Canada National Saint Kateri Shrine

The Mass of silent nature: the journey...

Culturally, the people of Kahnawake have been comfortable with silence. Beverly Delormier remembers her mother welcoming guest at her home while she (her mum) sat on the rocking chair. No one looked at each other in the eye. In fact, to make eye contact was considered a sign of disrespect. No one felt the need to negate the silence with speech. They were all comfortable in the presence of each other and only now and then someone would make an interjection which evoked a node of agreement from the others. Silence was part and parcel of the conversation. This is a direct contrast today when we feel obliged to speech, for the silence seems awkward and uncomfortable. This silence is still respected in the Sunday Mass. This is why only the choir sings at the Mission on a Sunday; while the congregation is silently transported into the depths of the Mass accompanied by the word of God and the songs of the Mohawk Sunday Choir. The silence is an integral part of worship at the Eucharistic celebration in Kahnawake.
To participate in the Sunday Mass at the Mission of Saint Francis Xavier and the Sanctuary of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha is really to experience a new journey. Within the Montreal area the Sunday Mass at Kahnawake is unique and portrays an authenticity that is transcending. It caters and provides for silence. After the hustle and bustle of work and the constraints of life itself, the Sunday liturgy in Kahnawake allows you to rediscover your peace in Christ and be transported by the natural angelic voices of the Kahnawake Mohawk choir, led by Mr. Houle the organist for over 50 years. It is an authentic spiritual experience in Jesus Christ our Lord.
Saint Kateri Tekakwitha would have also practiced this virtue for hours as she mediated in silence before the Blessed Sacrament in the 17th century (1656-1680). Anyone attending Mass at Kahnawake would have experienced this profound silence of the people. This silence at Mass is not passive. On the contrary it is an active silence by which the First Nations enter into that state of peace with Jesus in the Eucharist. For this reason, it is crucial for pilgrims and visitors to the Sunday Mass to understand this spiritual practice of the people in order to fully appreciate and experience the Eucharist during the Sunday liturgy. Many are the pilgrims who continually confirm this healing presence of Saint Kateri during the Mass. Thank you for sharing your experience with us at the Sanctuary.

This virtue of silence serves as a foundation upon which the complimentary hymns provide a transcending ambiance to the celebration. To actively participate in the Eucharist is to be fully immersed into the emotions and feelings that the singing evokes in us; it is to be fully aware of the transforming effect of this process – silence and songs, and to be touched by the Holy Spirit in our inner most being. To appreciate and be actively and consciously participate in the celebration one must have an appreciation for deep silence while praying. Silence has to be part of one’s spirituality. If not, one will find the celebration time consuming. To the Mohawk people this act of profound silence that conjoins with the singing fulfils their need for communion with the Body and Blood of Christ. The hymns, sung in the Mohawk Language have been translated from the Gregorian pieces into the Mohawk Language by the past Jesuit priests and the Mohawk people, therefore the musical arrangement remains Gregorian while the lyrics are translated into Mohawk. A particular feature at the celebration is the hymn dedicated to Saint Kateri Tekakwitha during the procession of gifts. Since the Canonization of Blessed Kateri on Oct.21st 2012, this procession is always accompanied by this hymn in her honour. It seems to be the right moment when Saint Kateri carries our prayers, needs, worries, and joys to Jesus Christ. This is a special moment during the celebration, and it calls for inner submission to the grace of the Holy Spirit during the Mass.

At major feasts like Easter and the Feast of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha the penitential rite is replaced by a rite approved by the Pope John Paul II – the indigenous rite of purification. As the sweet grass is burnt, Deacon Ron Boyer or Tom Dearhouse a choir member (both First Nations) goes through the congregation purifying them with the smoke of the sweet grass. Traditionally, within the Long House way of life, this means the ridding of the body and mind of all that is evil and unhealthy. In the Liturgy it means the purification from our sins by the blood of the lamb - Jesus Christ.
It is also a sign of spiritual healing that makes us ready for two important moments of the Mass - receiving the word of God from the biblical readings and the climax of the Mass; the communion with God through the intimate union with Jesus in the sharing of his body and blood at the Altar. It is a rite of purification that allows the pilgrims to be in a state of readiness to receive God’s abundant graces and to give of themselves back to God. It prepares for communion with the Divine, through Jesus Christ our Lord. In addition, the “Our Father” – which brings the whole of creation together enriched with its diversity and yet united under one God of love – is prayed in the Mohawk language.

