Winter 1991, Vol.43 No. 4, pp. 359-368.
Mary Ann Fatula, OP, is Professor and Chairperson of the Theology Department of Ohio Dominican College in Columbus, Ohio.
THIS past year has been marred by the ravages of war in the middle East and other parts of the world, but it has also been marked by developments toward freedom unparalleled in our century. And as we come to the close of this centenary year of Leo XIII’s ground-breaking encyclical on social justice, Rerum Novarum, it is especially fitting for us to reflect on the life and words of Catherine of Siena. Honored today as one of only two women doctors of the Church, Catherine used her great gifts of mind and heart to make a difference in the world. With her whole life and every word, she spoke the truth, worked for justice, and sought peace. During this time in which we celebrate the Word made flesh, the Word who is our peace and freedom, may we find mirrored in Catherine of Siena our own call to spread God’s justice and peace in the world.
Born in 1347 in Siena, the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children, Catherine in her early years wanted only a life of solitude with Jesus, away from the world’s chaos and wounds. But in her adolescent years, Jesus spoke to her heart the truth that would shape her entire life. How could she walk with only the “one leg” of love for God, if she did not walk also with the “second leg” of love for God’s people? Just as a bird cannot fly with one wing, she could not truly love the unseen God without giving herself in service to her needy sisters and brothers whom she could see.
Catherine did not turn a deaf ear to this word spoken to her heart. As one of the Dominican mantellate, women who served the poor and sick in the world, she gave herself to the work of justice and peace by speaking by her life and words a bold word of truth in the world. Her brief life (she died at thirty-three) is marked by an astounding self-definition and courage in living out this call. At a time when social dictates forbade a woman to leave her home unaccompanied by a man, Catherine traveled the streets of Siena, day and night, alone (but, as she herself experienced, always accompanied by Jesus) in order to minister to the sick and poor whom no one else would touch. Her astounding courage in tending the victims of the plague that ravaged Siena in 1374 resulted in an unsought notoriety as a woman of God’s peace and healing. Government officials from other cities began seeking her out as a minister of peace even in bloody feuds.
Catherine’s reputation grew, and though she was always conscious of her lack of the education available to men, her wisdom and courage in speaking the truth grew with her reputation. A group of devoted followers began to surround her. Her close friend and confidante, the Dominican Raymond of Capua, introduced her to high church officials in whose circle she was fearless in speaking the truth of the need for Church reform, for justice in their dealings with their people, for peace in their feuds and wars with secular governments.
On her own, Catherine learned to read, and to write. She not only spoke the truth others feared to say; she used the gifts of her mind and heart to voice the truth in a wider arena by her writing. She began to pen blunt, sometimes scathing letters always enfolded in a passionate love for God — to scores of people: to the dissolute Queen of Naples, to the wavering King Charles V of France, to the barbarous soldier John Hawkwood, to the cowardly Pope Gregory XI. She seemed always to be traveling some place on a mission of peace, or healing, always speaking a word of truth and conversion. Her conduct was scandalous to more than a few people. Her public preaching Raymond of Siena tells of seeing a thousand people come from the countryside around Siena just to hear her speak — and missions of peace made her the object of fierce censure. Critics told her that it was the place of educated men of the Church and government to speak publicly; her place as a woman was silent service at home.
But Catherine was frightened by nothing. She kept on traveling, trying to mediate peace between Florence and the papacy, against whom Florence had revolted. She kept urging Pope Gregory XI to return the papal residence from its opulent setting in Avignon to Rome. She prodded Gregory to launch a crusade to regain the Holy Land. And though we find this fact disconcerting and embarrassing today, we see in it a passionate even if misguided expression of Catherine’s fierce love for Jesus.
In her love for God and her estimation of herself as nothing at all without God, Catherine began to feel increasingly responsible for the wounds of the world. Gregory’s return to Rome eventually resulted in a schism which found two, and then three men claiming to be pope. The profound abuses in the Church which she found to correct, especially the ignorance and corruption of clergy and high church officials alike, seemed only to increase with her efforts to convert those involved. Finally called to Rome by the new Roman Pope Urban VI in order to support his papal claim, Catherine spent the last two years of her young life working for the peace and unity of the Church she saw so divided and at war.
Catherine died at the age of thirty-three, worn out by her labors and convinced that her life had been a failure. She left behind her a small circle of devoted friends and a book, the Dialogue, in which she continues to speak a penetrating word of truth to us today. Her writing is marked by such clarity and depth that she has been named, along with the educated Teresa of Avila, the only woman doctor of the Church (Fatula 23-39). Six hundred years later, Catherine’s life and voice still speak to us.
Raymond of Capua, Catherine’s close friend, confidante, and biographer, tells us that Catherine herself lived what she preached. Her love for others permeated her day, as she cared for the poor, served the sick, comforted the dying (Raymond of Capua 13). When we turn to Catherine’s writings, we cannot help hearing her insistent cry that we will have peace in the world only by doing justice, especially in terms of how the world’s goods are distributed among us. Hatred and killing, indeed, every evil, she writes, comes from our lust for wealth. Our craving for material possessions deceives us into thinking that what we, in fact, have stolen from our poor brothers and sisters belongs to us (Dialogue 150; 316-317).
