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Despite her disability, St. Kateri saw clearly the path to holiness


by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann

This past Sunday, Pope Benedict XVI canonized seven new saints. Among these magnificent seven were two American women.

One of the new American saints is St. Marianne Cope. The future saint was born in Germany. When she was only one year old, her family immigrated to the United States.

While she was in the eighth grade, her father became an invalid. The future saint worked in a factory to help support the family. After her father’s death and her siblings were old enough to support themselves, she entered a Franciscan community of Sisters in Syracuse, N.Y.

Upon completing her formation, she espoused herself to Jesus, vowing to live the evangelical virtues of poverty, obedience and chastity. Sister Marianne served first as a teacher and then as a principal in schools for German immigrants. Later, Sister Marianne was instrumental in the opening of two Catholic hospitals in the state of New York and serving as the administrator for St. Joseph Hospital.

As a result of her remarkable leadership skills, she was selected to serve as superior general for her community. It was in this capacity that she received a request from King Kalakaua of Hawaii to send Sisters to help with the care of lepers. Although 50 other religious communities had declined the king’s invitation, Mother Marianne Cope responded positively: “I am hungry for the work and I wish with all my heart to be one of the chosen ones, whose privilege it will be to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the souls of the poor Islanders.” Mother Marianne went on to say that it would be her “greatest delight” to minister to Hawaii’s lepers.

Mother Marianne’s ambition to serve the abandoned lepers would be realized. She personally led her community’s delegation to Hawaii. Shortly after their arrival in 1883, the Sisters were given responsibility for a hospital on the island of Oahu. At one point, she gave the government an ultimatum: either dismiss a hospital administrator who was abusive to the leper patients or the Sisters would return to Syracuse.

Originally, it was planned for Mother Marianne to return to New York to resume leadership of the order. However, when both the church and government officials in Hawaii insisted her leadership was essential to the success of the mission, she chose to remain.

In 1888, Mother Marianne went to Molokai to take care of the saintly Father Damien, who himself by then had contracted leprosy. Mother Marianne would spend the rest of her ministry caring for those most feared and shunned by society.

In his canonization homily, Pope Benedict said: “At a time when little could be done for those suffering from this terrible disease (leprosy), Marianne Cope showed the highest love, courage, and enthusiasm. She is a shining and energetic example of the best of the tradition of Catholic nursing Sisters.”

The second American canonized a saint last Sunday was Kateri Tekakwitha. Kateri Tekakwitha’s life was not an easy one, and thus it is a life with which so many can identify. Kateri’s mother was an Algonquin Christian and her father was a non-Christian Mohawk chief. Both her parents died during a smallpox epidemic. Kateri, herself, was partially blind and her face was scarred as a consequence of smallpox. The name Tekakwitha, meaning “one who stumbles,” was given to her because of the consequences of her visual disability.

She was raised by a Mohawk uncle who was not Christian and had become hostile to Christianity, because of the conversion of one of his own daughters. Kateri encountered Jesuit missionaries as a young girl and was impressed by what they said, but even more by the way they lived.

She disappointed and angered her uncle when she declined an arranged marriage. Instead, she studied the catechism under the direction of a French Jesuit who prepared her for baptism on Easter Sunday in 1676. As a consequence, she was shunned by many in the village and experienced persecution for her Catholic faith. Consequently, six months after her conversion, she fled to Canada to the Jesuit mission at Kahnawake, where many other Native American Christians had come to live.

At Kahnawake, Kateri met a close friend of her mother, Anastasia, who mentored Kateri in developing a rich life of prayer. Her spiritual life was extraordinary, as evidenced by her spending long hours in meditation in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. With a group of other very devout Native American Christian women, she wanted to begin a religious community of consecrated religious Sisters. However, because they were all so new to the faith, they never realized this ambition.

Nevertheless, this group of Native American Christian women continued to encourage and support each other in developing an even more vibrant life of prayer and the practice of heroic Christian virtue. Kateri desired what we all desire, no matter our race or ethnicity — to be loved.

Kateri did not just know intellectually, but she truly experienced, in the depths of her heart, the love of Jesus for her. As a young woman, she espoused herself to Jesus Christ and to none other. She desired to give her life totally to him and, by her life, to bring others to know the love of Jesus for them.

One of her French Jesuit biographers quoted her as saying: “I have deliberated enough. For a long time my decision on what I shall do has been made. I have consecrated myself entirely to Jesus, son of Mary, I have chosen him for husband and he alone will take me for wife.”

Kateri had discovered the pearl of great price. She had found a love that could never be denied her. She knew the joy of being loved by the One who is love itself. Her dying words were: “Jesus, I love you.” No matter her physical visual disability, the eyes of her heart saw clearly the path to happiness and holiness.

During this Year of Faith, St. Kateri Tekakwitha and St. Marianne Cope serve as examples of the joy of knowing God’s love and remaining faithful in our witness even among many trials and difficulties. They witnessed to the truth of their Catholic faith, both by enduring persecution as well as serving as heroic instruments in bringing the love of Jesus to others. Kateri Tekakwitha and Marianne Cope loved their Catholic faith, knew their Catholic faith, and lived their Catholic faith. Sts. Kateri and Marianne, pray for us!

About the author

Archbishop Joseph Naumann

Joseph F. Naumann is the archbishop for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.

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