Thursday, April 29, 2010

Feast of St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor and Reformer of the Church

Today, April 29, is the feast day of the great Dominican saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena.  Her amazing life and spirituality has been well documented--beginning during her lifetime .  Catherine Benincasa was born in Siena on Palm Sunday, March 5, 1347, the 23rd of 25 children.  She is the patroness of large families!  At a very young age she began to show signs of her mystical spirituality.  At the age of 5 she would recite a "Hail Mary" for each step she climbed up the staircase of her home, and at age 6 she had the first of many visions:
"So it happened that Catherine, being arrived at the age of six, went one day with her brother Stephen, who was a little older than herself, to the house of their sister Bonaventura, who was married to one Niccol, as has been mentioned above, in order to carry something or give some message from their mother Lapa. Their mother's errand accomplished, while they were on the way back from their sister's house to their own and were passing along a certain valley, called by the people Valle Piatta, the holy child, lifting her eyes, saw on the opposite side above the Church of the Preaching Friars a most beautiful room, adorned with regal magnificence, in which was seated, on an imperial throne, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, clothed in pontifical vestments, and wearing on His head a papal tiara; with Him were the princes of the Apostles, Peter and Paul, and the holy evangelist John. Astounded at such a sight, Catherine stood still, and with fixed and immovable look, gazed, full of love, on her Savior, who, appearing in so marvelous a manner, in order sweetly to gain her love to Himself, fixed on her the eyes of His Majesty, and, with a tender smile, lifted over her His right hand, and, making the sign of the Holy Cross in the manner of a bishop, left with her the gift of His eternal benediction. The grace of this gift was so efficacious, that Catherine, beside herself, and transformed into Him upon whom she gazed with such love, forgetting not only the road she was on, but also herself, although naturally a timid child, stood still for a space with lifted and immovable eyes in the public road, where men and beasts were continually passing, and would certainly have continued to stand there as long as the vision lasted, had she not been violently diverted by others. But while the Lord was working these marvels, the child Stephen, leaving her standing still, continued his way down hill, thinking that she was following, but, seeing her immovable in the distance and paying no heed to his calls, he returned and pulled her with his hands, saying: 'What are you doing here? why do you not come?' Then Catherine, as if waking from a heavy sleep, lowered her eyes and said: 'Oh, if you had seen what I see, you would not distract me from so sweet a vision!' and lifted her eyes again on high; but the vision had entirely disappeared, according to the will of Him who had granted it, and she, not being able to endure this without pain, began with tears to reproach herself for having turned her eyes to earth." Such was the "call" of St. Catherine of Siena, and, to a mind intent on mystical significance, the appearance of Christ, in the semblance of His Vicar, may fitly appear to symbolize the great mission of her after-life to the Holy See.
As one writer put it, "Such was the 'call' of Saint Catherine of Siena ... and the appearance of Christ, in the semblance of His Vicar [the pope], may fitly appear to symbolize the great mission of her later life to the Holy See".  For the pope was not in Rome but in Avignon, France, the so-called "Babylonian Captivity" of the papacy, where for political reasons the papal court had moved -- and Catherine, years later, would attempt to persuade the pope to return to Rome, the See of Peter.  Pope Paul VI remarked at a general audience (April 30, 1969):
We must always remember that it was she, Catherine, who convinced the young French Pope (he was forty) Gregory XI, weak in health and faint-hearted, to leave Avignon, whither the Apostolic See had moved with Pope Clement V, after the sudden death of Benedict XI, and to return in 1376 to Italy, still rent by bitter divisions, to Rome, though it was turbulent and in very bad conditions. And it was Catherine who, immediately after the death of Gregory XI, supported his successor Urban VI in the first critical events of the famous "Western schism", which began with the election of the anti-pope Clement VII.
At age 16 she took the Dominican habit and after three years of visions she experienced the famous vision known as her "mystical marriage to Christ".  Catherine then dedicated herself to the poor, the sick and the conversation of sinners. In the summer of 1370 she received visions of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven and a Divine command to enter the public life of the world.

She began to dictate and write over 400 letters to popes, princes, religious and lay people alike, was consulted by the papal legates about the affairs of the Church, and inserted herself into the most contentious of political affairs of the day.  She implored Pope Gregory XI to reform the notoriously corrupt clergy and the administration of the Papal States. Catherine was not afraid to write in the strongest of terms as this statement to three cardinals supporting the anti-pope:  "what made you do this? You are flowers who shed no perfume, but stench that makes the whole world reek."  Through her influence, the pope left Avignon and returned to Rome.

On the fourth Sunday of Lent in 1375 she received the stigmata, that is, the wounds of Christ.  In about 1378 Catherine composed her "Dialogue", said to have been dictated while she was in ecstasy, a book of meditations and reflections on the Creed and teachings of the Church, and on the sinfulness of man and the mercy of God.  Catherine died April 29, 1380 of a sudden and painful illness.

In 1970 Pope Paul VI proclaimed Saint Catherine of Siena a Doctor of the Church, a title given to certain ecclesiastical writers because of the benefit the whole Church has derived from their teaching and witness.  She was the first woman to get such a distinction, followed by St. Theresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux.

in meditating on the sufferings of Your Son
and in serving your Church,
Saint Catherine was filled with the fervor of Your love.
By her prayers, may we share in the mystery of Christ's death
and rejoice in the revelation of His glory, for He lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.

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