Today the Church celebrates the witness of the great saint Catherine of Siena, one of the most renowned and influential people of her time.
Saint Catherine was born in the year 1347 and died at the age of 33 in the year 1380. She was the 22nd child to be born into her family. (Her mother would deliver 25 children, though most of the children did not survive infancy).
Catherine was a gregarious child whose parents nicknamed her “joy” on account of her pleasant disposition. At the age of five she witnessed an extraordinary vision in the streets of her native city of Siena, a vision of Christ, attended by the apostles, with the Lord Jesus wearing the vestments and crown of the pope. This vision left an indelible impression on Catherine. Catherine’s biographers recall this strange experience as a foreshadowing of her mission.
Over against the protests of her parents, Catherine aspired to be a tertiary of the Order of Preachers, the religious movement that we know as the Dominicans. What this meant is that Catherine would never marry and would live in accord with the evangelical counsels- vowed to poverty, chastity and obedience. But unlike the religious women of her time, she would live this radical way of life, not within the enclosure of a convent, but out in the world. Accepted as a Dominican tertiary, a movement soon surrounded young Catherine, and she found herself the spiritual mother of a new religious family- comprised mostly of lay people and priests who were engaged in the ordinary tasks of life.
Catherine was a mystic, whose vivid experiences of Christ, gave rise to extraordinary acts of witness and works of mercy. Her relationship with Jesus Christ was deeply personal and she knew him as a living, divine person who loved her as a husband loves his wife. Though uneducated and barely literate, the great sages of her time sought her counsel and her bold, creative witness to the practices of discipleship warmed hearts grown cold towards the Gospel.
Catherine the mystic who knew the Lord Jesus personally is often overshadowed by her participation in the political and cultural struggles of her time, which were many. Catherine’s reputation for holiness and the confidence the people had in her gave her access to the powerful. The powerful men and women of her time likely saw Catherine as a curiosity, a useful idiot, who could be manipulated for their own purposes.
They were mistaken.
Catherine was no fool and had the determination and zeal that comes to a person who knows the Lord and has fully accepted the mission that he gives his disciples. She was forthright with the powers of the world, the elites of politics and culture- the Church was not to be used as a means towards satisfying their rapacious appetite for wealth, pleasure, power and honors. The Church didn’t belong to the powerful, or even the people, the Church belonged to Christ, and as such, the Church served what Christ served, not the ambitions of the worldly. All should repent of the manner in which they had blasphemed Christ by using his Church as a means to their own egotistical ends.
Distressed that the papacy had been co-opted and was being used by political and cultural elites, she insisted that Pope Gregory XI assert the independence of the Church from the worldly powers who were dominating it. Emboldened by Catherine’s persistent counsel, Pope Gregory XI did this at great personal risk.
Catherine was also distressed at the ways in which Christians were prioritizing their political allegiances over that of the Gospel and their shared baptismal identity. These conflicts were enervating the faithful and a detriment to the accomplishment of the Church’s mission. Time and time again she intervened, even placing herself in harms way in situations that had exploded in rioting and violence. Peace would not come to the society of the Church unless there was sincere repentance and acceptance of Christ’s way of life.
Exhausted from her tireless evangelical witness, her body broken by the extreme asceticism that she practiced so as to make her very life an offering on behalf of those who lived in alienation from Christ, Catherine died at the age of 33 in the year 1380.
The witness of Saint Catherine demonstrates the possibilities that open up for us if we allow Jesus Christ to be the priority of our lives. A relationship with Jesus Christ initiates a great adventure, drawing us out of the narrow, confined life of the ego, that cannot seek beyond the desire for personal fulfillment and safety. A relationship with Jesus Christ emboldens the disciple to take great risks and to engage in great acts of faith, hope and love. Living in Christ, the disciple can become, like St. Catherine, a force to be reckoned with. This force is not like the force exercised by the world, which is will to power exercised on behalf of self-interest, but the compelling power of the Lord’s word of truth that calls all people, great and small, to repentance and to acceptance of the way of Jesus Christ.
Life in Christ does not position disciples on the sidelines or in the safety of domesticity, but sends the believer out on mission. Saint Catherine’s life is the example of this par excellence.
Finally, a word about Saint Catherine’s relationship to the Church- Saint Catherine’s outspoken advocacy of the independence of the Church from the political machinations of her time has at times been used as means of justifying causes that oppose the Church in our times. This is, to use Pope Francis’ words “solemn nonsense”. At no time did Saint Catherine position herself as an opponent of the Church, particularly of the papacy, but always as an advocate. Her advocacy was not that the Church change to meet the world on its own terms. In fact, it was precisely this attitude that had led to the Church’s captivity to worldly powers. Saint Catherine’s advocacy was not about changing the Church, but about the Church being freed from worldliness so the faithful could accomplish their divinely ordained mission.
The Church does not change by conforming itself to this or that age or cause or political party or ideological construct. Nor is it the purpose of the Church to balance these elements of worldliness within herself, and in doing so, give divine sanction to our self centered worldliness.
The accommodation of the Church to our worldliness can bring worldly comforts to Christians, but as the life of Saint Catherine of Siena attests, Christians are not created by Christ to be comfortable. Christians are created by Christ so that the worldly can be liberated from their worldliness by saints.
The Church is meant to be a missionary endeavor, a society of people who, like Saint Catherine of Siena, have allowed Jesus Christ to be the priority of their lives. Only when we allow Christ to be our priority is the Church truly free to accomplish her mission. Saint Catherine of Siena’s life witnesses to this truth, but what about our lives?