But if we would keep before our eyes the unbounded love God has for everyone, we would value persons over money, Catherine tells us, and would be willing to give our own life before we would let others be killed through injustice (Letter 51; 156). Catherine saw that without this consciousness of every person as our sister or brother, we begin to lord it over others rather than to serve them. Especially in positions of power and responsibility, we can become so “bloated” with power that we spread not peace but injustice in the world (Dialogue 34; 75). In one of her letters to Charles V, King of France, Catherine stresses that all that we have, our life and health included, belongs not to us but to God, lent to us so that we can help one another. It is not only foolishness but also “a thievery worthy of death” to live as if what belongs to some one else is really ours. We are only stewards of God’s good gifts, and we are called to dispense generously to others the good things God has so graciously showered on us (Letter 78 to Charles V, King of France; 238). This commitment to our poorest brothers and sisters is not an optional, “extra” work added to our life-call as Christians; it is a matter of the very justice we owe to God and to them. “On two feet you must walk my way; on two wings [love for God and for one another] you must fly to heaven,” the Lord had told Catherine (Raymond of Capua 116).
But to do the work of justice in the world demands of us a courage that only the Holy Spirit can give us. Catherine herself had objected to the Lord:
How can one like me, feeble and of no account, do any good? . . . My very sex, as I need not tell you, puts many obstacles in the way. The world has no use for women in such work as that, and propriety forbids a woman to mix so freely in the company of men. (116)
But the Lord promised Catherine that he would be with her in a powerful way; her “weakness” as a woman would be full of “the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Proud men who refuse to listen to her because she is a woman, Jesus told her, would find themselves in that way resisting God (117). With this word of Jesus as her strength, and living in the Holy Spirit’s power of love, the unschooled, young Catherine (she was only twenty-nine at that time) grew in such courage that she exhorted the pope himself to work for justice and peace in the world. She urges Gregory XI not to “look the other way” out of fear of displeasing his church officials, but to root out injustice to the poor on the part of his clergy. None of us, especially one who has papal authority, may say, “The world is in such a sorry state; how can 1 bring it peace?” In strong images Catherine exhorts the pope to uproot unworthy ministers who are only “stinking weeds” and to “throw them out where they will have nothing to administer. Tell them to tend to administering themselves by a good holy life.” These clergy ought to be full of love and humility and poverty, distributing the Church possessions to the poor. “Yet here they are, living in worldly luxury and ambition and pretentious vanity” (Letter 63 to Pope Gregory XI; 201).
As Catherine watched the growing corruption around her, she began to see the inseparable connection between justice and peace. She had witnessed the ravages of war in her own time. Incited by Florence, several city-states had formed an anti-papal league; the cause of the war was economic. The papacy had exacted monies of various city-states, and the city-states refused; their wealth would not go to foreign powers. The anti-papal league warred against the papacy, and the papacy responded in kind. But Catherine urged Pope Gregory XI to end his war against Florence by treating the people with equity. For the very injustices the townspeople had suffered at the hands of church officials had also caused the war: “They smelled the stinking lives of these bad administrators (who you know are devils incarnate) and they . . . attacked you rather than lose their position” (Letter 64 to Pope Gregory XI; 205). As she witnessed the growing devastation of war, Catherine understood more and more clearly how our injustice to the poor, our desire to hoard wealth for ourselves, causes war among us.
“It doesn’t seem to me that war is so lovely a thing that we should go running after it when we can prevent it” (Letter 60; 191). Catherine counsels the elders of Lucca to have the courage to stay out of the anti-papal war and to stand on the side of peace instead. “Even if you should be all alone, stand firm on this battlefield [of peace] and don’t turn back” (Letter 53 to the Elders of Lucca; 164-5). Unlike war, the work of peace itself is a struggle worth waging, for peace is God’s own work of love among us. Indeed, Catherine asks us, “Is there anything lovelier than peace?” She recalls the Lord’s command that we prove ourselves to be his disciples not by great external works but by the charity and peace we foster among us (Letter 60 to Nicolo Soderini; 191).
But if we are to be peacemakers in the world, we must have peace within our own hearts, and God alone is the sea of peace who can turn our outer and inner wars into peace (Letter 34; 118-9). To be peacemakers, therefore, we need to draw our strength from the peace and humility of Jesus himself for becoming peace-makers requires of us a humble heart. And out of love alone, Jesus came to us as a humble servant to conquer our pride with his humility (Letter 61; 193). Catherine chides a proud Florentine official: “The blind sight of our pride and arrogance shows us the flower of prestige and power, but we don’t see the worm that has gotten under this flowering plant and is gnawing away at it” (Letter 60; 187).
Catherine was convinced that it is not arrogant triumphalism but only humble hearts that will foster peace in and among us. “We cannot pass through the low door with our head held high unless we want to crack it!” And the door through which each of us must pass is Christ crucified, “who humbled himself down to the level of us witless fools! Let us prove ourselves to be members bound to one another as one body,” Catherine urges us, “for even if our charity does not force us to this interdependence, necessity itself will” (Letter 60 to Nicol Soderini; 187-8).
