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Catholic Culture, Native Roots View Comments
By John Feister

Incense flows and cultural symbols show at a Mass honoring St. Kateri at the religious education congress. Dan Lopez is an incense bearer, third from right.
When the news of Kateri Tekakwitha’s approval for canonization reached the West Coast, there was much cause for celebration. For decades, even centuries, Catholics of Native American heritage longed for a time when one of their own would join the ranks of those whose holiness is publicly, universally acknowledged. At the Religious Education Congress for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in February of this year, the excitement was palpable.

Native American Catholics, living among the many cultures of California, have promoted Kateri and, more important, an expression of Catholicism with roots in Native American culture for many years. At the annual Congress, attended by about 40,000 religious educators primarily from the West Coast, the City of Angels Kateri Circle would staff an informational booth, and each year there was a eucharistic liturgy that incorporated elements of Native American culture.

Now their moment was arriving. “I mean it’s been many years,” says Dan Lopez. He’s one of the leaders of Los Angeles’ Kateri Circle. The 60- year-old talks of how his family, from Texas, suppressed their identity as Native Americans to blend in with the people around them. “I joined the circle almost 20 years ago,” he recalls. “When I found the circle, it allowed me to embrace my Tiqua tribal identity even more, our culture, as well as being Catholic.”

He is awestruck at news of the canonization: “Think about it: the first American Indian to be canonized. Yes, it’s very big for us. It’s something we’ve prayed for, wished for, and it’s coming true. It’s hard to put in words what you feel, but she’s led us this way.”

Dan is quick to add that Kateri will now take her place as a saint for everybody. Initially he had balked at her being canonized in Rome. “Why not at her burial grounds?” he asked a priest friend. When he heard the explanation that a celebration at the heart of Catholicism would symbolize the universality of her message, he rejoiced. “She’s not only for us; she’s for everybody,” Dan explains. “Her innocence and how she took Christ and didn’t understand but learned and loved—that’s what brought us here now.”

He credits St. Kateri with bringing him back to the Church 25 years ago. “Through her, and when we found her, she drew us closer to the Church. She drew us closest to the humanity of all amongst us,” he recounts. “All of us are the same.”

It is the purity of Kateri that means the most to Dan. “Her innocence says it all,” he observes, and her holiness is for everyone: “She cared for all. It doesn’t matter what color skin we are, what race we are, what nationality we are. As a Native, we say we have a red path that God develops for us. Everybody has a path. We are a tree with many branches. And we’re all leading to one spot. That spot is heaven, is Father, Christ, all. Praying through her, we pray to Christ. Through her we enter into Christ.”

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John Feister is editor in chief of this publication. He has master’s degrees in humanities and in theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.

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Junipero Serra: In 1776, when the American Revolution was beginning in the east, another part of the future United States was being born in California. That year a gray-robed Franciscan founded Mission San Juan Capistrano, now famous for its annually returning swallows. San Juan was the seventh of nine missions established under the direction of this indomitable Spaniard. 
<p>Born on Spain’s island of Mallorca, Serra entered the Franciscan Order, taking the name of St. Francis’ childlike companion, Brother Juniper. Until he was 35, he spent most of his time in the classroom—first as a student of theology and then as a professor. He also became famous for his preaching. Suddenly he gave it all up and followed the yearning that had begun years before when he heard about the missionary work of St. Francis Solanus in South America. Junipero’s desire was to convert native peoples in the New World. </p><p>Arriving by ship at Vera Cruz, Mexico, he and a companion walked the 250 miles to Mexico City. On the way Junipero’s left leg became infected by an insect bite and would remain a cross—sometimes life-threatening—for the rest of his life. For 18 years he worked in central Mexico and in the Baja Peninsula. He became president of the missions there. </p><p>Enter politics: the threat of a Russian invasion south from Alaska. Charles III of Spain ordered an expedition to beat Russia to the territory. So the last two <i>conquistadors</i>—one military, one spiritual—began their quest. José de Galvez persuaded Junipero to set out with him for present-day Monterey, California. The first mission founded after the 900-mile journey north was San Diego (1769). That year a shortage of food almost canceled the expedition. Vowing to stay with the local people, Junipero and another friar began a novena in preparation for St. Joseph’s day, March 19, the scheduled day of departure. On that day, the relief ship arrived. </p><p>Other missions followed: Monterey/Carmel (1770); San Antonio and San Gabriel (1771); San Luís Obispo (1772); San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano (1776); Santa Clara (1777); San Buenaventura (1782). Twelve more were founded after Serra’s death. </p><p>Junipero made the long trip to Mexico City to settle great differences with the military commander. He arrived at the point of death. The outcome was substantially what Junipero sought: the famous “Regulation” protecting the Indians and the missions. It was the basis for the first significant legislation in California, a “Bill of Rights” for Native Americans. </p><p>Because the Native Americans were living a nonhuman life from the Spanish point of view, the friars were made their legal guardians. The Native Americans were kept at the mission after Baptism lest they be corrupted in their former haunts—a move that has brought cries of “injustice” from some moderns. </p><p>Junipero’s missionary life was a long battle with cold and hunger, with unsympathetic military commanders and even with danger of death from non-Christian native peoples. Through it all his unquenchable zeal was fed by prayer each night, often from midnight till dawn. He baptized over 6,000 people and confirmed 5,000. His travels would have circled the globe. He brought the Native Americans not only the gift of faith but also a decent standard of living. He won their love, as witnessed especially by their grief at his death. He is buried at Mission San Carlo Borromeo, Carmel, and was beatified in 1988. Pope Francis canonized him in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 2015.</p> American Catholic Blog Hope and faith can outshine the darkness of evil. However dense the darkness may appear, our hope for the triumph of the light is stronger still. Though violence continues to stain us with blood, the shadows of death can be dissipated with one act of light.

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