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July 11, 2002|
Solemnity of Our Father Saint Benedict
On October 1, 2000, the Pope canonized a courageous American woman, Katharine Drexel. Because she sought first the Kingdom of God and His justice, she understood the importance of solidarity and thus contributed to social peace and development.
Building a secure foundation
Frequent trips to Europe for her father's banking interests gave Katharine and her sisters the opportunity to visit the wonders and famous sites of this ancient continent. Always joyful and an eager traveler, Katharine, because of her deeply religious nature, judged all things in their proper value. The galleries, palaces, and works of art she saw in the cities of Europe left her with a feeling of dissatisfaction. No tourist attraction, no cultural must-see could satisfy the burning desires of her heart. Indeed, «God alone satisfies,» as Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote (Commentary on the Credo). Granted, every person has the desire for happiness, as Saint Augustine noted: «It is certain that we all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated.» But this desire is of divine origin; God has placed it in the heart of man so as to draw us to Him Who alone can satisfy it. For «God calls us to His own beatitude... God put us in the world to know, to love, and to serve Him, and so to come to Paradise» (CCC, 1718-1721).
In 1879, Emma fell ill. Katharine, then 21 years old, tenderly took care of her during the three years of her illness. Contact with suffering purified her already clear outlook on life. She realized that wealth is one idol of the day and that nothing in the immense Drexel fortune could lessen Emma's suffering or prevent her death. Katharine asked herself what the real meaning of wealth and honor were, and thinking seriously about the meaning of existence, she understood that «true happiness is not found in riches or well-being, in human fame or power, or in any human achievementhowever beneficial it may besuch as science, technology, and art, or indeed in any creature, but in God alone, the Source of every good and of all love» (CCC, 1723).
After another trip, this time to the American West, where Katharine first came into contact with the life of the Native Americans and where she made her first donations to the missions, tragedy struck the Drexel family again. Her father, Francis, died on February 15, 1885, leaving his three daughters heirs to an immense fortune.
Katharine's health was ruined by her parents' deaths. To restore her good health, her sisters suggested a visit to the Schwalbach baths in Germany. They took advantage of their stay in Europe to recruit priests and religious for the Indian missions in the United States and to go to Rome where, in January 1887, they were received by Pope Leo XIII in a private audience. When Katharine begged the Holy Father to send missionaries to the Indians, she received this unexpected response: «Why, my child, don't you yourself become a missionary?»«Your Holiness,» she answered, «I didn't ask for Sisters, I asked for priests.» She did not really understand the meaning of the Pope's question, but the anxiety that had long pressed her reached its peak. From the age of fourteen, she had felt a constant attraction to religious life. She had even spoken of it often to her stepmother, without receiving any encouragement from her. A vocation to the cloistered religious life, yes, but to the missionary life... She had never thought about it!
In September of that same year, Katharine, in the company of her sisters, visited the Indian missions in the Dakotas on horse, by wagon, and by rail, across rough and dangerous territories. There she met Red Cloud, the famous Sioux chief, and experienced the Indians' pitiful conditions. When she returned home, Katharine made up her mind to offer unconditional aid to the Indian missions. In four years, she financed the construction of thirteen schools. This attention given the Indians was coupled with concern for the fate of African-Americans who, despite the official emancipation, were still the subject of unfair treatment. «Truly there needs to be a greater spirit of solidarity in the world, as a means of overcoming the selfishness of individuals and nations. Only in this way will it be possible to curb the pursuit of political power and economic wealth with no reference to other values» (John Paul II, on the occasion of the Jubilee of Government Leaders, Members of Parliament and Politicians, November 4, 2000).
A beneficial perspective
For a long time, Katharine had been dissuaded from following a religious vocation by her spiritual director, Most Reverend James O'Connor, Bishop of Omaha, Nebraska, who thought her incapable of enduring its austerities. He encouraged her to reflect, wait, and pray. Finally, in November 1888, while reading a letter in which Katharine revealed the anxiety and sadness she felt in waiting, Bishop O'Connor changed his mind and suggested three religious congregations to her. Katharine answered that she wanted a missionary order for the Native Americans and American Blacksbut none existed! So Bishop O'Connor encouraged her to found a new Congregation herself. This prospect did not fill Katharine with enthusiasm: «The responsibility of such a call almost crushes me, because I am so infinitely poor in the virtues necessary.» Nevertheless, the bishop did not change his mind and, on the Feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, 1889, Katharine surrendered: «The feast of St. Joseph brought me the grace to give the remainder of my life to the Indians and Colored, to enter fully and entirely into your view as to what is best for the salvation of the souls of these people.» Bishop O'Connor then asked the Sisters of Mercy in Pittsburgh to form Katharine in the religious life. She was received into their novitiate on November 7, 1889, but several months later, Bishop O'Connor's death deprived the foundation plan of its sole support. Though in apparence so untimely, this death purified Sister Katharine's soul and prepared her for her future work. It was then that the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Most Reverend Patrick Ryan, came to her assistance and offered his help.
