ROME — The seventh-grader whose recovery from a deadly bacterial infection was deemed a miracle by the Roman Catholic Church, cementing the decision to name the first Native American saint, doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it at his parochial school in Bellingham, Wash.
At recess, “We mostly just play,” Jake Finkbonner told reporters Thursday in Rome. He and his schoolmates have talked about it “a few times, but not really” a lot. And he doesn’t feel “special” — “not really, I don’t” — even though he’s caught up in the midst of a great event.
Today, Pope Benedict XVI will canonize Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk Indian who lived in the 17th century, at a ceremony in St. Peter’s Square that is expected to draw more than 2,000 Native Americans from the United States and Canada. Jake’s recovery from necrotizing fasciitis, a rare, flesh-eating disease, was declared the key miracle in the church’s decision to canonize her.
Jake wears glasses and braces. The disease disfigured his mouth, and to defeat it, and to restore his face, he had to go through 29 operations in Seattle, some lasting up to 16 hours. There will be more.
“I had them put off the surgery for a while, because I just got my braces off quite recently,” he said. “If I had any surgeries done I wouldn’t be able to eat or talk very well.” But, he added, “we may go back and do one or two more.”
In his first two days in Rome, Jake served as altar boy at Masses celebrated by J. Peter Sartain, the archbishop of Seattle, at two of Christianity’s most famous churches, St. Paul’s Beyond the Walls and St. John Lateran. It was his first time serving, but he wasn’t flustered. “One feels like something special,” he said. “And I was just glad I could serve with such great priests, and especially the archbishop.”
“Jake is a healthy preteen. He has a great attitude toward this,” said the Rev. Scott Connolly, the parish priest at the Church of the Assumption, where Jake, his parents and his two sisters worship. “He’s not letting it go to his head. He knows this is a gift, a blessing.”
Today, he will bring the bread and wine to the altar and take communion from the pope himself.
The Finkbonners are Lummi Indians and live on a reservation with about 2,000 other Native Americans. Jake says that’s “an advantage. The beach is, like, right across the street.” And he likes “especially the sunsets.”
His father, Donny, 44, is a Lummi, who grew up on a reservation. His mother, Elsa, 41, is the daughter of Mexican-born parents.
“Every fall, Jake and I fish for salmon right off the beach. We were able to catch lots of fish this year and put stuff away in the freezer. And we got to sell a little bit to pay for the smoking we do. That’s part of our heritage,” Donny Finkbonner said.
Jake said he had heard of Kateri, but “we weren’t that familiar.” But he found her an inspiration “because I remember reading that many of the children in her tribe abused her because of her faith, but she continued to praise God. She made her own rosaries. She did everything she could.”
He thinks a miracle happened. “I wouldn’t be here without her.”
The other outcome of the ordeal he went through is that he has decided what he wants to do when he grows up: “a doctor, a plastic surgeon.” His mentor would be the doctor who served as his plastic surgeon in Seattle.