VATICAN CITY - Some 80,000 pilgrims in flowered lei, feathered headdresses and other traditional garb flooded St. Peter's Square on Sunday as Pope Benedict XVI added seven more saints onto the roster of Catholic role models in a bid to reinvigorate the faith in parts of the world where it's lagging.
Two of the new saints were Americans from upstate New York: Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American saint from the U.S., and Mother Marianne Cope, a 19th century Franciscan nun who cared for leprosy patients in Hawaii.
It seemed as if a third saint, Pedro Calungsod, a 17th century Filipino teenage martyr, drew the biggest crowd of all, with Rome's sizeable Filipino expat community turning out in flag-waving droves to welcome the country's second saint.
Native Indians from Quebec, Canada, hold an image of Kateri Tekakwitha as they wait for the start of a canonization ceremony celebrated in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Sunday.
(AP photo — Andrew Medichini)
Members of the faithful attend a Mass celebrating the life of Kateri Tekakwitha on the Kahnawake reserve near Montreal Sunday.
(AP photo — Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press)
In his homily, Benedict praised each of the seven as heroic and courageous examples for the entire church, calling Cope a "shining" model for Catholics and Kateri an inspiration to indigenous faithful across North America.
"May the witness of these new saints ... speak today to the whole church, and may their intercession strengthen and sustain her in her mission to proclaim the Gospel to the whole world," he said.
The celebrations began at dawn, with Native Americans in beaded and feathered headdresses and leather-fringed tunics singing songs to Kateri to the beat of drums as the sun rose over St. Peter's Square.
Later, the crowds cheered as the pope read out the names of each of the new saints in Latin and declared that they were worthy of veneration by the entire church. Prayers were read out in Mohawk and Cebuano, the dialect of Calungsod's native Cebu province, and in English by a nun wearing a lei.
"It's so nice to see God showing all the flavors of the world," marveled Gene Caldwell, a Native American member of the Menominee reservation in Neopit, Wisconsin, who attended with his wife, Linda. "The Native Americans are enthralled" to have Kateri canonized, he said.
The canonization coincided with a Vatican meeting of the world's bishops on trying to revive Christianity in places where it's fallen by the wayside.
Several of the new saints were missionaries, making clear the pope hopes their example - even though they lived hundreds of years ago - will be relevant today as the Catholic Church tries to hold on to its faithful. It's a tough task as the Vatican faces competition from evangelical churches in Africa and Latin America, increasing secularization in the West and disenchantment due to the clerical sex abuse scandal in Europe and beyond.
The two American saints actually hail from roughly the same place - what is today upstate New York - although they lived two centuries apart.
Known as the "Lily of the Mohawks," Kateri was born in 1656 to a pagan Iroquois father and an Algonquin Christian mother. Her parents and only brother died when she was 4 during a smallpox epidemic that left her badly scarred and with impaired eyesight. She went to live with her uncle, a Mohawk, and was baptized Catholic by Jesuit missionaries. But she was ostracized and persecuted by other natives for her faith, and she died in what is now Canada when she was 24.
Speaking in English and French, in honor of Kateri's Canadian ties, Benedict noted how unusual it was in Kateri's indigenous culture for her to choose to devote herself to her Catholic faith.
"May her example help us to live where we are, loving Jesus without denying who we are," Benedict said. "Saint Kateri, protectress of Canada and the first Native American saint, we entrust you to the renewal of the faith in the first nations and in all of North America!"
Among the few people chosen to receive Communion from the pope himself was Jake Finkbonner, a 12-year-old boy of Native American descent from the western U.S. state of Washington, whose recovery from an infection of flesh-eating bacteria was deemed "miraculous" by the Vatican. The Vatican determined that Jake was cured through Kateri's intercession after his family and community invoked her in their prayers, paving the way for her canonization.
Cope is revered among many Catholics in Hawaii, where she arrived from New York in 1883 to care for leprosy patients on Kalaupapa, an isolated peninsula on Molokai Island where Hawaii governments forcibly exiled them for decades. At the time, there was widespread fear of the disfiguring disease, which can cause skin lesions, mangled fingers and toes and lead to blindness.
Cope, however, led a band of Franciscan nuns to the peninsula to care for the patients, just as Saint Damien, a Belgian priest, did in 1873. He died of the disease 16 years later and was canonized in 2009.
"At a time when little could be done for those suffering from this terrible disease, Marianne Cope showed the highest love, courage and enthusiasm," Benedict said in his homily. "She is a shining and energetic example of the best of the tradition of Catholic nursing sisters and of the spirit of her beloved St. Francis."
Two-hundred fifty pilgrims from Hawaii traveled to Rome for Mother Marianne's canonization, including nine Kalaupapa patients, as well as faithful from the local diocese.
"Marianne Cope means a great deal to us," said pilgrim Aida Javier, who traveled from Honolulu with her husband Romy for the Mass. "My husband and I feel blessed and honored to be part of this canonization."
Another pilgrim was Sharon Smith, of Syracuse, New York, whose 2005 cure from complications from pancreatitis, an inflammation of the pancreas, was declared medically inexplicable by the Vatican - the "miracle" needed for Mother Marianne to be named a saint. In an interview last week, Smith recounted how she had fainted one day in her home, an allergic reaction to medication she was taking for a kidney transplant, and awoke in the hospital to find that doctors weren't giving her much time to live.
Her disease was eating away at her insides, causing her stomach to detach from her intestines. Doctors said they couldn't repair it. At a certain point, a nun pinned a bag of ashes and dirt from Mother Marianne's grave on her and prayed.
"I had never heard of her, but we continued to pray," Smith said. "And I just, I started getting better."
"I believe in miracles, but I don't know whether it was all the prayers, or the pinning of the relic, but I know that something worked, and I'm here for some reason," Smith said.