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Dehonian Spirituality includes prayers and reflections based in spirituality of Fr. Leo John Dehon; it is published weekly by the US Province of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
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July 8, 2016
 
 
 
Fr. Leo John Dehon: founder of the Priests of the Sacred Heart 
 
“Roman liturgy unites the requirements of beauty: variety in unity,” Fr. Dehon writes in his December 25, 1891, circular letter to the members of his community.  “Public prayer varies not only according to the mysteries or the solemnity of saints but also in keeping with the seasons of the liturgical year.  The Church also allows various groups of her members to give greater stress in prayer to certain mysteries or saints.  Each diocese, each religious Institute has its Proper, that is, its chosen feast days and its particular saints.
 
“Some months ago, the Institute of the Oblate Priests of the Heart of Jesus [a variation of the original name of the Priests of the Sacred Heart] received a precious testimony of benevolence from the Sovereign Pontiff and the Roman Court.  This signal favor, for which we must thank God, is the concession of a Proper for the Breviary and the Missal.  The full impact of these documents will not escape your notice.  This Proper clearly outlines our special features and character.  It reveals what we are and what we love.
 
“The old religious Orders have their legions of saints.  Like the new Institutes, we have a select number of saints to whom we are bound by particular ties.  The approval that Holy Church has consented to give to our Proper has made these saints more particularly our saints.”
 
Fr. Dehon then lists 35 of “our saints” under the categories of saints of the Sacred Heart, protectors of our missionaries, patrons of scholastics and novices, popular saints from the regions where our works began, and saints with a contemporary appeal.  This particular constellation of patron saints changed in 1911 with Pope Pius X’s reform of the Breviary and calendar of the Saints.  It changed once more with the liturgical reforms of Vatican II.
 
For many years now, the Priests of the Sacred Heart have ministered throughout the Americas.  Perhaps it would be appropriate to suggest a few patrons for their ministry in this part of the globe, for example, Our Lady of Guadalupe from Mexico, Martin de Porres from Peru, and Kateri Tekakwitha from the Mohawk tribe of the Iroquois nation.
 
“On this occasion,” Fr. Dehon concludes his circular letter, “let us renew our fervor for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice and for the recitation of the Divine Office.  We are not unmindful that these are the best manifestations of our love and the most efficacious reparation we can make.”
 
Circular Letters, #7, “Our Own Offices”     
 

 
  
 
 

Oblation: the daily practice of offering oneself to God's will

Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.  Each element of this name, by which we presently know a 17th century woman of Algonquin and Mohawk heritage, tells the story of a sad clash of cultures that nonetheless contains surprising correlations.

Most information about Tekakwitha comes from two, sometimes divergent biographies, each written by a Jesuit missionary who knew her.  However, these Jesuits narrated her life for a French audience and needed to demonstrate how a “pagan savage” could possibly become a saint.  Reading with an appropriately suspicious eye, it is necessary to augment the biographies with present day research on the culture of Native Americans in the northeastern woodlands at the time of contact with Western Catholicism.
 
Tekakwitha’s life is set within the devastating upheavals occasioned by European colonization and the diseases that came with it, as well as wars among native tribes and among French and English colonizers.  At age 6, Tekakwitha fell ill from a particularly virulent outbreak of smallpox, which killed her mother and brother, and left her body weakened, her vision impaired, and her face disfigured with scars.  To protect her sensitive eyes, she wore a blanket over her head whenever she left her longhouse dwelling.
 
In an attempt to portray Tekakwitha rising above her savage background, the biographies imply that Tekakwitha was isolated from her people, but this seems implausible.  She was part of an extended family, who cared for her, and in this setting she learned the duties, skills, and rituals of a Mohawk woman.
 
The Iroquois, a Five Nation confederation that included the Mohawks, had never been conquered by the French as the natives of Mexico had been by Spanish conquistadors.  Thus, with their traditional openness and spiritual eclecticism, the Iroquois’ acceptance of Christianity did not imply submission to, but rather alliance with Europeans.
 
Baptized at the age of nineteen, Tekakwitha was given a name in honor of Catherine of Siena, a 14th century mystic-ascetic saint.  Pronounced in French with a Mohawk accent, “Catherine” comes out as a sound that English speakers might write as “Kateri,” a version popularized only a century ago by a white American writer, Ellen Walworth, who wanted to bestow a more “authentically Indian” identity.  This was not, however, the intent of her baptismal name. 
 
In Mohawk culture, the reception of a new name, belonging to a past clan member, simultaneously preserved the personality of the deceased and created a new identity.  Kateri’s namesake, from the Christian clan, was Catherine of Siena, who imposed self-inflicted torments on her body, believing that in testing the limits of bodily endurance she could prepare herself to participate in the divine and offer her life for the reform of the Church and for peace among warring Italian city-states.  
 
Kateri would have readily understood this because penances such as fasting, freezing baths, exposure to frigid air, and even burning, were part of the Iroquois repertoire of gestures connected to the sacred, which in part, insured the well-being of the clan.  Practically, they were also a physical preparation for privations of war and possible torture by the enemy.
 
