In the mid-1600s, a young Native American girl whose entire family had been lost to smallpox was adopted and raised by her Mohawk uncle, refused to marry, and took a vow of chastity in devotion to her new Christian faith. As a result, she endured persecution from her adoptive family and neighbors, prompting her to take refuge at the St. Francis Xavier Mission near Montreal, Canada.
It was there that young Kateri Tekakwitha spent her life praying for the conversion of her fellow Mohawks, performing penances and fasting, yet always remaining faithful to the traditions of her people. This “Lily of the Mohawks” was able to live in the designated praying village of Kahnawake (founded by an Oneida married couple and the Jesuits), giving her the opportunity to retain her Mohawk culture while embracing her new identity as a Christian woman.
When she became the first Native American to be canonized in the Catholic Church, St. Kateri became a shining example of what lies at the heart of true Christian evangelization: embracing Christian ideals without compromising one’s cultural identity. Kateri served as a bridge between two worlds: the indigenous people of her times and the Christian missionaries so desperate to convert them, proving that evangelization is not accomplished by force or coercion, but by loving patience, sacrifice, and in more modern times–dialogue.
This past summer, Pope Francis’s “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada, which centered around a formal apology of the Church’s role in creating the residential school system, which an estimated 150,000 indigenous children were forced to attend, sought to bring long-overdue healing and reconciliation. While there, Pope Francis entrusted this task to the patronage of Sts. Anne, Mary, and Kateri, emphasizing this powerful trio’s maternal capabilities of mending wounded hearts and promoting peacemaking.
The Holy Father told those he met on this pilgrimage that he came “in a spirit of penance, to express heartfelt pain at the wrong inflicted by not a few Catholics who supported oppressive and unjust policies” towards them.
Pope Francis expressed great sorrow for the role that Catholics played in the abuses that occurred, and the lack of respect shown for the identity, culture, and spiritual values of the people, and rightly so. Those so desperate to convert the indigenous peoples of that era were more focused on imposing their own cultural values, not lovingly drawing the people they met there into communion with Christ.
Jesus showed respect for the traditions and culture of his day, seeking not to cancel the identities of the people he met, but to transform and perfect them, freeing them from the effects of sin so they could become new creations according to the heart of God. True conversion goes far beyond externals such as cultural identity, and this is why concepts such as dialogue and “seeing” others at a very deep level of personal connection is so vital when it comes to evangelization.
Dialogue Implies Validation
Among tribes in the Northern Natal region in South Africa, people greet one another with the words sawu bona, which is the English language equivalent of “hello.” A deeper meaning, however, is prevalent; literally translated, this greeting means, “I see you.”
How often do we pass by our colleagues, fellow students, and family members, failing to even make eye contact? A simple greeting such as this packs such a powerful meaning: I see you.
This basic concept forms the tenet of Pope Francis’s insistence on the importance of dialogue; it implies a give and take, a speaking and a listening, a two-way form of communication, not an imposition of will or a means of indoctrination. When we say to another, “I see you,” that means we are acknowledging the other person’s worth as a child of God and the willingness to get to know them more deeply, converse with them, and form a bond that transcends cultural traits, externals, or fleeting trends.
While we begin the process of evangelization with a means of inclusion, with “seeing” others, that process continues with a conversation, an opening of our hearts to those different from us, and active listening. This is nearly impossible to do when we are so entrenched in our own convictions that we see no need to change our own points of view, which is why continual conversion is essential.
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Nuntiandi, Pope Paul VI reminds us:
The Church is an evangelizer, but she begins by being evangelized herself. She is the community of believers, the community of hope lived and communicated, the community of brotherly love, and she needs to listen unceasingly to what she must believe, to her reasons for hoping, to the new commandment of love. She is the People of God immersed in the world, and often tempted by idols, and she always needs to hear the proclamation of the ‘mighty works of God’ which converted her to the Lord; she always needs to be called together afresh by him and reunited. In brief, this means that she has a constant need of being evangelized, if she wishes to retain freshness, vigor and strength in order to proclaim the Gospel.
Our Lord is eternally surprising in the ways he chooses to act in the lives of his people—both directly and indirectly—throughout history. Our task is to always be open and ready to the workings of the Spirit, and not so blocked by our own ideas and agendas that we miss golden opportunities to touch the lives of those he brings to us daily.
This is the very heart of evangelization: a spontaneous readiness for interaction and loving connection.
When we become vulnerable with others and show that we have as much to learn from them as they do from us, a mutual understanding is formed.
Then and only then can the Holy Spirit truly begin to change hearts.
Image: St. Kateri Tekakwitha at Santa Fe Catholic Cathedral. By Jim McIntosh – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jimcintosh/5130475133/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12771533
Kristi McCabe is an award-winning freelance writer, Catechist, a former teacher and editor who lives with her family in Owensboro, Kentucky. As an adoptive mother of four and an adoptee herself, Kristi is an avid supporter of pro-life ministries. She is active in her local parish and has served as Eucharistic minister and in various children's ministries.