My hometown parish in Great Falls, Virginia is named for Saint Catherine of Siena. In the narthex of that parish, one of the former pastors commissioned four stained glass images of our patron. The first depicts Saint Catherine caring for a plague victim. The second Saint Catherine rapt in ecstasy, dictating her dialogues. The third her travels to Avignon to plead with the Holy Father to return home to Rome. The forth her mystical marriage with Christ.
Catherine lived thirty-three years. She was the twenty-fifth child in her family. A single woman, who never married, never learned to read or write, Catherine had a zeal that, in her words, urged her to set the world ablaze for Christ.
The Plague Victims
I get chills every time I imagine Saint Catherine attending to victims of plague. Sure, today the y.pestis bacteria is easily combated with antibiotics. But in Catherine’s day the bubonic plague wiped out whole cities. And it devastated Europe repeatedly over centuries. The disease was ruthless, contagious, and efficient. Some people awoke early in the morning fine and by evening succumbed to septic shock.
Saint Catherine dove right into helping the sick, caring for them day and night. The image at my parish shows Saint Catherine tending a fevered sufferer. The victim and Catherine are both in prayer, with the victim’s arms out in the form of a cross. The suffering depicted is redemptive. That is, while caring for the sick aims to comfort suffering, the encounter itself points to an invisible reality that suffering has some purpose beyond momentary pain.
“Suffering has no meaning” many might say. Saint Catherine reminds us that suffering we endure or we see in others can and should be brought in prayer to Christ. She gives us a pattern to follow that allows us to move beyond the intensity of individual moments and to infuse hope into a situation that feels desperate.
Saint Catherine experienced a number of amazing visions; she even heard the voice of Christ speaking to her. She was functionally illiterate. Nevertheless, she dictated to a fellow Dominican the words she heard from Christ. And for these words she is honored as a Doctor of the Church.
Most amazing of all is that Catherine had nothing to say; all the words she heard were received from Christ. It reminds me that our encounter with Truth is not about “what” but “who”, namely that truth comes from hearing the voice of Christ.
Our society is saturated with opinions and talking heads, who let us know what they think and how we should think. It has its place. But it’s amazing to me that an illiterate woman could think and present with such clarity based merely on what she had received through gift reflected in prayer. If nothing else, Saint Catherine’s example might make us want to spend a little less time on Facebook or Twitter and a few extra minutes in prayer.
The Avignon Papacy
Many Catholics today have angst about Pope Francis. But it’s been worse. Saint Catherine actually experienced two major papal crises in her time. First, the Bishop of Rome lived in France, in the beautiful retreat of Avignon, abandoning daily contact with his flock. Now, the Pope had good reason to do this — Rome was a dump in those days and unsafe. The center of political influence was really among the Frankish and Germanic princes, not with the Lombards. To add to the papal drama in her time, Catherine lived precisely at the time of two, then three popes. And one of them wasn’t retired.
Despite these difficulties, the Holy Father was still Saint Catherine’s “sweet Christ on earth.” Those are words of love, from a daughter for a spiritual father. I don’t think that was easy, and given how Catherine poured out her life for suffering souls, I’m not sure she would have had much sympathy for a comfortable prelate. And yet, she loved him. Consider how easily we magnify the flaws of our current “sweet Christs on earth” — one who’s resigned and the other who is often misunderstood (or at least misrepresented) — to love the Holy Father as Saint Catherine did is a display of heroic virtue.
The Mystical Marriage
The final window showing her mystical marriage challenges my faith. Often times when I hear stories of saints, I wonder, “did this really happen or is it legend?” Saint Catherine, although a Dominican, was a third order member. This means that she was not a religious sister. We often say that women, on the day when they take their final, solemn profession of religious life, celebrate their wedding. Catherine had not made this commitment of religious profession.
But Christ, nevertheless in a vision, placed a ring on Saint Catherine’s finger, and took her for His bride. This image really only works if we remember that Christ is king, and He has been handed over all of creation by His Father in order to redeem it and present creation back to Him at the end of time. “Catherine, you are mine” — if Christ claims Catherine in marriage it is a certainty He will not abandon her and He will do all in His power to ensure her eternal salvation.
This final image is a reminder that redemption is a gift. And for as much as we must work out our own salvation, it really is God’s commitment to us, until our last dying breath, that will bring about our salvation, as a freely given and unmerited gift. Catherine’s mystical marriage was unmerited. It is a rebuke to the Pelagians and Donatists of her time and of ours, who constantly burden our conscience in order to earn salvation, instead of to prepare ourselves to receive Christ’s grace as gift.
A Saint for Our Times
Saint Catherine is a saint for our times. Her witness speaks directly to the challenges we face. Maybe it is because Siena was, in her day, cosmopolitan, growing, and aspiring to challenge the dominance of neighboring Florence. The concerns and insecurities of her times line up with our own. Her witness provides us with an example that is worth pondering and imitating.