The fate of the Holy Family
The community received frequent visits from bishops and missionary priests who asked Sister Katharine for nuns. But, on Archbishop Ryan's advice, the Sisters waited three and a half years before opening their first boarding school at Saint Catherine's Mission in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The Sisters adapted well there in spite of the difficult life in this almost desert-like location. The Native Americans respected and protected them. One day, Mother Katharine, wanting to care for the victims of an epidemic in a village near the mission, was refused admissionthe Indians thought too much of her to see her expose herself to the contagion in this manner.
Often during her numerous trips across the continent, Mother Katharine was rejected, sharing the fate of the Holy Family in Bethlehem, which gave her the inspiration for this reflection: «It seems so appropriate for a Convent of the Blessed SacramentChrist dwelling with usand the School of the Immaculate Mother to have people of the city have no room for our precious charge. They say, 'There is another place on the city's outskirts' for our educational work. How truly was the Cave of Bethlehem the great educator of the world!... Do not fail to think of Him with whom I profess to be in love! Be in love with His humiliations.»
Katharine Drexel had renounced a fortune in order to embrace poverty voluntarily, and this poverty was precious to her, as is shown in these lines written to one of her religious: «If you are detached from the things of the earth, you will have the kingdom of God in you. If you are not detached, you will persuade yourself that many things are necessary, and you will succeed in living a life of ease. God fills what is empty.» She realized that «love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use» (CCC, 2445). But she understood above all that the best way of helping those who are poor and marginal is to work towards their full development. «It is not only a question of raising all peoples to the level currently enjoyed by the richest countries,» Pope John Paul II reminds us, «but rather of building up a more decent life through united labor, of concretely enhancing every individual's dignity and creativity, as well as his capacity to respond to his personal vocation, and thus to God's call. The apex of development is the exercise of the right and duty to seek God, to know Him and to live in accordance with that knowledge» (Encyclical Centesimus annus, May 1, 1991, no. 29). This is why the new Institute's efforts were not reduced to a simple material «charity,» but to the human and Christian formation of disinherited populations. Love for the poor «extends not only to material poverty but also to the many forms of cultural and religious poverty» (CCC, 2444).
The deepest bond
Why «Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament»? Her insight had grasped that the Eucharist, Jesus' living Presence, is the deepest bond between men, and thus among all the races called to live in the same country. «Jesus is the only source of true peace,» said John Paul II. «There cannot be hope of real peace in the world apart from Christ... How does Christ bring about this peace? He earned it by His Sacrifice. He gave His life to bring reconciliation between God and man... This sacrifice which draws the human family to unity is made present in the Eucharist. Thus, each Eucharistic celebration is the source of a new gift of peace... The gift that Christ made of Himself is more powerful than all the forces of division that oppress the world» (At the Eucharistic Congress, March 11, 1988).
The benefits of the Eucharist extend to each of Mother Katharine's daughters. The foundress wrote, «The religious needs strength. Near the tabernacle the soul finds strength, consolation, and resignation. The religious needs virtue. Jesus is the model of virtues in the Blessed Sacrament. The religious needs hope. In the Blessed Sacrament we possess the most precious pledge of our hope. The Host contains the germ of future life.»
In September 1912, during a visit to the Missions in New Mexico, Mother Katharine contracted typhoid. Seeming close to death, she confided, «I feel perfect peace.» But after a stay in the infirmary at the mother house, she regained her health and took up her activities again. In April 1913, she embarked once more for Rome, where she obtained final approval for her Congregation.
An effective method of prayer
Saint Katharine Drexel's beautiful example is an encouragement for our own behavior. Saint Rose of Lima said, «When we serve the poor and the sick, we serve Jesus.» This is why the Church has always had a preferential love for the poor.
For those who have neither the means nor the strength to assist the poor directly, the last twenty years of Saint Katharine's life are a beacon. She conformed herself to the will of God in the acceptance of her sufferings and in fervent prayer. «By His Passion and death on the cross Christ has given a new meaning to suffering: it can henceforth configure us to Him and unite us with His redemptive Passion. [...] By prayer we can discern what is the will of God (Rom. 12:2) and obtain the endurance to do it. Jesus teaches us that one enters the kingdom of heaven not by speaking words, but by doing the will of My Father in heaven (Mt. 7:21)» (CCC, 1505 and 2826).
May the Lord grant this grace to you and to all your loved ones!