestant.

A married couple from Atlanta, GA – she in her bridal gown, he in his tails – told me of their an audience with the pope that morning where he blessed their recent vows. They had spoken with a Mohawk chief, proudly attending the canonization of his “sister” Kateri.

Father Luis Largestrada from Miami, FL, told me he’d visited Kateri’s shrines at Auriesville, Fonda and LaPrairie, and how some undefinable and undeniable force drew him to her, so he was here for the canonization.

Thousands upon thousands of pilgrims have come to Rome for the ceremony, all faiths, all walks of life, each with a unique account as to what is the draw of this humble young woman from the forests of upstate New York. Here, among the splendors of the ages, the portraits, the statues, the spires and ringing bells, all Catholics will bow Sunday to acknowledge her holiness.

* * *

In the October 15 issue of Newsweek, a neurologist, a former skeptic, writes about lapsing into a coma, and while he was medically “dead,” how he journeyed into another dimension where music and joy and, above all, love abound. He described sensing the presence of God and how a beautiful young woman transported him on the wing of a butterfly, assuring him that he was loved unconditionally and forever, that he had nothing to fear and he could do no wrong.

The doctor had questions for his guide, and all his questions were answered with explosions of light, color, love and beauty that crashed through him like a wave of the sea. This “world,” he surmised, was what both Jesus and Einstein in their different ways described.

After glimpsing this prelude to heaven, the doctor was sent back to the world, to his family, and he now seeks to unify science with his awakened faith to create a new plateau of enlightenment. He acknowledges the difficulty of his task in this secular, material world.

Doubters have difficulty accepting Kateri’s transfiguration at the moment of her death, yet two eyewitnesses wrote of it. In a smoky hut on her deathbed, she glimpsed the wonders of heaven and the communion with God. Like Michelangelo, she was a gifted mortal allowed a glimpse behind the veil as to what awaits – the magnificence, the glory, the presence of God.

Although her life was short, cold, harsh and obscure, Kateri Tekakwitha found such love and peace when she turned her life over to Jesus Christ that others now pay her homage and turn to her for guidance. Michelangelo’s life was long and arduous, chipping away at blocks of stone, painting frescoes, casting bronze statues of great men. They found the path to heaven, and in their own ways, were able to communicate it to us.

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Kateri’s canonization this Sunday will draw worldwide attention to her, even though she would have avoided any and all recognition for her spiritual gifts. I think it draws attention, too, to a simple but elemental truth: Everyone, no matter how isolated or obscure, shares in this sublime love and glory that Michelangelo was able to illustrate in the glories of the Sistine Chapel. The spark in each of us can, with a bit of care, burn brighter and warmer and connect us to it and to each other. Sunday Kateri Tekakwitha will be admitted by the Roman Catholic Church into the select company of saints to whom people pray for intercession with the Deity. This transcends all barriers of continents and cultures and race and social station. St. Kateri’s short holy life, and the miracles she has effected for us in this world, demonstrate once more the words of Jesus that he who humbles himself shall be exalted, and the meek will inherit the earth.

— Jack Casey


KATERI —LILY OF THE MOHAWKS was published by Staff Picks Press in October 2012, the month Kateri Tekakwitha was sainted by the Pope. It is available for purchase through the Troy Book Makers, through independent booksellers and through Amazon.