Native American culture at the time of St. Kateri was a breeding ground for saints. Their intensely spiritual outlook on life, capacity for contemplation, humility, strong sense of communal obligations and connection to creation made those who converted uncommonly open to the grace of God. Those characteristics still exist in Native American culture today.
But as is the case with all missionary activity throughout history, some aspects of the culture were incompatible with the message of the missionaries. And in the uncomfortable space where the Gospel rubbed against the culture there was the constant threat of murder. To convert meant to risk one’s life at the hands of a disgruntled shaman. Lukewarm Catholicism wasn’t an option.
One soul forged under these conditions was the Huron warrior Chiwatenhwa—later baptized and given the name Joseph Chiwatenhwa.
His life changed while listening to the preaching of the martyr and patron saint of Canada, St. John De Brebeuf. It wasn’t a particular phrase that struck Joseph, but an experience of the Holy Spirit. He knew he was listening to words of truth flow from the missionary’s mouth. His heart was on fire. That experience started a journey that led him and his entire family to the waters of baptism, and most likely to his martyrdom.
As a catechumen (someone preparing for baptism) the missionaries recognized that Joseph had a natural genius about him that would rival anyone from the top universities of Europe. They were amazed by his ability to remember literally everything they taught him. Yet more importantly, he grasped the central message of the Gospel and it became the driving force behind his entire life.
He summed up that message beautifully in a prayer the missionaries recorded: “Now I begin to see that the reason you made us is because you want to share your love. Nothing attracts you as much as your people. … I know how to build a cabin and how to live in it. But you … you made us, and you live in us. … You love us so deeply that all I can do in return is to offer myself to you. I chose you as my … chief. There is no one else.”
Joseph and his wife Marie (her Huron name was Aonette) became true apostles by the witness of their lives and of their words. They celebrated the first sacramental, Christian marriage, in Huronia shortly after their baptism. During a time in Huron history where it was common to change wives with every passing season and sometimes even sell them off during gambling, Joseph’s fidelity was a shining light.
As a father he recognized that his children were not his own, but God’s. That’s easy to talk about, but tragically, Joseph had to live out the meaning of those words with profound heroism. Joseph was an exceedingly proud father of his baby boy, Thomas. When Thomas fell ill and was dying, the Jesuits recorded, “He took him in his arms and spoke to the little one as if he had the gift of reason: ‘Thomas, my dear child … we are not the masters of your life; if God wishes you to go to heaven, we cannot keep you on earth.’”
After his son’s death, he approached the missionaries and said, “You taught me what I ought to say to God (to ask) for his recovery; tell me now how I shall address him when my son is dead.” They wrote how they thought it best to let his tears flow first, then “We conducted him to the holy Sacrament, where he spoke like a real Abraham (offering his son to God).”
Joseph worked hard to provide, like any father should, but he surrendered his wife and children to God with a childlike trust. He referred to God as the head of his family. He prayed: “I see the loving way you lead us along the path of life. You want what is best for us. If we have poverty, let us feel your love in it. If we get rich, do not let comfort make us forget that we need you. Never let us turn into selfish people. Never let us think we are better than others who have less.”
When a deadly virus struck their village, Joseph and Marie opened their home to the sick, nursing them to health. Both of them were constantly making attempts to bring the Huron to the faith, and Joseph would travel frequently with the Jesuits to catechize other tribes. They were so driven by apostolic zeal and so effective at making converts that St. Charles Garnier said of Joseph, “It was in this Christian that we had our hope after God.”
Joseph foresaw his violent death in multiple dreams that woke him at night. He knew he was to be scalped and killed. After fighting back his fears, he resolved to accept whatever death God wanted for him. He was found as his dream foretold in a cornfield he had been working in. He was about 38 years old.
Some Huron claimed that Iroquois raiders killed him, but to this day it is unclear if that story was a cover-up for fellow tribesmen who resented his faith in Christ. Either way, Joseph lived a martyr’s life.
St. John De Brebeuf, who celebrated his funeral, recorded a vision he received about Joseph: “A tent or a dome descend(ed) from the sky and settle(ed) on the grave of our Christian. Then … people rolled up the ends … and drew it upwards as if they wanted to raise it to the sky. … I felt then that God wanted to let us know his will for the soul of this good Christian.”
Blessed John Paul II recognized the greatness of Joseph and his family when he visited the martyr’s shrine in Midland, Ontario, in 1984: “Joseph Chiwatenhwa … together with his wife Aonnetta, his brother Joseph and other family members lived and witnessed to their faith in a heroic manner. … These men and women not only professed the faith and embraced Christ’s love, but they in turn became evangelizers and provide even today eloquent models for lay ministry.”
If I may be so bold as to repeat the cries in St. Peter’s Square following John Paul II’s death, “Santo subito!” (“Sainthood immediately!”).