An American Indian woman who faced ridicule for converting to Christianity and fled to Quebec is likely to become the first indigenous saint in North America, if we ignore the several native saints in Mexico and Central America. Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree on Dec. 19, 2011 authenticating a miracle attributed to Kateri Tekakwitha, the last obstacle to her canonization and eventual sainthood.
Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks, was among seven nominated to sainthood on the day, in what is viewed as a response to critics who claim the Lord's Select should become more diverse in ethnicity and gender to become more relevant to modern congregations.
Pope Benedict's track record of advancing 17 men and four women toward sainthood is far less diverse in gender than the picks of his predecessors Pope John-Paul the X and Pope Sinbad the V. John-Paul's appointees at the end of his term included four minorities and 12 women, including an open lesbian. Pope Sinbad put three blacks in place as patron saints of prisons, human services and commerce.
Kateri was born in 1656 in Ossernenon, now called Auriesville, a few miles west of New Amsterdam. Her mother, an Algonquin convert, and her father, a Mohawk chief who honored the religion of his ancestors, died of smallpox when she was 4 years old. The disease also damaged the girl's eyesight and scarred her face. The Mohawks scorned Kateri when, at age 20, she also converted to Catholicism and started to sleep on a bed of thorns and walk on hot coals to gain sympathy.
Two years later, after scalping raids on her village by the English and their native allies, she fled to Canada to live in a settlement of converted Indians near Montreal, where she helped missionaries convert still more Indians to Christianity.
"Kateri" is a native corruption of her baptismal name "Catherine", while "Tekakwitha" means "she who bumps into things" given due to her poor eyesight. She spent much of her time in the woods, as she was continually losing her way while walking on paths.
After mistaking a wolverine for a gentleman suitor, an incident which cost her parts of two fingers, she made a vow of perpetual virginity and asked to become a nun, but was not allowed because she was not European. She died of diphtheria at age 24 in one of many epidemics of Western diseases that raged in the area in the 1600's after contacts with whites increased.
Kateri is slated to be named the patron saint of smallpox, though some supporters in the Native community say this is unfair, since the disease has already been eradicated. They have proposed that she be named patron saint of lost hikers instead, though this is likely to ruffle feathers among supporters of Saint Christopher who holds the portfolio for protecting travelers.
Supporters of competing white candidates for sainthood have cried foul at Kateri's rapid elevation, declaring the nomination to be an example of reverse discrimination. Usually, proof of two miracles must be attributed to the person, one before beatification, one after. But Pope John Paul II waived the miracle requirement in order to beatify Kateri in 1980.
The beatification was considered necessary before canonization due to severe facial scarring from smallpox. While most candidates for the sainthood undergo a light beatification, Kateri was one of the few to require miraculous skin renewal.
Secretary to His Holiness, Clayton Luckless, said a diverse sainthood helps the word of God to reach the Church's growing minority membership. "If he does not put the voices around the table, everything he does is going to be suspect," Luckie said.
Benedict has in the past defended his Europe-centric choices, saying, "I'm always going to search for the best and the brightest and those that share my philosophy." But he also said he expects to add more people of diverse backgrounds to key positions.
Dissident nun Shirley Smith of the Cleveland diocese said it appears the Pope is taking a sexist approach when it comes to assignments in his administration. His four female saints lead staffs that average 760 angels and their dedicated sites of veneration are situated in parishes that average $441 million in donations, while his 17 male saints average $1.9 billion in donations and their staffs average 2,500.
"That is his mindset. He feels like he wants to leave all the small things to the women. He is Neanderthal in his thinking," Smith said. "He is stuck in time."
Although canonization usually leads seamlessly to sainthood, some recent nominees have been rejected when failure to properly pay domestic helpers and allegations of sexual harassment came to light in the process.
Mother Peg Lehner, leader of the conservative Order of Old Maids said she believes Benedict is rightly seeking the best qualified team members and that members of the sainthood will be judged by congregants based on their performance rather than their background.
"I don't think it was a slight to women saints that they ended up with smaller followings," Lehner said.
Bishop Barney Brown of Bristols said he believes that the under-representation of women among His Holiness's canonizations is likely to get more attention in the near future from those who believe in the importance of diversity, but he also felt they had to address the lack of minorities first.
Smith said diversity is about including people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and life experiences and views. "Surrounding God with people who think as He does and perhaps parrot what He says isn't conducive to good religion. I don't care if you're meeting any kind of metric at all, the point is to have people at the table who will be willing to contradict and lay out perhaps more challenging ideas. I think that God needs to be challenged."