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Opinion
Tribalism is in our blood

By Kevin and Marilyn Ryan
Posted: 5/17/2013

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Many Catholics grew up learning about Kateri Tekakwitha. If you were from New York she was in your curriculum when you learned about the saints. You prayed for her in part because she was from your state.

As the banners of seven new saints hung from the facade of St. Peter's Basilica last October, the home town newspapers of one us splashed the photo across its pages. The headline read: "Saint At Last." A home town boy was partially responsible for a new saint: Kateri Tekakwitha, an American Indian from upstate New York, who died in 1680.

As these events were taking place we had arrived in the Pacific Northwest for several events such as visiting family and attending a reunion. On this same weekend 12-year-old Jake Finkbonner of Sandy Point, Washington was in Rome to receive communion from Pope Benedict XVI during the canonization mass. Jake's recovery from flesh-eating bacteria was accepted as the miracle needed for St. Kateri's canonization. His parents and two little sisters were in the front row after receiving Communion waving at the Holy Father. Even the New York Times carried a photo.

From a committed Catholic family, Jake, nine at the time, attended parochial school in Bellingham, Washington, where he played basketball. During one of these games he sustained a cut which allowed for the bacteria to enter his body. He was taken to Children's Hospital in Seattle where he lay near death. A fragment of St. Kateri's bone was shipped to his hospital room. Through many prayers and the intercession of St. Kateri, Jake was miraculously cured. No other explanation could be given by the doctors.

The pews of local churches in Bellingham were partially empty given so many had traveled to Rome to the canonization. We were not alone in celebrating the moment. A group from Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish in Plymouth also went to Rome to attend the canonization of their parish's patron saint.

During her short lifetime, St Kateri suffered because of her decision to become a Catholic. She was born to an Algonquin Christian mother and a Mohawk father in Auriesville, New York, in 1656. Her mother died of smallpox when Kateri was four years old. As a teen she became interested in the Catholic faith and was baptized. She moved to a new colony of Christian Indians in Canada. Here she lived a life dedicated to prayer, penitential practices and care for the old and sick. She died at the age of twenty-four. It was not popular to be Catholic and we can think of her as a model for those who face religious persecution today in so many parts of the world.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia, of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe, told the press that he and his fellow Native American Catholics have been praying for St. Kateri's canonization for a long time. He sees her as instrumental in the new evangelization.

Pope Benedict named St. Kateri, who died in Canada, "the Protectress of Canada and the first Native American saint," and he entrusted to her the renewal of faith "in the First Nations and all of North America."

What does St. Kateri or Jake have to do with us? As it happened we were staying with cousins who live on Lummi Island, Washington. So we could gather some pride of place.

In our school days we studied about Native Americans. We learned about beads, fishing, canoeing races and we crayoned pictures of their traditional clothing. We know something about them, but we are not of them.

In many ways, however, we are still tribal. Today's modernists are critical of tribalism. All the same, we belong to a family, a tribe, and we have tribal loyalties. Try asking someone--a male--why he roots for one football team or another. He likes Notre Dame in any contest. Why? Because his brother played football for Coach Leahy a thousand years ago. In every field of play, there is a personal favorite. Otherwise why even watch the game. It's no fun not choosing sides. We cheer on Boston College. "We like the hometown boys." Our old school ties still count. It makes the Bean Pot a memorable event, the hockey rivalry of four local college teams. We root for someone in each battle. There is some deep tribal connection.

We sometimes vote for the Catholic over the other. We trust their views are better aligned with ours. In the polling booth we pull the lever for an Irish or Italian surname when we aren't quite certain of his/her qualifications.

While tribalism is usually decried, it is still there. It is considered primal, not global. Today we are supposed to think locally but act globally. We could argue that being part of a tribe is still central to our makeup and guides us in many ways. We are not just a number. 24601, as Jean Valjean was in "Les Miserables," saw himself humiliated, his manhood reduced to nothing but a number on a chain gang.

Deep in our DNA is the magnetic attraction of our family, ethnic ties, and a gene pool. Connective tissue is biological. Pride of group, our school, our parish, our hockey or football teams are part of us. Therefore, with pride of place, and as Roman Catholics, we are swept up. We and parishioners from Plymouth have taken St. Kateri and young Jake Finkbonner under our wing. They are part of our team. We are part of theirs.

Christ invites us to be part of his communion, the ancient and universal Church. It is through our baptism we are joined with Catholics before and after us. St. Kateri painfully relinquished some of her tribal attachment to join a larger tribe in the Catholic Church. Young Jake Finkbonner gave her an assist to join the pantheon of saints.

Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.