The devotion to Saint Kateri did not begin after the canonization. It started immediately after her death in the 17th century, and it continues today. In fact, to many at Kahnawake she was already a Saint interceding upon their behalf to Jesus Christ. This is why beginning this summer; every pilgrim will be anointed with the blessed oil of Saint Kateri immediately following the Sunday Mass. The veneration of her relic is held on her Feast day - April 17th and upon the Sunday when the feast is celebrated on a communal and diocesan level. The Mission of Kahnawake celebrates this feast on the Sunday closest to the 17th of the month. Since meditation in front of the Blessed Sacrament was important to Saint Kateri, Benediction and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament are held every last Sunday of the month from 3pm to 5pm. During the Novena of Masses before her feast, every pilgrim is anointed with both the Blessed oil of Saint Kateri and her holy relic. On Mission Sunday, and the last Sunday of the year, the Monstrance of 1668 is used for adoration and Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. This is the Monstrance that Saint Kateri used in her devoted time of adoration.

The Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph do have their authentic places at the Sanctuary. Two side altars are dedicated to them, with that of Saint Joseph placed near to the tomb of Saint Kateri and the Blessed Mother near to a smaller statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Every year the crowning of Mary is celebrated at the Shrine. This has been a long-standing tradition with the First Nations at Kahnawake. A native crown is placed upon the head of the Blessed Mother. Every year a Mohawk woman dedicated to the Shrine is chosen to crown the Blessed Mother. A citation of the chosen person’s devotion to Jesus and Saint Kateri is read by a member of her family. It is a moment of rejoicing and thanks for the Christian community who rejoices in the intercession of the Blessed Mother.

Towards the extreme right at the front of the Church is found the tomb of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Pilgrims are asked not to touch the tomb unless permission is given which is normally upon her feast day. However, all are welcome to stand in front of the tomb to offer their prayers to the saint who from the time of her death in 1680 has been interceding for her people. At the back of the Church can be found evidence of Saint Kateri’s intercessory powers on behalf of her people, that began days following her death. Upon leaving the Sanctuary, pilgrims are encouraged to help themselves with the copies. Saint Kateri in her lifetime of 24 years (1656 -1680) has always prayed for the conversion of her people through her own self inflected penance – flagellation. After her death, she has continued to make herself present to her people through her intercessory healing powers. It is such a powerful moment of faith to have the First Nations sing and pray in their Mohawk language – the First Language of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. It is a validation of the beauty and power of faith when pilgrims light a candle at the tomb of Saint Kateri or at the altar of the Blessed Mother or that of Saint Joseph. A basket is placed in the tomb area of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha into which pilgrims may write their intentions in requesting the intercession of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. As one approaches the tomb an interior silence should be present in communicating our prayers to the Saint.

Prior preparation is the key to fully participating in the Eucharistic Celebration at Kahnawake with the First the Mohawk community. To celebrate the Eucharist at the Sanctuary of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha is to appreciate three aspects arising of the meeting point between Christianity and the religious culture of the Mohawk First Nations at Kahnawake – silence, singing in the Mohawk language and the native rites of the people. These three constituents of the liturgy bear fruit in the heart and body of every person at Mass, transcending them to the beauty and grace of the Jesus through the intercession of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. Every time I celebrate the Eucharist at this holy place and meditate in the footsteps of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, I remember a song learnt in the Caribbean on the island of Dominica and Trinidad & Tobago– “Oh the love of my Lord is the essence, all the beauty I see, he has given to me, and his mercy was gentle as silence….” To participate in the Sunday Mass at Kahnawake is to experience a call from deep within. It is in the ‘Silence of the still’ that Jesus comes alive in the hearts of the believers at the Sanctuary of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha. It is in the “silence of the still’ that the Holy Spirit sent from the Father and the Son heals the broken hearted at the Sanctuary…and it is in the ‘Silence of the Still’ that the gentle presence of the Lily of the Mohawks –Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, intercedes upon our behalf at the Mission of Saint Francis Xavier. The Silent Mass of the Mission is an invitation to partake of the true beauty and internal peace present in God. Thanks to the worshipping Mohawk community of the Mission of Kahnawake for giving us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet here on earth.

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