Y FRIENDS and I were participating in a weekend campout/retreat for Catholic Boy Scouts on October 1, 2000, when Mother Katharine Drexel was canonized. Growing up around Philadelphia, I had already known the basics of this extraordinary woman’s life, but we learned more about her during that retreat.
Fast forward nearly two decades, and I am still impressed by Mother Katharine’s profound love for the Holy Eucharist, the generosity of her spirit, and the boldness of her witness to the Gospel.
For five years, I lived at a Northeast Philly parish only a few minutes from her original burial site, the motherhouse of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, which she founded. That gave me the opportunity to visit her fairly frequently, often requesting favors for family and friends.
Today (March 3) is her feast day, and this year marks her first feast day at her new burial site, in the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter & Paul. The cathedral parish and choir have planned special celebrations to mark the occasion.
NE OF THE MOST famous aspects of Mother Katharine’s life is the story of how she decided to enter religious life. Born into an exceedingly wealthy family of prominent Philadelphia bankers, Katharine travelled extensively as a child and young woman. These experiences gave her a particular sympathy for the missions and the work of spreading the Gospel to all peoples, and she became a financial supporter of various missions to Native Americans.
On a trip to Rome in 1887, she and her blood-sister were granted an audience with Pope Leo XII, from whom they requested missionaries to work in the apostolates they were financing. Much to Katharine’s surprise, the pope suggested that she should become a missionary, herself. That, of course, is precisely what the heiress did, entering the convent and eventually establishing her own order, rooted in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament and dedicated to the evangelization of Native Americans and African Americans.
More than three years ago, Pope Francis visited Philadelphia for the 2015 World Meeting of Families. Of all the talks given during the course of those days, my favorite was the Holy Father’s homily at the Mass offered in our cathedral that Saturday morning. His homily centered entirely on the life of St. Katharine Drexel, and he used her encounter with Pope Leo XIII as a recurring challenge.
In honor of today’s feast, excerpts of this homily are reprinted here:
HEN [Mother Katharine] spoke to Pope Leo XIII of the needs of the missions, the Pope—he was a very wise Pope!—asked her pointedly: “What about you? What are you going to do?” Those words changed Katharine’s life, because they reminded her that, in the end, every Christian man and woman, by virtue of baptism, has received a mission. Each one of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the Church.
“What about you?” I would like to dwell on two aspects of these words in the context of our specific mission to transmit the joy of the Gospel and to build up the Church, whether as priests, deacons, or men and women who belong to institutes of consecrated life.
First, those words—“What about you?”—were addressed to a young person, a young woman with high ideals, and they changed her life. They made her think of the immense work that had to be done, and to realize that she was being called to do her part. How many young people in our parishes and schools have the same high ideals, generosity of spirit, and love for Christ and the Church! I ask you: Do we challenge them? Do we make space for them and help them to do their part? To find ways of sharing their enthusiasm and gifts with our communities, above all in works of mercy and concern for others? Do we share our own joy and enthusiasm in serving the Lord?
One of the great challenges facing the Church in this generation is to foster in all the faithful a sense of personal responsibility for the Church’s mission, and to enable them to fulfill that responsibility as missionary disciples, as a leaven of the Gospel in our world.
[ . . . ]
“What about you?” It is significant that these words of the elderly Pope were also addressed to a lay woman. We know that the future of the Church in a rapidly changing society will call, and even now calls, for a much more active engagement on the part of the laity. The Church in the United States has always devoted immense effort to the work of catechesis and education. Our challenge today is to build on those solid foundations and to foster a sense of collaboration and shared responsibility in planning for the future of our parishes and institutions. This does not mean relinquishing the spiritual authority with which we have been entrusted; rather, it means discerning and employing wisely the manifold gifts which the Spirit pours out upon the Church. In a particular way, it means valuing the immense contribution which women, lay and religious, have made and continue to make, in the life of our communities.
Dear brothers and sisters, I thank you for the way in which each of you has answered Jesus’ question which inspired your own vocation: “What about you?” I encourage you to be renewed in the joy and wonder of that first encounter with Jesus, and to draw from that joy renewed fidelity and strength. 1
HE CATHEDRAL Basilica in Philadelphia will be the site of the 29th annual Sacred Music Colloquium, sponsored by the CMAA (registration open here). In addition to a week of “musical heaven,” participants will have the opportunity to pray at the tomb of St. Katharine Drexel.
May the example of this saintly woman inspire us to recognize and to love the Lord’s presence more deeply, both in the Most Blessed Sacrament and in our brothers and sisters.
It is the Sacrament of love, the supreme love, the act of love.
— Saint Katharine Drexel (1858-1955)
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Reprinted from the Vatican website.