Gabriel Ayala, a Tucson resident and Native American Artist of the Year, will be in Rome this weekend when the Vatican elevates a 17th-century indigenous American woman to sainthood.

Ayala, a guitarist and member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe of Arizona, will be part of a contingent from the Kateri Center of Chicago making the pilgrimage to Rome for the canonization of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. The Kateri Center is a ministry of the Archdiocese of Chicago and serves American Indian Catholics.

The group will have a general audience with Pope Benedict XVI on Saturday, confirmed Michael Renszler, the center's administrative assistant and catechist.

"What an honor. It is like meeting the Dalai Lama," said Ayala.

Since the group has a general audience with the pope and not a private one, Renszler said he's not certain whether Ayala will be allowed to play for the pontiff. If he is allowed to play, Ayala says he will play something from his "Shades of Blue" album, likely "Inhaipsi," which means "My heart."

Ayala has been on the Kateri Center's radar since doing a benefit performance in Chicago earlier this year. He was asked to arrange a song that one of the center's community members wrote.

Ayala, who won artist of the year at the 2011 Native American Music Awards, is harmonizing the song for a chorus of voices, plus guitar and Native American flute. He expects it to be recorded in the spring.

Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha was a Mohawk Indian orphan from what is now New York state who converted to Catholicism. Since her death at age 24, she has earned a reputation as a miracle healer among Catholics who have prayed to her.

Ayala has played at venues including the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the National Museum for the American Indian. This week, he says, he received an invitation to perform at the presidential inaugural ball in January. And it doesn't matter who wins. He'll be performing either way.

Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at or 573-4134.