By Carolyn Shields
A while ago, my faith was stripped to the bone, and I leaned heavily on the Church until, like Jesus and Judas, it felt like I too was betrayed by a kiss. The scandals have affected all of us differently, and we have all responded to it differently, but none of us can disagree that our Church is in a state of painful purification.
Last Sunday I was reading about the crises in the Church during the 14th century—the whole Avignon Papacy Moves To France one, and a friend remarked, “Can’t you just imagine what it must have been like to be Catholic at that time?”
And, well, yes. I can. But reading about the total corruption and abuse that was running rampant in the Church in the 1300s gave me a strange source of comfort for our Church today, knowing that we’ve been here before. That we’ve been knee deep in catastrophe, and somehow we came through. In a word, it’s hope.
What I didn’t write about was the woman who was behind it all, driving the reconciliation between a power corrupted Church and Her God.
St. Catherine of Siena is a total saint for our Church today. If there’s anyone we should be praying to for intercession for our Church, it’s St. Catherine. She was a bold challenger, a fierce mover who valued both talk and action, and a mystic whose visions took her to heaven and hell and in between. Once, she lingered outside the gates of Heaven when Jesus told her, “There are many whose salvation depends on you…I shall send you to the popes and the leaders of the Church and to all Christians, for I choose to put the pride of the mighty to shame by the use of fragile tools.”
One year later, she was confronting the pope himself and convinced him to stop worrying so much about politics and move back to Rome. She wrote to noblemen: “Take courage and act like a man: is it not a sad thing to see us at war with God through the countless sins which great and small people commit, and through rebellion against His Holy Church…?” Letters that she wrote to cardinals and nobles still exist, often with sharp quips challenging them to man up and to “not be a timid child.”
Nothing in Catherine’s earlier life seemed to necessarily prepare her for this moment. Her humble beginnings were as a daughter to a weaver who cut off her hair to dissuade a potential suitor and eventually joined the Dominicans. Her history was marked by anything but the riches and studies that filled the lives of the men she would challenge head on, and yet Christ prepared her with gifts of persuasion, knowledge, and bravery. It’s a phrase collegiate Catholics love to use: God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called.
With near attempts at assassination, the wounds of the stigmata, a strict diet of only the Eucharist for eleven years, and the dire courage at not only calling out the flaws in the Church but providing guidance amidst the reform, St. Catherine’s nature was truly one of fire.
And we need that in our Church today! We need to share our voices, to pray and repent, and to not lose hope! The study goes on to say, “Despite all the problems disfiguring the Church of Catherine’s day, she saw the supernatural reality underlying it. She saw Christ exercising His authority through the Church’s authority, and she saw Christ dispensing His graces through the Church’s sacraments. Her Beloved’s Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity came to her from the hands of priests, and her devotion to the former was bound up with her devotion to the latter….Catherine’s respect, however, both for the Church and its shepherds, was like a two-edged sword. Just as it helped her revere the hierarchy, despite individual sinfulness, it also made her feel the corruption in the Church of her day more acutely and call more urgently for the Pope to take action.”
Let us continue to pray for our Church, to grow in sainthood, and to remember that just as sin wounds our Church, virtue helps her to grow.
Oh, and it’s worth mentioning…St. Catherine did all of this in her twenties. She was just thirty-three when she died.