Although separated from her by three centuries, an ocean and major cultural differences, Jesuit Father Paolo Molinari absolutely loves Kateri Tekakwitha, the Native American who became a saint in late October.
While the 88-year-old Italian Jesuit was forced to hand over to his successor most of the sainthood causes he still was actively promoting when he turned 80, “thank God, they let me keep Kateri.”
Father Molinari, one of the Church’s most prolific postulators — as the official promoters of causes are called — inherited Kateri’s cause from his Jesuit predecessor in 1957.
He shepherded her cause to beatification in 1980 and in talks with the Pope’s master of liturgical ceremonies ensured that Kateri’s Native American brothers and sisters had a prominent role during her canonization Mass. “I love her,” the Jesuit said. “She’s a lovely young lady indeed,” he said, his eyes sparkling.
Father Molinari said his admiration for Kateri, combined with the complex Vatican process for declaring saints and the fact that she died some 330 years ago, gave him 55 years to practice the virtue of patience.
But unlike many of the so-called “ancient causes” that are surrounded by pious legends but lacking hard evidence, Kateri’s cause was supported by plenty of eyewitness accounts of her life, faith, good works and death.
The Jesuit missionaries who baptized her in 1676 and provided her with spiritual guidance until her death in 1680 at the age of 24 wrote formal annual reports about their missions to the Jesuit superior general. Kateri, known as the “Lily of the Mohawks,” is mentioned in many of the reports, which still exist in the Jesuit archives, he said.
Father Molinari also had access to the Jesuits’ letters that spoke about Kateri in glowing terms and to biographies of Kateri written by two of the Jesuits who knew her at the Mission of St. Francis Xavier in what is now Kahnawake, Quebec: Fathers Pierre Cholenec, her spiritual director, and Claude Chauchetière, who also did an oil painting of Kateri shortly after her death.
Kateri was born to a Catholic Algonquin mother and a Mohawk father in 1656 along the Hudson River in what is today upstate New York.
After her baptism, Father Molinari said, “she kept living the life of a normal Indian. She continued to be an Indian young lady, and yet she did it with the spirit of the Gospel: showing goodness and tenderness to people who were in need.”
She suffered from light sensitivity after contracting smallpox, so would spend much of her time inside. She prayed and made garments out of hides for those who were unable to make their own, he said.
Father Molinari said that although the cause was challenging at times, he kept working for Kateri’s canonization because of her importance to the native peoples of North America. Kateri is a model who can “help those who are Christian live the Gospel in their own culture.” The Catholic Church, he said, “is the first organization that has acknowledged the richness of one of their own people. The U.S. and Canadian governments have never done anything like that.”
Once Kateri was beatified, Father Molinari’s efforts turned to helping more people learn her story, encouraging people to trust that she could intercede with God to help them and finding an extraordinary grace that could be recognized officially as a miracle granted by God through her intercession.
The Jesuit said that in the sainthood process, miracles are “the confirmation by God of a judgment made by human beings” that the candidate really is in heaven.
In Kateri’s case, the recognized miracle was the healing of 5-year-old Jake Finkbonner from a rare and potentially fatal disease, a flesh-eating bacteria called necrotizing fasciitis. The boy and his family are members of St. Joseph Parish in Ferndale, Washington, in the Seattle Archdiocese.
“Kateri lived 300 years ago and yet she is widely remembered with love and admiration to the point that people believe she is certainly with God because of the way in which, as an Indian woman, she opened herself to the grace of God, became a Christian and lived as a Christian,” he said.