This past week, the Catholic Church celebrated the feast day of one of her cherished daughters, Saint Katharine Drexel. She was a woman on a Gospel mission. It seemed nothing could stop her, not even a heart attack later in life that would have debilitated most other people.
By all accounts, Katharine Drexel was a dynamic and zealous apostle to the peripheries in the United States. She never met a stranger, and she never considered anyone a foreigner to her heart.
St. Katharine was born in 1858 to wealthy parents who were of deep faith and generosity. She was raised by her stepmother, who taught Katharine the importance of compassion and kindness. As a young woman, she cared for her beloved stepmother through a three-year terminal illness.
Through this experience, along with her reading and travels, Katharine came to see and understand the plight of many people, especially those with no voice or advocate. She sought a remedy and a source of help to people in their struggles.
Like many people today, Katharine wanted someone else to do the work. She offered Pope Leo XIII financial assistance to send missionaries to the African-American and Native American peoples of the United States. The aged pope, however, challenged her to do it. He told Katharine that she should be such a missionary.
Pope Francis recalls the account: “When she 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?’ These 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.”
After some reflection, Katharine accepted the call. As the sole heiress to her late father, Katharine received a sizable inheritance. It was approximately $20 million at the time, which would measure in excess of $200 million today. Katharine was one of the wealthiest people in the United States and could have done anything she wanted.
She chose to go to the peripheries. She donated her entire inheritance to the care and help of those in poverty and need. In addition, she founded the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891, and stressed the importance of prayer and the holy Eucharist in the efforts to serve and assist those in need.
The saint traveled extensively throughout the United States and labored with love to change societal views of discrimination and to empower those in the peripheries.
By 1942, she saw the establishment of 40 mission centers, 23 rural schools, 50 Native American centers, and the creation of Xavier University in New Orleans, which was the first university for African-Americans in the United States. Incidentally, Mother Drexel was the founding president of the university in 1915, which made her a university president before women had the legal right to vote in the United States.
Mother Drexel believed in the dignity of each human person, and saw all people as children of God. She lovingly sought to be an instrument of peace: to combat racism, enlighten ignorance, expose violence and heal poverty. She frequently told the sisters, “We must attract with joy.”
At age 77, Mother Drexel suffered a serious heart attack. For almost 20 years afterward, her health forced her to live a quiet life of prayer and counsel. She would not surrender to self-pity or envy. She would admonish and encourage the sisters of her Order to continue the work in the peripheries and among those who were suffering or in need. In 1955, at the age of 96, Mother Drexel passed from this life to the next.
In recalling her life, Pope Francis reminds us all: “Each of us has to respond, as best we can, to the Lord’s call to build up his Body, the Church, ‘What about you?’”
Pope Francis continues by observing: “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.”
The pope’s reflections are born from the life of a young woman who wants others to do the work of the Gospel. She wanted to support others who would serve those on the peripheries and in dire need. And yet, to this young disciple, the call was given: “What about you?”
In his teachings, the pope pays the challenge forward and – imitating Pope Leo XIII before him – says boldly to each of us: Now, you! Yes, you! What about you?!