March 3, 2023

Christ the Cornerstone

Follow St. Katharine Drexel and shine with the light of Christ

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light” (Mt 17:1-2).

Today, March 3, is the memorial of St. Katharine Drexel, who was born in Philadelphia in 1858. Katharine was a tireless missionary who established schools and who dedicated herself to the poor, especially minorities. She spent the final years of her life in retirement, dedicating herself exclusively to the ministry of prayer.

A favorite saying of St. Katharine Drexel is, “My God! How much light can be wasted when the darkness does not comprehend it!” She saw the light of Christ in everything and everyone, and she grieved that it seemed to be wasted on those—Christians and non-Christians—who live in spiritual darkness.

St. Katherine died in 1955, but what a century preceded her! This is the period that saw the flourishing of women’s religious communities founded by Katherine Drexel, Rose Philippine Duchesne, Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, Anne-Therese Guérin and others.

These undaunted women and their sisters established hundreds of schools, orphanages and hospitals. They educated and inspired thousands of poor children in big East Coast cities, in the rural communities of the Midwest, West and South, and in South America. They were advocates for justice and the liberating power of education. And they were wholly devoted to prayer and the sacramental life of the Church, especially the holy Eucharist.

Katherine Drexel was born into wealth and high society. But she was also taught to care for the poor and to take seriously the gift of faith. As a result, she freely decided to renounce her wealth to use it exclusively for the benefit of the poor.

Even when she founded her religious order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, she insisted that none of her personal wealth should be used to support the sisters. They were to support themselves so that all of her inheritance could be used to care for poor people, especially in the African American and Native American communities.

All saints shine with light of Christ—each in her or his own way. Among many other things, Katherine Drexel was a stewardship saint. She recognized that her possessions were not something to be hoarded or wasted. They were a gift from God to be cultivated and shared for the good of others.

This “stewardship perspective” was not shared by everyone—any more than her views on service to poor minorities were embraced by everyone. She was opposed by the Ku Klux Klan in the South and by those who hated or feared Native Americans in the Midwest.

Katharine Drexel was responsible for establishing the first Catholic African American college, Xavier University in New Orleans. She opened schools for Blacks in 15 states and missions for Native Americans in 16 states. One of the schools she opened was burned to the ground by segregationists. When her sisters told her that they were mocked and scorned by those who opposed their work, she asked, “Did you pray for them?”

In spite of their differences, every saint has in common a rich prayer life and a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. The same could be said of holy women closer to our own time like St. Teresa of Calcutta and Dorothy Day, who humbly asked that she not be called a saint, but who certainly reflected the light of Christ in all she did. What unites these amazing women is their love for Jesus which expresses itself in their devotion to the poor and in their fervent prayer and worship.

Have you ever told yourself you were too busy to pray? Ask yourself how Katherine Drexel managed to find the time to pray while traveling, opening schools and ministering to the needs of minorities. Are we busier than she was? Is our time more precious than hers?

St. Katherine was a good steward of her time. She used it wisely, dedicating a proportionate share of all her gifts to prayerful mediation on God’s word and to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Katherine decided early in life not to waste her time, her talent or her money. She gave it all back to God through loving service to those who needed it most. She was determined to be a steward of the light of Christ, sharing it generously with everyone, especially the poor.

As we continue our Lenten journey and prepare for the brilliant light of Christ’s resurrection, may we be inspired by St. Katharine’s example. Like her, may we share all God’s gifts and be generous stewards of the light of Christ! †

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