Catherine of Sienna: Saint for Our Day?

The holy virgin Catherine steadfastly begged the Lord to restore peace to his holy Church, alleluia. (Roman Breviary Lauds, Canticle Antiphon)

St. Catherine of Siena may well be the great saint for our day. I can think of others, such as St. Thomas More and St. Therese of Lisieux who are very important, but Saint Catherine remains right the top of my list. There are just so many things about her life that seem to fit right into our present situation as Christians living in a troubled world and in a troubled church. Obviously her circumstances were significantly different in terms of the actual concrete circumstances in which she carried out her mission from Christ, but there are a lot of similarities in a broader sense.

Saint Catherine was truly an extraordinary individual. She was the 24th child born to her parents who were middle-class citizens of the city of Siena. She was a deeply religious person from her childhood, and she clearly committed herself very early to giving herself entirely to Christ and serving Him in this world. She could’ve done this in many ways; she could have fulfilled this commitment by acceding to her parents firm desire that she should follow the normal course of marrying and raising a family. But Catherine chose a different path and decided to follow her Divine Master as one of his virgin brides. And here again, she chose her own unique path and decided not to do this as a nun in a cloistered convent, but as a consecrated virgin living in the world. Indeed, when she tried to live a kind of hermit’s existence in her own home, the Lord Himself told her that he wanted her rather to work in the world for his purposes. So here is my first ground for seeing Catherine as a perfect saint for our day: that she chose the path of what we today would call a consecrated virgin living in the world. She became a member of the Dominican Third Order, and lived out her life as a layperson consecrated to Christ.

From the time she left her home, Catherine led a very busy life in ways that are really surprising for a woman in her day. She becomes a kind of ambassador at large for peace and reconciliation, sometimes doing this on her own initiative and others at the urging of the Pope, or other church or civil leaders. She worked tirelessly, both in person and by correspondence, to reconcile warring political entities in her beloved homeland, especially working to reconcile the city state of Florence with the Papal States. The world she lived in was truly chaotic, not unlike our own much larger world. And Catherine also prayed tirelessly that the killing would stop and that true reconciliation would follow. Eventually her prayers and her efforts were rewarded. Peace and reconciliation were achieved, at least for a time.

Catherine also was an ambassador at large for the unification of the Church. For many decades, the Church was caught up in the turmoil of ecclesial and Royal politics. The papacy had been operating from Avignon in France since 1307, and in the 1370s Catherine began a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, encouraging him to bring the papacy back to Italy for the sake of both political and ecclesial unity and peace. In 1376 Catherine actually visited Gregory in Avignon as an ambassador from Florence. Her political efforts fell flat, but her efforts to restore the Rome papacy seems to have had a much better result. In 1777, Pope Gregory returned to Rome, which was a great historical event for the Catholic Church, even if one negative side effect was the beginning of the great schism in the Western church in 1788. Nonetheless, this return of Gregory reestablished the papacy in Rome, and Catherine played no small part in that victory.

Meanwhile, during all this hectic business of church and state, Catherine also maintained a very serious prayer life and a most interesting little study group which she directed in Siena, a group which contained dedicated theologians and others. In this way too, Catherine is a saint for our time. She understood that no real progress can be made in either the secular arena or the Church itself which is not grounded in prayer and learning. In this too, she is a model for every lay apostle today who wants to make a real difference in the world and in the Church. There simply is no other way.

We live in a world that is truly in need of many St. Catherines. Today the political chaos no longer involves small city states but the world at large. Unending war and violence seems to be the sign of our times. And we have even more serious problems because the states and countries that we live in as Christians have embraced a godless ideology, a secularism without God, and it has led to many monstrous evils as a result. We are witnessing literally the disintegration of Western civilization which is dying because it has abandoned God and His moral law. Most of the nations in this world today have embraced great evils like abortion and contraception, bot of which effectively deny that God is the author of life. More and more evils follow from these two.

Likewise, more and more nations are now rejecting the divine institution of marriage by effectively redefining marriage and its essential properties. Legislatures and courts that embrace easy divorce and that allow homosexual unions to have the legal standing of a true marriage are signing the death warrant for their cultures and their societies. You cannot reject and insult the Creator without terribly harming his creation.

Likewise, we live today in a Church that is seriously divided. It’s true that we have no Avignon papacy, and it’s also true that the divisions in the Christian world have now been around for a millennium. But until relatively recently, the divisions that existed between Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox or Protestants did not entail a radical breakdown of Christian moral teaching. Today, even within the Roman Catholic Church there are serious divides that can no longer be treated as if they were minor and of little significance. Pope John Paul II laid out all of this in his teaching in Veritatis splendor and Evangelium vitae. Today we have great numbers of individuals and even movements who identify themselves as Catholics, all the while proposing radical departures from Catholic moral teaching and even the discipline of the sacraments.

But I think St. Catherine would find yourself right at home in the 21st century, that she would recognize many of the divisions of her own day only on a larger scale. But I think she would also be shocked by the dissent on Church teaching and Church discipline that exists within the Church herself. She was spared that in her day. Still, I’m fully confident that Catherine would readily embrace the challenges of this new world and work and pray to overcome these divisions and restore the unity and peace of the Church, and of society itself. But she would do it her way, which is to say that she would do it only with the support of an intense prayer life and an ever greater effort at learning. That’s the only way to do it, but unfortunately this approach did not take hold after Vatican II. That’s why she’s truly the saint for our day.

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Categories: Weekday reflections

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