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Standing Athwart History — and Sin — Yelling Stop: St. Katharine Drexel, National Review, and the Year 1955

A tapestry of St. Katharine Drexel hangs up on St. Peter’s facade during a canonization ceremony held by Pope John Paul II, October 1, 2000. (Reuters)

Today is what I consider a National Review feast day, for perhaps an odd reason. It’s the feast of St. Katharine Drexel, whose earthly remains are at the Cathedral in Philadelphia. She was an East Coast saint who died the year NR was founded — 1955. So I feel like part of the mission of NR is to carry on in her spirit. Or have her as an intercessor, or both.

She famously went to Pope Leo XIII and said someone needed to help run black and Indian missions. He responded: “What about you?” I think that’s just about the most important message. We live at a time when we’re good at complaining. We know what’s wrong. Let’s do something. And I don’t mean one should be more strident on social media, but live the Beatitudes. WFB was a fan of them, and so I don’t think my NR feast-day thought is outlandish. I think of her often when I’m working on National Review Institute things at our Center for Religion, Culture, and Civil Society there.

I wrote a few years ago about how she stalks me in the best of ways.

She was canonized by John Paul II in 2000, along with 122 other people. She still got three paragraphs in his homily:

“See what you have stored up for yourselves against the last days!” (Jas 5: 3).

In the second reading of today’s liturgy, the Apostle James rebukes the rich who trust in their wealth and treat the poor unjustly. Mother Katharine Drexel was born into wealth in Philadelphia in the United States. But from her parents she learned that her family’s possessions were not for them alone but were meant to be shared with the less fortunate. As a young woman, she was deeply distressed by the poverty and hopeless conditions endured by many Native Americans and Afro-Americans. She began to devote her fortune to missionary and educational work among the poorest members of society. Later, she understood that more was needed. With great courage and confidence in God’s grace, she chose to give not just her fortune but her whole life totally to the Lord.

To her religious community, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she taught a spirituality based on prayerful union with the Eucharistic Lord and zealous service of the poor and the victims of racial discrimination. Her apostolate helped to bring about a growing awareness of the need to combat all forms of racism through education and social services. Katharine Drexel is an excellent example of that practical charity and generous solidarity with the less fortunate which has long been the distinguishing mark of American Catholics.

May her example help young people in particular to appreciate that no greater treasure can be found in this world than in following Christ with an undivided heart and in using generously the gifts we have received for the service of others and for the building of a more just and fraternal world.

For the Christians among us who are on the journey of Lent, here’s a little help from her writings:

It is a lesson we all need — to let alone the things that do not concern us. He has other ways for others to follow him; all do not go by the same path. It is for each of us to learn the path by which he requires us to follow him, and to follow him in that path. Let us remember our Master’s injunction, and we shall be saved from many pitfalls: “What is it to you? You follow me” (Jn 21:22).

I love to think how small the little foot of Our Lord was on that first Christmas. A little foot does not make big strides; it can only take little steps. In imitating the Divine Babe, let us place ours in his footsteps. Then we shall, with God’s grace, grow into the bigger footsteps and make greater strides. If we are faithful in little, we will obtain grace for the big.

All holiness consists of participating in the holiness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

(From the book 15 Days of Prayer with Saint Katherine Drexel.)

Blessed feast!

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