Kateri Tekakwitha was born in 1656 to a Christian Algonquin woman. Her parents died in a smallpox epidemic – which left Kateri herself disfigured and half blind – when she was just four years old. She went to live with her uncle who succeeded her own father as chief of the clan. Her uncle hated the missionaries who, because of the Mohawks’ treaty with France, were required to be present in the region. Kateri, however, was moved by their words. She refused to marry a Mohawk brave, and at age 19, was baptized on Easter Sunday.
Her baptism meant that she would be treated forever as a slave. Since she refused to work on Sundays, she was not given anything to eat on those days. She eventually took a 200 mile walking journey to the area of Montreal, and there grew in holiness under the direction of some Christian women in the area. At age 23, she took a vow of virginity.
Kateri’s life was one of extreme penance and fasting. This she took upon herself as a penance for the eventual conversion of her nation. Kateri said: “I am not my own; I have given myself to Jesus. He must be my only love. The state of helpless poverty that may befall me if I do not marry does not frighten me. All I need is a little food and a few pieces of clothing. With the work of my hands I shall always earn what is necessary and what is left over I’ll give to my relatives and to the poor. If I should become sick and unable to work, then I shall be like the Lord on the cross. He will have mercy on me and help me, I am sure.”
In today’s Gospel, Jesus laments that the people could not respond in faith to the mighty deeds they had seen. Kateri didn’t get to see any kind of mighty deeds; she responded in faith to the Word of God. She was able to put all of her life behind her, so that she could embrace the cross of Christ. She took very seriously the kind of “white martyrdom” – bloodless sacrifice of one’s life for Christ – that Jesus calls us to today.
Our call to personal holiness might not be as radical as Kateri’s was. But we are called to embrace the cross and follow Christ wherever he leads us, and we may well be called upon to sacrifice whatever is comfortable in our lives to do it. If we focus on that, we can take comfort in the Psalmist’s words today, words that Kateri truly believed: “For the LORD hears the poor, and his own who are in bonds he spurns not.”