WASHINGTON – Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver urged those gathered at the Tekakwitha Conference Mass June 30 in Washington to follow in the footsteps of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha and follow Jesus Christ as she did.
“In many Catholic circles today, we speak a great deal about inculturation in the church: the place where the good news of Jesus and our cultures meet,” said the archbishop in his homily. “The only true, authentic inculturators are not theologians, or bishops, but the saints.”
More than 700 American Indian Catholics gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for the Mass and the closing of the 68th annual Tekakwitha Conference, held in the Baltimore Archdiocese.
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, for whom the conference is named, was a member of the Mohawk tribe. She was born to a Christian Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father in 1656 in upstate New York along the Hudson River, and was baptized by a Jesuit missionary in 1676 when she was 20.
She was devoted to prayer and cared for the sick. She died in 1680 at the age of 24. In June 1980, she became the first Native American to beatified.
The Mass included traditional American Indian music with drums and chants. The penitential rite was accompanied by a smudging ceremony where clippings of sage, cedar, sweetgrass and tobacco were burned for purification and healing.
Along with bread and wine, the presentation of the gifts included corn, beans and squash, which are traditional American Indian foods.
Archbishop Chaput, who has headed the Denver Archdiocese since 1997, is a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe and the first American Indian archbishop in U.S. history. The only other American Indian bishop is Bishop Donald E. Pellote of Gallup, N.M., who attended the conference but was unable to stay for Mass.
Archbishop Chaput, who began attending the conference 25 years ago, said it is a time for American Indian Catholics from different regions to unite and support Blessed Kateri’s canonization.
“We gather to share in our Catholic faith and our commitment to be good Catholics after the fashion of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha,” he said in an interview with Catholic News Service. “But also there’s the sense among native peoples of a relationship that exists across the fact that there are so many, many languages and tribes represented. Every nationality likes to have their own people recognized.”
Native Americans came from as far as New Mexico and Alaska to take part in the conference, held this year at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County. The location changes each year. Last year’s conference was in Burien, Wash., and next year it will be in Edmonton, Alberta.
Conference participants attended seminars and workshops to learn how they can better celebrate their Catholic faith while embracing their American Indian heritage.
Sister Kateri Mitchell, a Sister of Saint Anne from Great Falls Mont., who is in her ninth year as the conference’s executive director, said the diverse backgrounds of the many tribes represented at the conference testifies to God’s generosity and the need for people of different traditions to work together to deepen their relationship with God.
“We bring the richness of God’s gifts he’s shared with cultures; we share that with each other, and the church has brought Christ as our center,” she said.
Before and after the Mass, people met and mingled throughout the national shrine, some reuniting with friends they see only once each year at the conference.
Isabel Deschinny, 63, of Oak Springs, Ariz., said she attended her first Tekakwitha Conference in 1987 when it was held in Phoenix and Pope John Paul II visited.
Although a group from her home parish attends every year, this year’s conference was the first she had been to since the death of her husband in 1997. She greeted old friends and said returning after 10 years was a moving experience.
“It’s like a wakening for me,” she told CNS. “I just have a feeling that a lot of native people don’t know what direction to go.”
The group from Deschinny’s parish is St. Michael’s Kateri Circle. Kateri Circles are parish groups that meet once a month to pray for Blessed Kateri’s canonization and discuss issues facing American Indians. Many circles travel to the annual conference together.
Mike Valdo, president of the conference’s board of directors, said there are almost 200 Kateri Circles across the United States and Canada.
Although the Tekakwitha Conference was established in 1939, it did not exist in its current form until 1977, when Monsignor Paul A. Lenz was appointed executive director of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions.
The conference was in danger of being discontinued, but Monsignor Lenz gave it his full support and for the first time invited lay American Indians to attend. Until then, it had been mainly a support and advisory group meeting of missionary priests.
Monsignor Lenz, who retired this April after 30 years as bureau director, pushed for the beatification of Blessed Kateri, and in 2005 was appointed by the Vatican to serve as vice postulator for Blessed Kateri’s cause. He said one more miracle is needed before she can be named a saint, but two are currently being considered.
“Active work is being done,” he said. “I hope she’ll be canonized soon.”