Emulate Nicholas Black Elk as a model of faith

There are a lot of great things happening in our diocese. I see many ways that we are moving from having simply a culture of maintenance to developing a culture of mission in our parishes. The more we embrace our diocesan priority plan together, the more we will see the abundant fruit of living as missionary disciples.

To lay it before us again, our Sacred Mission as a diocese is: “We, the Diocese of Rapid City, through the power of the Holy Spirit, are called to attract and form intentional disciples who joyfully, boldly and lovingly proclaim and live the mission of Jesus Christ leading to eternal life.” We are called to keep before us our vision statement as well: “Reconcile — Make Disciples — Live the Mission.”

As I reflect on our mission and vision statements for the diocese, I cannot help but think about Nicholas William Black Elk Sr., who was a Lakota catechist in our diocese. I was excited to read in last month’s West River Catholic that Bishop Robert Gruss will be offering a Mass as he opens the cause for sainthood of Nicholas Black Elk, on at Saturday, Oct. 21, 4 p.m., in Holy Rosary Church, Pine Ridge, on the campus of the Red Cloud Indian School.

This Mass is for everyone in our diocese and not just for the Native American community. As the cause for Black Elk’s sainthood is being formally opened, I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”

This is great news for all the people of our diocese. We should be inspired by the story of Nicolas Black Elk who, after converting to Catholicism, spent his time building up the local church. As I read the story of Black Elk, I see our diocesan mission statement and vision statement come to life. I also see Black Elk as a faithful steward who lived stewardship as a way of life.

They say Black Elk watched and studied the Christian faith which grew out of his curiosity for Christianity. The life of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, who was canonized a saint by Pope Benedict the XIV, on Oct. 21, 2012, was a particular inspiration to him. In 1885, he signed the petition supporting her cause for canonization.

In 1904, he met a Jesuit priest who invited him to study Christianity at Holy Rosary Mission near Pine Ridge. I see in this the first lens of our stewardship initiative — generous hospitality: invitation, welcome and fellowship. There is nothing like a personal invitation. This personal invitation by this priest opened the door for Nicholas Black Elk to begin to understand the way of Christ, and on the Feast of St. Nicholas, Dec. 6, 1904, he was baptized.

In 1907, he was appointed as a catechist because of his love for Christ, his enthusiasm and an excellent memory for learning Scripture and Catholic teachings. Deacon Marlon Leneaugh describes Nicholas Black Elk as one might describe St. Paul: “He traveled widely to various reservations; preaching, sharing stories and teaching the Catholic faith with his ‘Two Roads Model’ of the catechism (the black road and the red road — the black road representing evil and the red road representing good).”

Black Elk’s two roads reminds me of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s teaching in the Spiritual Exercises on the meditation of the two standards (flags). As disciples, we are called to choose where we are going to stand — with Jesus or with the world. No matter what life the Spirit has drawn us to, once we are baptized and confirmed, we are called to stand in Jesus’ company under his flag, under his standard.

Deacon Marlon continues: “Black Elk’s mission was to build the faith among his people and to strengthen the relationships between native and non-native people. He did this by promoting his culture as he worked in the Black Hills and by promoting the message of Jesus Christ as love, peace and harmony that was revealed to him at an early age in the vision.”

His mission reminds me of our mission: to Reconcile — Make Disciples — Live the Mission. Today we continue his legacy when we call forth the power of the Holy Spirit to bring a new Pentecost among us as God’s people, native and non-native, working together as the Body of Christ.

Nicholas Black Elk also came to mind as I read the book “Return: How to Draw Your Child Back to the Church” by Brandon Vogt. In chapter six, Vogt talks about the importance of learning to equip ourselves in the faith. That was very much part of Black Elk’s conversion as he watched and studied the Catholic faith.

This, too, is at the heart of our stewardship initiative (lively faith: prayer, study and formation). Vogt contends that it is important that we equip ourselves, learning our faith through the study of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Bible, but we also need to know our testimony and be willing to give it.

Nicholas Black Elk equipped himself to know the Catholic faith and to live it in the context of being Lakota. He also inspired others to live Christ by his own story.

This opening of the cause for sainthood inspires us to continue to equip ourselves with a solid understanding of the teachings of our faith and in the giving of our testimony to what Christ is doing in our lives.

After Oct. 21 Nicholas Black Elk will be called Servant of God. His consistent faith as a catechist and his teaching in joyfully living the Catholic way of life has become a beacon for all of us in our diocese and for the church as a whole. May he model for us a way of walking on the road with Christ, leading us to reconciliation and peace among all God’s people.

 

Young Black Elk photo from Marquette University Archives