The struggles and faith journey of Kateri Tekakwitha (pronounced ‘gaderi dega‘gwita) are quite relevant to the experience of many today, especially our young people. Like so many among them, despite the challenges and discouragement often thrown at her, Kateri always remained a determined explorer, a seeker, gentle yet persistent, in her search for the Truth.

Though the child of an Algon­quin Christian mother (Tagaskouita) — assimilated into a Mohawk tribe where her father (Kenneronkwa) was chief — she was pretty much a “none,” meaning without formal religious affiliation throughout her youth, like many today. And she was not baptized till she reached young adulthood.

Her parents and many of her tribe in Ossernenon, near the site of Auriesville today, were wiped out in a terrible smallpox epidemic (1661-63), which she barely survived herself. So scarred was she that she kept her head and face covered, perhaps to avoid the mockery of her peers and even the elders. Her vision was severely affected. By today’s standards, she was disabled. Thus the name she was given, “Tekakwitha,” which means “she who bumps into things.” Not very kind or ­politically correct!

Speaking of politics, Kateri was not shy about her feelings and passions. The tribal “hierarchy” expected her to marry and even did their part in attempted “matchmaking.” Kateri was by no means unsocial or averse to men. In fact, the “men in black,” the ­Jesuit Fathers, fascinated her and introduced her to Jesus.

Being no stranger to suffering herself, Kateri learned through the Fathers of the value of sacrifice, of offering up and “making holy” our human trials and temptations. Turning them over to Jesus and “pinning them” on the Cross, so to speak, they could become gifts to the One whose friendship is unlike any other.

Kateri thought of herself as one who wanted Jesus himself as her spouse. If this seems odd or unusual today in our over-sexualized society, do not assume that it seemed any less strange in Kateri’s time. The Indian tribespeople had a very robust sense of the physicality of sexuality — not unlike the early Christians, by the way — and were not accustomed to spiritual or mystical ways of thinking about matters sexual. Practically speaking, their survival as a nation was crucial, and a woman who would not bear children was something of  shame and an embarrassment, not only to herself, but her family and the entire community. Kateri was by no means uninterested in the care of her tribe or its children, being very involved in its everyday life. But with marriage, she was not going to follow the company line.

Today there is a rite in the Catholic Church for a person who feels called to be a consecrated virgin. It is actually a revival of what was not uncommon in early Christianity and among many saints and martyrs throughout Christian history. Kateri seems to have discovered a desire to pursue this vocation through her own prayer and passion. An intense love for the person of Jesus Christ led her finally to accept baptism, but not until she was 19.

No one can predict where a friendship with Jesus will lead. To any young person who feels unwelcome or out of place in an official church community, I would say, do not assume that you have no faith or that Jesus does not love you. He calls us all by name, but each in a unique and special way. And we have to listen to him in our heart, where prayer leads us to him.

Kateri’s initial fascination was not with “the Catholic Church” or its religious and moral teachings, but with the person of Jesus Christ. She was looking for relationship. This is not to say that she did not have questions of great spiritual importance, like many today. In fact, she had plenty of them. She did not understand the gratuitous suffering she witnessed, the blood and the violence, the pain and the torture that seemed more about power, control and pointless ritual. And she was right to question.

In the Cross, she found an outpouring of love that she came to understand as Jesus’ personal gift to her and to anyone who would accept it. True love often goes to great extremes to express itself, even to the point of death. She had never seen or heard of anything like this before. It spoke to her heart and she wanted to give her heart back completely to Jesus.

It is difficult to know the extent to which the spirituality of St. Catherine of Siena influenced the young Kateri. It seems to be no accident that it was that name — Catherine or “Kateri” — by which she chose to be baptized. It is likely that her godparents and the Jesuit fathers, particularly Father Jacques de Lamberville, instructed her in the experience of this influential Doctor of the Church, who has been acclaimed as a mystic and describes her intensely passionate love for Jesus in her writings.

Kateri’s faith would grow even stronger, under the tutelage of her spiritual mentor, Anastasia Tegonhatsiongo, her mother’s close friend, with whom she would grow closer when she moved to Caughnawaga, near Montreal. She and the other ­Mohawk women there would be introduced to the regular practices of Christianity. There, finally, Kateri, would find her parish family, her local church.

What is so interesting for us in Kateri’s story, is how Jesus came to her before she came to the Church! Like many people today, especially our young people, ­Kateri’s heart was longing for love and seeking one whose love she could trust as true. Because of her purity, and her courage in following her heart’s true desire, Jesus was able to come to her in a very direct way through the people in her life whom she admired and to whom she was drawn. Gradually, Jesus led her closer to him and to a community of faith where she would finally be at home.

The key to Kateri’s heart — and to her entire identity — was ultimately not where she came from, who her parents were, what she had suffered from, what her socially assigned role was to be, how she looked or how anyone labeled her, but the voice of the Lover who calls all of us by name: Jesus Christ. Hearing his voice in her heart, she would find the Truth. And so, please God, may every one of us. Even if they call you a “None.” You are a someone, beloved of the Lord.

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