Thursday, August 25, 2005

On Pilgrimage to Kahnawake, and its significance

The idea for this site has nagged me incessantly for probably about a year now, but the final impetus to actually do it came just after visiting the very spiritual heart of American Indian Christianity.

The mission church of St. Francis Xavier stands on the outskirts of Montreal, on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River within the Mohawk reservation of Kahnawaké. The origins of the reservation itself date back to 1668, when Catherine Gandeaktena, her husband Francis Xavier Tonsahoten, and other Christian Iroquois settled at La Prairie near the French in order to be closer to the faith and farther from the scandalous behavior of their countrymen in the Iroquois homeland. Within less than a decade, this mission—having moved to Sault St. Louis—became a magnet for Catholic Iroquois and developed a reputation for holiness and piety. Among the Iroquois, the phrase "I am going to the Sault" became a synonym for adopting a reformed Christian life.

Since then, the mission of St. Francis Xavier has served as the focal point of Catholic life in Kahnawaké. But far from having a merely local significance, its importance is increasingly beginning to be felt across the North American continent. No small part of that is due to the contents of a marble sarcophagus off to the right in the Church. It is a simple but dignified tomb that houses the mortal remains of a woman who—please God—will soon be raised to the dignity of the altars and whose cult of universal veneration will be approved by the Catholic Church: Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. In the mid-1670s, this young woman had departed the Mohawk village and come to live among the pious residents of the Sault. She lived a short but stellarly holy life, and her reputation over the years has grown ever greater as she has come to be accepted by many Indians today—even non-Catholic ones—as their powerful intercessor and patron saint.

Already by the presence of her holy relics, we can tell there is something extraordinarily special about this church.

But even as important as they are—and certainly the reason we were on pilgrimage to that spot—it was not the remains of Kateri alone that made me sink to my knees and kiss the church floor in gratitude to God for this wonderful place. Nor that made me almost tremble with excitement as I browsed the shrine museum behind the sacristy and beheld objects of great personal import: the original Chauchetière portrait of Blessed Kateri, the chalices, the stoles, the recordings of Mohawk Christian hymns, the Missals and Mohawk dictionaries, and (rapture!) a manuscript liturgical book opened to a page of Gregorian notation for Sanctus of the Holy Mass—in the Mohawk language.

Having barely begun my almost obsessive studies of the Catholic Indian Missions, a glorious and inexplicably ignored period of American history, and after having scratched and clawed through many search engines for any little bit of information I could uncover, here I was at last surrounded by the Native American Church in all its supreme glory. Here I was immersed in almost 400 years of living tradition, passed in an unbroken line from the Jesuit Fathers and Iroquois martyrs and confessors to this very day.

Here at Kahnawaké, the Catholic Church is not a museum piece to be studied, it is a tradition to be lived. That tradition was born in Jerusalem on that day of Pentecost, passed down through 1600 centuries through the holy Church of Rome, and then brought to this new land to be lovingly cherished and piously added to by the sons and daughters of the American continent.

To be sure, the Catholic faith in Kahnawaké has suffered over the last few decades—suffered through lack of interest, through a pagan resurgence, through scandals and injustices perpetrated by we all too sinful fellow members of the Body of Christ. In this respect it is no different from the faith in the rest of North America. Nothing like the clergy scandals of this country have touched Kahnawake to my knowledge, but in the course of the 20th century that community and so many others of Native extraction—many of which never needed to justify their Catholicism to anyone—were pressured into abandoning their cultures and even their native Catholic traditions.

But now it is time for Kahnawaké to come into its true significance—not just as a parish church, not just as a shrine and place of pilgrimage—but as the very spiritual heart of Native American Catholicism. A place where we cease treating Native Catholicism as either a impoverished backwater corruption of Latin Christianity or as an experimental laboratory of multiculturalism. Both errors stem from the same misunderstanding of history—that the Native Church is devoid of any independant history or patrimony of its own. It is time now to put an end to the extremes of "assimilationism" and "inculturationism" and simply take Native America's Catholic traditions as seriously as they deserve to be treated.

To that end, the mission of St. Francis Xavier has a special role to play. As the former capital and keeper of the fire of the Seven Indian Nations of Canada, Kahnawaké stands as the guardian of traditions both sacred and secular. It was founded by native Christians for native Christians. It was peopled by perhaps the most pious Catholic community in American history, and some of its greatest lights. It houses Kateri's mortal remains, and ever been the destination of pilgrims. It has a distinctive liturgical tradition which, hundreds of years before Vatican II, incorporated native language into the traditional Roman Rite. It has sent Iroquois lay missionaries far into the western wilds of Canada and the United States, to spread the faith of the Black Robes and their "Great Prayer" all the way to the Pacific Ocean. It even has its own native martyrs, though ones who lack any ecclesiastical recognition as such.

Every Rite within the Catholic Church is oriented to the heavenly Jerusalem through an earthly center: as Rome for the Latins, Constantinople for the Greeks, Antioch for the Syrians, Alexandria for the Egyptians, Axum for the Ethiopians, and very recently after a long exile, Kiev for the Ukrainians. Without such an anchoring center, the children of the Church are in danger of drifting.

It is fitting that Kahnawake be such a center for Native American Catholics today: to be the focus around which other missions like Akwesasne, Oka and Odanak can feel part of a larger and unified whole.

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