April 29, 2008

St. Catherine of Siena

Today is a wonderful feast: the feast of Catherine of Siena! St. Catherine is one of the greatest female saints, a Doctor of the Church (one of three women to be so), a dominican nun, and one of the most powerful women in all the history of Christendom.

She was born the second-youngest of a large (25 children!) lower-middle class family in Siena, who, at age seven consecrated her virginity to Christ, and at age sixteen become a Dominican Tertiary. A mystic, who lived for long periods of time on only the Eucharist, St. Catherine was not a typical world-changer. But God does extraordinary things with humble servants; much like Joan of Arc, a peasant girl who changed the course of France's History, St. Catherine became a key figure in a time when church and state affairs were very much intertwined. She was a correspondent with kings and popes; she convinced the Pope, at the time living in Avingon, that he belonged in Rome, and worked for spiritual reform in the waring Italian states.

She spent her last years in Rome, helping the Holy Father Urban VI, and serving the poor; at the same time she had increased mystical burdens, and was suffering from the stigmata as well. The icon above, done by modern iconographer Br. Robert Lenz, it show's St. Catherine guiding a ship, whcih represents the Church. It is a wonderful representation of her life's work.

However, for all her practical wisdom, and strength, my very favorite story of St. Catherine is as follows: There was a prisoner, Niccolo di Toldo, who would not be visited by a priest, though he was about to be executed. He was angry, because he had been wrongfully accused, and would not reconcile himself to Christ. Catherine visited him, and gave him comfort saying that Christ was with him thorugh his suffering. She was present at his execution. In a letter to St. Raymond of Capus she wrote:
I waited for him at the place of execution, and as I waited, I kept praying…Before he arrived, I lay down and stretched out my head on the block, and begged Mary for the grace I wanted, namely, that I might give him light and peace of heart at the moment of death…Then he arrived, like a meek lamb, and when he saw me he began to smile. He asked me to make the sign of the cross over him…He prostrated with great meekness and I stretched out his neck and bent down to him, reminding him of the blood of the Lamb. His lips kept murmuring only "Jesus" and "Catherine," and he was still murmuring when I received his head into my hands.

This story, above all things, shows the courage and heroic charity of St. Catherine. She truly was one of the most remarkable women that ever lived; though illiterate, and poor she did great things, in humble submission to Our Lord's will.

Her best known quote is also the one she most exemplifies: "If you are what you ought to be you will set the whole world on fire!"

I've always thought that, if Hollywood was lookiing for powerful women to make films about, St. Catherine would be a good start. Somehow I don't think it'll happen anytime soon...Anyway, happy feast day to you all, and especially to ACP, CBH, EAI, JCR, my dominican friends, and mi madre.

(For a fuller bio, go here; for a historic novel telling about her life, check out Lay Siege to Heaven written by Louis DeWhol.)

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