St. Catherine of Siena: A woman with a passion for Christ and His Church

Catherine of SienaWhen birth brings us into the world we are shaped by the world around us and as the time goes on we can shape the world we find ourselves in. But that challenging task impacting a change cannot be an automatic process or something that can come easily; it needs passion and determination to shape the world and the society around us. Shaping involves being a radical, revolutionary, reformer, inspirer and a passionate activist. We all need to be men and women of passion to enact the necessary change that might be in need of—passion meaning a person of enthusiasm, ardent zeal or even being “craze” about something worthwhile for God, humanity and world. This great quality comes from an innovative mind and a heart burning with love for God and people. This pre-eminence made Catherine of Siena to be recognized as one among the only three women saints as the Doctor of the Church.

Catherine Benincasa was born on March 25, 1347 in Siena as the last born of 25 children. Though born in a well to do family she grew up with human and spiritual sensitivity. Her biography notes that she preferred intellectual and spiritual pursuit to vain interests of her family that wanted her to be a beautiful bride fit for their status. As a sign of modesty and renunciation she slashed her beautiful hair. She spent much time in reading, reflecting and prayer which led her to choose an austere monastic life of Dominicans.

We are all aware of terrible scandals in today’s church such as child sexual abuse and economic fraud that has added to the issue of irrelevancy of Christian faith in the face of secularism and the atheistic materialism. But today’s scandals are little in comparison with the terrible turmoil in the Church of Catherine’s time. During her lifetime, the Holy See (the Papal governance) would move to Avignon in France, and, at her urgings, return to Rome where it would continue to compete with an elected anti-pope. There was political and social upheaval caused by Christian kings and emperors who fought for personal gains in material and spiritual spheres. This situation dominated the rest of her life.

A woman only in her 20s was able to create a great impact on the learned and the clergy in hierarchy. Though only a literate who can barely know to read and write she wisely counseled Popes and kings in matters of faith and governance. Her mind and heart always thirsted for wisdom that came from God and heavenly things. She was not moved by earthly glory or political clout but glory that came from God. Her famous quote says it all: “If you would make progress, then, you must be thirsty, because only those who are thirsty are called:  “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink.”

With her succinct Christian sensibility captured the attention of the Pope, Church’s hierarchy and the earthly rulers of the time. She wrote in her mystical writing The Dialogue, “Those who are not thirsty will never persevere in their journey.  Either weariness or pleasure will make them stop. They cannot be bothered with carrying the vessel that would make it possible for them to draw water. And though they cannot travel alone, they do not care for company.  So at the first sight of any prick of persecution they turn back. They are afraid because they are alone.  If they were with the company, they would not be afraid.”

With such wise counsels she could persuade the spiritual and temporal leaders of his time to govern and lead the people of God in godly ways rather than being moved by the love for power and earthly possessions. Her deep love for Jesus, the Crucified Master motivated her to reform the church and challenge the leaders to lead the church and the society in the way of the gospel.  Catherine believed that God the Father himself gave her the mission to reform the church and encouraged to her abide ever His son Jesus more deeply.

Spiritual thirst, desire for God, is the energy that should push us to the Lord as it did in the life of St. Catherine of Siena. It is the work of the Holy Spirit. When we truly thirst for God the Spirit will communicate into our hearts the desire of Jesus. The desire for Jesus will lead us to desire for God’s people and for their good. If we do not feel the thirst for God, we should ask God for it. The fact is, without deep thirst for God we are pursuing things in vain and we will be lost on the way. When we begin to yearn for God, and we will have strength to seek things of God’s interest.

When Catherine of Siena was deeply absorbed in meditating on the wounds of Christ she was given the stigmata—the marks of Christ’s wounds on her body. She lived with it until she died. It caused her great bodily pain, though it was only visible to others only after her death. In a way it was a way of deeply sharing in the passion of Christ. The mystics like St. Catherine deeply desired to be united to Christ in body and soul; it caused them their entire like physically as well as spiritually.

Catherine’s love for Christ did not stop in prayer and personal penance, but it let her to take upon herself sacrifices that came with her reform agenda for the Church. She accepted her mission with all of the energy she got from her prayer. She got succession in uniting the church and getting rid of corruption in the church with the purity of her own life and her direct firm admonitions and her own extremely magnetic personality.

Catherine would have been content to serve God in sacrifice and prayer, but His will was that she brings about change in the corrupt Catholic Church. She embraced her mission with all of the energy she brought to her prayer, tackling the sinful clergy person by person, winning them over with the purity of her own life, her direct, firm admonitions and her own extremely magnetic personality. It seemed no one could meet her without falling under the spell of her personal holiness. Priest and bishop would revile her from a distance, then, upon meeting her face to face, fall upon their knees, begging forgiveness and the permission to become her followers and accept the changes that she demanded of.

Her mystical writings often dictated to others in flowery and ethereal language points to her deep love for Christ and church. Her efforts to reform the church are the fruit of reform in her own life in the light of the Gospel. Her frank, yet respectful letters to the Pope Gregory XI, caused him to forsake his exile in Avignon, and return to Rome on January 17, 1377. Her learned correspondence caused her to be named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970 and later on a principal patron of Italy.

Feast Day: 29 April

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