In her own desire to experience divine power flowing through her, Kateri, and other women of the Mohawk tribe, undertook brutal bodily penances and chose sexual abstinence, which probably was influenced by the example of religious women working in Montreal.  Here, there is an interesting correlation between Mohawk women converts, French missionary nuns, and medieval women saints. 
 
When her Jesuit confessor received Kateri’s petition, “to give herself entirely to the Lord by an irrevocable pledge,” he declined to allow this 23-year-old women to make a public vow of virginity.  Although the Jesuits were aware of the practice of virginity among the Iroquois, the underlying prejudice was that Native Americans—and the women in particular—were over-sexed and could not be trusted to keep such a vow.
 
After her death, her Jesuit confessor regretted his decision and altered the facts when he wrote her biography.  The fictive vow took place, he records, “On the feast of the Annunciation,” when Tekakwitha took communion and promised Jesus “perpetual virginity.”
 
Nonetheless, in Kateri’s last year of life, French and Iroquois Christians began to recognize her extraordinary spiritual powers.  The other Jesuit biographer found confirmation of this in the composure with which she faced pain and death and in the transformation of her face shortly after her death.  Within a quarter of an hour, her pockmarked face “appeared more beautiful than it had been when living.” 
 
In the years following Kateri Tekakwitha’s death, many healings, especially among French settlers, were attributed to her intercession.  Yet, it would take over two centuries before the Catholic Church proclaimed her a saint. 
 
In his book, Mohawk Saint, Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, Allen Greer concludes with Kateri’s significance today.  He quotes a member of the Albuquerque Kateri Circle, who said, “The most important thing about Kateri is her prayerful life and her never giving up, in spite of the hardships she faced.  Along us Indians, we have a lot of hardships.”
 
“Indian devotees of Kateri Tekakwitha,” he writes, “frequently express a yearning for wholeness in their lives.  They admire the Mohawk saint partly for her ability to remain fully native while becoming fully Catholic; in other words, Tekakwitha seems inspiring as a woman who could respond creatively to what the Euro-American world had to offer without sacrificing or betraying her indigenous culture.”
 
For Kateri, tapping into the spiritual power that the Jesuits and Catholicism placed at her disposal, was not for personal promotion.  Her culture highly prized the clan over the individual and she offered herself for the preservation of her people, who had to fight for survival against harsh winters, warring factions, the invasion of Europeans, and virulent disease. 
 
In her own way, Kateri Tekakwitha lived a life of oblation, of which Fr. Dehon taught, “We should sacrifice all and forget self, rely on Our Lord’s goodness and mercy with filial confidence and absolute indifference, permit ourselves to be used as an instrument in the hands of its Master, and let ourselves be directed according to his good pleasure” [Spiritual Directory, Part One: 6]. 
 
Source: Mohawk Saint, Catherine Tekakwitha and the Jesuits, Allen Greer, Oxford University Press: 2005.  ISBN 978-0-19-530934-8.

Image: Designed by Ron Zeilinger, this stained glass window adorns Our Lady of the Sioux Chapel, St. Joseph’s Indian School, Chamberlain, South Dakota. 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Reflection Questions: seeds for personal understanding and growth

Whom do you consider to be “your saints?”  What do they reveal about you and what you love?
 
When you encounter someone from another culture [or even someone with a personality not your own], how can you quiet your preconceptions enough to begin to appreciate an alternative perspective?
 
What can you do to learn something about the Native American experience or support Native American culture?
 
 
 
 
 

Prayer: hands lifted in prayer; hands prepared to serve

The feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha is July 14.  In your kindness throughout the coming week, please remember in your prayer Native Americans, indigenous peoples worldwide, and those who work to preserve their dignity and cultures.  You may find the following Prayer of Reparation helpful.
 
God of all nations,
in your love you have given each of us a heritage,
as rich as it is different from other peoples.
Teach us to be proud of this gift,
to know and to live our unique identities.
May we honor as well the identities of others
and come together—
as various colors paint a rainbow—
to form the Body of Christ.
And so we commit ourselves:
 
Jesus, beloved of our hearts,
with you we wish to offer love and adoration to the Father,
and by the power of your Spirit living among us,
we want to repair whatever is weak or sinful
in our society.
 
O Great Spirit,
whose voice we hear in the winds
and whose breath gives life to all the world,
open us to your gifts of strength and wisdom:
strength to serve, not dominate, our brothers and sisters;
and wisdom to spend more time, not less, with the vulnerable.
And so we commit ourselves:
 
Jesus, beloved of our hearts,
with you we wish to offer love and adoration to the Father,
and by the power of your Spirit living among us,
we want to repair whatever is weak or sinful
in our society.
 

 
 

 
The backstory
 
Each week reflections and prayers based in the Dehonian charism are published on the Dehonian Spirituality page of the U.S. Province website of the Priests of the Sacred Heart. This is an email version of that update. 

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The Dehonian Spirituality updates are edited by David Schimmel, U.S. Province director of Dehonian Associates. Questions or comments for David? 
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