CATHERINE’S WORD FOR US TODAY
“Don’t make light of the works of the Holy Spirit that are being asked of you. You can do them if you want to. You can see that justice is done; you can have peace” (Letter 71 to Pope Gregory XI; 222). For Catherine, the source of the justice that flowers in peace is not our own power but rather the Holy Spirit’s love binding us to each other.
When Catherine herself wondered why we have been made to need each other, why we must be interdependent rather than live in proud and selfish isolation, she realized that the triune God has bound us together “with the chain of charity.” God has given “something to one, something else to another, so that each one’s need would be a reason to have recourse to the other” (Dialogue 148; 311). Catherine thinks of how our own body has a far greater charity toward each of its members than we do toward one another. Our whole body comes to the aid, for example, of our tiniest finger when it is hurting. Our head does not ignore the pain of our finger simply because it is small and apparently insignificant. On the contrary, when our little finger hurts, all of our body feels the pain.
Ah, but those who are proud do not behave that way. They see a poor person, one of their members, sick and in need, and do not help. They refuse to give not only of their possessions but even a single word . . . . They have plenty of wealth, but they leave the poor to starve. They do not see that their wretched cruelty throws filth into my face, and that their filth reaches down even to the depths of hell. (Dialogue 148;312)
If we are to live as true Christians in the world, therefore, we may not turn a deaf ear to the Spirit’s call to us to be a living word of justice and peace in the world through our care for one another. Catherine reminds us of the words of the Gospel: “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink; I was naked and you did not clothe me, in prison and you did not visit me” (Mt 25:42-43). And, Catherine adds, it will do us no good at the end to try to excuse ourselves. We will not be able to say that we would have helped if only we had known that Jesus himself was pleading for our aid in the persons of the poor. We know well enough, Catherine reminds us, what Jesus has told us, “Whatever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you do to me” (Mt 25:40; Dialogue 148;312).
Catherine urges us to enflesh our bond of charity with the most poor and victimized among us, especially by being and speaking a word of trust in the world, by letting our heart “spill out” in our voice (Prayer 15; 133). Raymond of Capua describes how Catherine herself lavished on others the word of truth and love within her. Often a thousand people would come from the districts around Siena to hear Catherine, and the mere sight of her would pierce their hearts (Raymond of Capua 227). Catherine’s own heart spilled out in her voice, and to all who would hear her today she cries out, “Bear God’s word with fire . . . Pour out the truth!” (Letter 280 to Raymond of Capua). “Even if it should cost you your life, never hold back from speaking the truth because of any fear” (Letter 60 to Nicolò Soderini;191).
Like Catherine, we are called not to fear, but rather to take heart, to trust the Holy Spirit for the word we are to speak and the work we are to do (Dialogue 36; 77). In the gentle power of this Spirit, we can proclaim the truth and not allow our fear to silence us (Letter 330 to Raymond of Capua). “Cry out as if you have a million voices;” Catherine tells us, for “it is silence which kills the world” (Letter 16 to a great prelate).
Our silence especially in the face of injustice to the poor advances war rather than peace in the world. Catherine urges us, therefore, not to let love for material possessions blind us to our only true good, the charity and peace that should reign among us. “No more, for love of Christ crucified! Don’t you realize that you are the cause of this evil if you don’t do what you can?” When we see the great destruction that war causes, especially to women and children, Catherine writes, how can we help wanting to sacrifice our own material possessions and even our life, if necessary, in the work of spreading God’s peace in the world (Letter 78 to Charles V of France; 238-9). Catherine’s words about the real cost of our warring against one another have a special poignancy as we come to the close of this year marked for us not only by amazing developments toward freedom but also by peoples warring against one another: “How stupidly blind we are not to see that with the sword of hatred for our neighbors we are killing ourselves!” (238-9).
During these holy days we celebrate the mystery of Jesus, the Word made flesh who is our peace. As we reflect on the events of this remarkable year now ending and the hopeful promises of this new year approaching us, we hear Catherine encouraging us to find our peace in “Jesus’ very dear blood, where all hatred and war are quenched” (Letter 82 to Buonaccorso di Lapo; 249). As Catherine did, we pray that we ourselves may find in the precious blood of Jesus shed for us — and not in each other’s blood shed in war — the means of becoming instruments of God’s justice and peace in our world today.
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_______ . The Dialogue. Trans. Suzanne Noffke, OP. New York: Paulist Press, 1980.
_______ . The Prayers of Catherine of Siena. Trans. Suzanne Noffke, OP. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.
_______ . The Letters of St. Catherine of Siena. Vol. I. Trans. Suzanne Noffke, OP. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1988.
Fatula, Mary Ann, OP. Catherine of Siena’s Way. Rev. ed. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1989.
Raymond of Capua. The Life of Catherine of Siena. Trans. Conleth Kearns, OP. Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, Inc., 1980.