A couple living on the Tuscarora Reservation in Niagara County had the experience of meeting Pope Francis at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia last September. They also had the opportunity to testify at the Festival of Families about raising a Catholic family and representing the entirety of North America before a large crowd of Catholics from around the world.
Rudy and Leona Gonzales live in Sanborn and have regularly attended the Tekakwitha Conference, which supports and affirms the ministry and faith for Native Americans. It is named in honor of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the 17th-century Mohawk woman who converted to Catholicism at 19 years old.
The Gonzaleses consider themselves fortunate enough to have been able to attend her canonization in Rome, and it was through their conference attendance that they were able to go to Philadelphia last year.
The Gonzaleses belong to the Holy Family Parish on the Tuscarora Reservation. Rudy Gonzales is a member of the Knights of Columbus and a past grand knight from the Our Lady of Fatima Shrine Council in Lewiston. At the Tekakwitha Conference, which last year took place in Louisiana, the couple was honored by the Black and Indian Mission of Washington, D.C.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., of Philadelphia, selected the Gonzaleses to take part in the World Meeting of Families. They met Pope Francis on Sept. 26, and stood with five other families from six continents, all of whom gave their testimony about what it meant to raise their children as Catholic.
The testimony the Gonzaleses gave included their life story of Rudy growing up in Chicago and Leona growing up on the Tuscarora reservation in Niagara County. The two met in Arizona, where they raised their five children, while they were working in the local school system. Two of their daughters, Francesca Clause and Carmelita Gonzales, also attended the Festival of Families, as did a grandson and a great-granddaughter. After the families read their testimony, each of them met the pope, who distributed rosaries.
Leona Gonzales said after the experience, she considered how special it was to be able to see Pope Francis in the flesh. In the process, she gave the pope a token of her heritage.
"I gave him an eagle feather, telling him that among Native Americans, an eagle feather was given to a brave warrior, and that he was a brave warrior for Holy Mother Church," Leona said. "He took it, held it to himself and said, 'For me? For me?' It was such a feeling of gratitude, on our part, that we had that opportunity to be there, and being able to give him a gift."
Leona said that while it took a great deal of planning to get her family together and make arrangements to be at the World Meeting of Families, the excitement built as they knew they would be meeting the pope.
"This isn't something you just go and do every weekend," Leona said. "Three years ago, we went to the canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha. We were able to see Pope Benedict, but from a distance, not right up close and shaking his hand like we did with Pope Francis."