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Catholic Culture, Native Roots View Comments
By John Feister

Incense flows and cultural symbols show at a Mass honoring St. Kateri at the religious education congress. Dan Lopez is an incense bearer, third from right.
When the news of Kateri Tekakwitha’s approval for canonization reached the West Coast, there was much cause for celebration. For decades, even centuries, Catholics of Native American heritage longed for a time when one of their own would join the ranks of those whose holiness is publicly, universally acknowledged. At the Religious Education Congress for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles in February of this year, the excitement was palpable.

Native American Catholics, living among the many cultures of California, have promoted Kateri and, more important, an expression of Catholicism with roots in Native American culture for many years. At the annual Congress, attended by about 40,000 religious educators primarily from the West Coast, the City of Angels Kateri Circle would staff an informational booth, and each year there was a eucharistic liturgy that incorporated elements of Native American culture.

Now their moment was arriving. “I mean it’s been many years,” says Dan Lopez. He’s one of the leaders of Los Angeles’ Kateri Circle. The 60- year-old talks of how his family, from Texas, suppressed their identity as Native Americans to blend in with the people around them. “I joined the circle almost 20 years ago,” he recalls. “When I found the circle, it allowed me to embrace my Tiqua tribal identity even more, our culture, as well as being Catholic.”

He is awestruck at news of the canonization: “Think about it: the first American Indian to be canonized. Yes, it’s very big for us. It’s something we’ve prayed for, wished for, and it’s coming true. It’s hard to put in words what you feel, but she’s led us this way.”

Dan is quick to add that Kateri will now take her place as a saint for everybody. Initially he had balked at her being canonized in Rome. “Why not at her burial grounds?” he asked a priest friend. When he heard the explanation that a celebration at the heart of Catholicism would symbolize the universality of her message, he rejoiced. “She’s not only for us; she’s for everybody,” Dan explains. “Her innocence and how she took Christ and didn’t understand but learned and loved—that’s what brought us here now.”

He credits St. Kateri with bringing him back to the Church 25 years ago. “Through her, and when we found her, she drew us closer to the Church. She drew us closest to the humanity of all amongst us,” he recounts. “All of us are the same.”

It is the purity of Kateri that means the most to Dan. “Her innocence says it all,” he observes, and her holiness is for everyone: “She cared for all. It doesn’t matter what color skin we are, what race we are, what nationality we are. As a Native, we say we have a red path that God develops for us. Everybody has a path. We are a tree with many branches. And we’re all leading to one spot. That spot is heaven, is Father, Christ, all. Praying through her, we pray to Christ. Through her we enter into Christ.”

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John Feister is editor in chief of this publication. He has master’s degrees in humanities and in theology from Xavier University, Cincinnati.

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