Nicholas Black Elk, Catechist: cause for canonization opened

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At their annual meeting, the USCCB voted to open the cause for canonization for Nicholas Black Elk, a Lakotan medicine-man whose conversion led him to actively pursue a role as a Catholic catechist to Native Americans. He is credited with having more than 400 people brought to baptism. Read a short summary of his life here.

Bishop Robert Barron, the committee chair for the evangelization and catechesis office of the USCCB recently reported on the import for catechists.

Bishop Barron writes:

Black Elk, after his conversion, eagerly took up the task of catechesis within his community. Due to his impressive memory and acute mind, he was able to convey the complexities of the Bible and Church teaching to his fellow Lakotans who had embraced the faith. And very much in line with the Catholic conviction that grace builds on and perfects nature, Black Elk endeavored to incorporate his mystical sensibility and healing power into the fuller context of his Catholicism. It was his holiness and prayerful connection to God, even more than his learning, that brought his people closer to Christ.

My prayer is that, if the cause of Black Elk moves forward, we might one day invoke him as a real icon for catechists in the Catholic Church. There is an army of volunteers across our country who give generously of their time to pass on the faith to our young people, but I wonder how many of these laborers in the vineyard of the Lord truly realize the sacredness of their task. Without good catechists, more and more of our young people will fall into secularism and indifferentism. And as these unaffiliated in ever greater numbers come of age, our society will be adversely affected, for Christian ideas and values will be less and less at play.

So what can catechists today take from the example of Nicholas Black Elk? First, they can commit themselves to the assiduous study of the faith. As I have argued before, huge numbers of the young identify intellectual problems and questions as the reasons they are leaving the faith: religion in relation to science, the existence of God, the objectivity of moral values, etc. Without smart catechists, the kids abandon the faith. It’s as blunt and as simple as that.

Secondly, [catechists] can see their work as a true vocation, a sacred calling, a mystical obligation. As Pope Paul VI put it so memorably, men and women of today listen to witnesses more than to teachers, and to teachers in the measure that they are also witnesses. Or as the cliché has it: the faith is caught more than taught.

[Read all of Bishop Barron’s article here.]

Related Resources on Nicholas Black Elk:

Catholic News Service: “Sainthood cause of Lakota catechist moves forward”

USCCB: Bishops Approve Canonical Step for Sainthood Cause for Lakota Catechist

American Magazine: “Black Elk, the Lakora medicine man turned Catholic teacher, is promoted for sainthood”

Encyclopedia of the Great Plains: Nicholas Black Elk (1866-1950)



Photo credit: Public Domain. Nicholas Black Elk, daughter Lucy Black Elk and wife Anna Brings White, photographed in their home in Manderson, South Dakota, ca 1910. (Source: The Sixth Grandfather, edited by Raymond DeMallie p. 260)


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