Patron saint of ecology and ecologists. Patron saint of the environment, environmentalism, and environmentalists. Patron of exiles, and orphans. Patron for those ridiculed for their faith.
Being a saint would be exhausting, if not for the supernatural grace and the fact that you’re living in the Beatific Vision. Just take a look at the above list. All those duties, all those people to intercede for, all rest on the shoulders of a single Algonquin-Mohawk woman. A woman who, as a toddler, contracted smallpox and survived, but emerged from the disease without mother, father, sibling, or eyesight. Her face scarred by the virus, she was given the name “Tekakwitha”, which means “She Who Bumps Into Things”.
In this single saint’s prayers lie the intentions of a wild and motley group of people, all seemingly without connection beyond asking the same frail, outcast woman for help. How do we make sense of the Church’s designation of such seemingly random areas? Was it simply because this saint’s life encompassed them, or is there a deeper layer of understanding to be mined from the canonization of this godly woman?
The woman in question is, of course, St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Briefly, she was a Native American who lived in modern-day New York in the 1600s. Her mother, a Catholic Algonquin, had been kidnapped by, and subsequently adopted into, the local Mohawk tribe. There she married the chief, and the two combined to bring Kateri into the world. When the young Kateri was four years old, smallpox swept through the area, killing both mother and father, and baby brother. Kateri, now orphaned, was adopted by her paternal aunt and uncle, came into contact with Jesuit missionaries, and converted to the Catholic faith of her mother (a fuller description of St. Kateri’s life can be found here).
Surely, a number of Kateri’s patronages can be easily explained away by her life. Once converted, the saint would spend large swaths of time in the surrounding forests, crafting simple crosses of sticks and propping them up on nearby trees, declaring them her “Stations of the Cross”. She would arrange stones into the shape of a Rosary, and pray off them- an outdoorsy devotion fitting for one assigned both ecology and environmentalism. Her new faith cost her dearly in her tribe though, as the local Mohawks were at best wary and at worst outright hostile towards the Jesuit priests. An orphaned woman facing such outcast status could easily be designated patron for fellow orphans and exiles, as well as those ridiculed for their religious devotion.
But what if there are connections beyond the circumstances of Kateri’s life that Holy Mother Church wants us to make? What if the faithful are invited to learn more than a simple biography? Start with Tekakwitha being assigned both “ecology” and “environmentalism”. To the modern ear, both words are interchangeable. But in fact, they articulate different ideas. “Ecology” is the study of living things and their relationship with their surroundings. For example, trying to understand how a particular insect or plant or river interacts with the world around it is ecology. The earth, as a closed system, is made up of specific interactions between living things. Ecology strives to understand those interactions.
Environmentalism, on the other hand, looks at how human activity impacts existing ecologies and attempts to reduce damage to those systems. In other words, one needs to understand ecology in order to be a useful environmentalist. One needs to observe the natural world, note the interconnectedness, and then discern where human activity, and not other natural forces, comes into play. Observation and patience are key here. It is not a place for rash proclamations, or hysterics, or denial. The intersection of ecology and environmentalism demands the vision of those who can look beyond the crowd, who can hear beyond the noise.
And who is better suited to look and hear beyond the crowd than one who stands apart from it? By their very nature, the exile stands apart from society, and is able to observe and catalog it in ways those accepted by the greater group cannot. Then couple the exile status with that of orphan, one who longs for mother and father, and the tendency of an exile toward cynicism is tempered and softened with love and longing for the group. This paring, of exile and orphan, invites us to stand apart from the consensus, but not to grow unnecessarily callous toward it.
Put this odd and challenging recipe together, and what do we get? We get a saint who urges us towards a special concern for the glorious creation God made for us, who wants us to see each stick and stone as objects ordered toward our sanctification. We get a saint who is deeply concerned that we properly understand how our actions sometimes hinder the natural systems our Creator set up for us. We get a saint who stands with us as cultural outsiders in this thorny arena, able to stand apart from the clamor of the crowd, with its heavy skewing towards one environmental extreme or the other. We get a friend who reminds us that always we should keep a deep longing for humanity’s well-being in our hearts.
And so, on this day, this feast day of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, we are given a sort of roadmap for proper care of creation. A roadmap that responds deeply to the glory of God reflected in creation while loving the humanity that is part of it and simultaneously seeking to protect both. In fact, Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ gave a perfect epitaph for our Algonquin-Mohawk patron:
“Let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment.”