There’s a tendency among many Catholics to become seriously disturbed by the state of the Church and of society today. They become anxious and fearful when they see many people leaving the practice of the Faith and certain trends in society towards a greater acceptance of all sorts of people. They get a sense of disorder and chaos and think that this situation makes it nearly impossible to pursue holiness. It is almost as if some Catholics think that reality must be perfectly ordered and governed before they can develop a deep relationship with God in prayer and exercise charity towards their neighbor. Yet the saint that we commemorate today, St. Catherine of Siena, demonstrates that holiness is never solely contingent upon one’s environment, no matter how decadent. Anyone who thinks that things are chaotic now should consider the time of St. Catherine of Siena during the 14th century. Many of the issues today with which we are grappling are comparable to her time such as war, division among Christians, schism, corrupt and worldly clergy, and overall moral confusion among the laity. It was in such an environment that St. Catherine not only thrived as a holy laywoman, but she also led by her charitable example and provided spiritual advice to all sorts of people from ordinary laypeople to secular leaders to popes.
Catherine was born along with her twin sister in 1347 as the youngest of twenty-five children. Her twin sister died shortly after childbirth. Her close relationship with God began from a very young age and it is said that she had mystical experiences as early as six years of age. She was inspired by these experiences to dedicate her life entirely to God. Yet, when she was of age and her parents wanted her to get married, she remained firm in her resolution to dedicate herself to a life of prayer. She even went so far as to cut off her beautiful hair so that she might appear less attractive to potential suitors. She persevered in her resolve even as her family persecuted and mistreated her; she never lost the virtue of charity. After much prayer and discipline, her family finally relented and allowed her to live as she desired. She was later admitted as a member of the Third Order Dominicans and received the habit. For a time, she served as a nurse in the hospitals, and showed the utmost care towards those patients who had the most repulsive medical conditions that other nurses tended to avoid. She cared for people during the outbreak of the Black Plague, treating their wounds and attending to the dying. She also visited those in prison and accompanied those who were scheduled for execution, that she might help them to make their peace with God.
During her lifetime, the Church was undergoing some serious internal trials, strife, and moral turmoil. Catherine was born during a time when the papacy had been temporarily relocated from Rome to Avignon, France. This period of nearly 70 years is commonly referred to as the “Avignon papacy” or the “Babylonian captivity of the papacy,” a reference to the Old Testament Jewish exile among the Gentile nations. Catherine perceived that the situation in the Church continued to worsen as long as the papacy remained in Avignon. She was aware of the deplorable state of the clergy, who were more concerned with pursuing worldly pleasures and comforts such as luxurious homes, money, human honor, and power than they were about shepherding the people of God. The practice of simony was rampant, that is, the buying and selling of ecclesiastical privileges. It is considered in the Catechism to be one of the sins of irreligion. Although it is gravely sinful to sell spiritual favors, it was a widespread practice among the clergy at the time. As a result of the bad example of corrupt clergy, the people themselves were being drawn into all sorts of sinful behavior, which the clergy did not correct. All this corruption exacerbated divisions among the peoples and was detrimental to the practice of the virtue of charity.
As a holy woman of God, St. Catherine was very attuned to the state of the Church and she did everything in her power to counsel the pope at the time, Pope Gregory XI, to relocate the papacy back to Rome, to work to reform the clergy, and to address the moral decay in the Church. In her writings to Gregory XI, she communicated her zealous love for God and for the Church and her desire for sanctity in the Church, yet she did so in a way that was not harsh, disrespectful, or uncharitable towards the pope. While she used strong language at times and did not shy away from challenging the pope, she always showed him the utmost respect, deference, and charity. In fact, she wrote to him in a manner that was endearing and affectionate and would even call him “Babbo,” which in Italian means “Dad” or “Daddy.” In one of her letters to Gregory XI, she says the following which captures her zeal for Christ and her love for the Church, “I beg you, my sweet father, to use the instrument of your power and virtue, with zeal, and hungry desire for the peace and honor of God and the salvation of souls. And should you say to me, father – ‘The world is so ravaged! How shall I attain peace?’ I tell you, on behalf of Christ crucified, it befits you to achieve three chief things through your power. Do you uproot in the garden of Holy Church the malodorous flowers, full of impurity and avarice, swollen with pride: that is, the bad priests and rulers who poison and rot that garden. Ah me, you our Governor, do you use your power to pluck out those flowers! Throw them away, that they may have no rule! Insist that they study to rule themselves in holy and good life. Plant in this garden fragrant flowers, priests and rulers who are true servants of Jesus Christ, and care for nothing but the honor of God and the salvation of souls, and are fathers of the poor. Alas, what confusion is this, to see those who ought to be a mirror of voluntary poverty, meek as lambs, distributing the possessions of Holy Church to the poor: and they appear in such luxury and state and pomp and worldly vanity, more than if they had turned them to the world a thousand times! Nay, many seculars put them to shame who live a good and holy life. But it seems that Highest and Eternal Goodness is having that done by force which is not done by love; it seems that He is permitting dignities and luxuries to be taken away from His Bride, as if He would show that Holy Church should return to her first condition, poor, humble, and meek as she was in that holy time when men took note of nothing but the honor of God and the salvation of souls, caring for spiritual things and not for temporal.” Catherine’s words here are reminiscent of Pope Francis’ call early in his papacy, and in continuity with Pope Benedict XVI, for a poor Church that is for the poor, detached from worldly goods, honors, and pleasures and interested in the evangelization and salvation of all peoples.
The papacy did eventually relocate to Rome and Gregory XI died a year later. His successor Urban VI was the first non-French pope since the beginning of the Avignon papacy. A group of French cardinals were not pleased with the new pope and his harsh and brutal personality did not help to improve their perception of him. Eventually, the French cardinals gathered together and elected another pope who took the name of Clement VII. This strange situation of the existence of two popes who were set up as rivals to the papal throne created what is known as the Western Schism, which lasted for 40 years. Now, on top of war, disease, corruption in the clergy, and moral decay in the Church, there is added the lamentable burden of schism. Yet throughout this time, Catherine of Siena remained faithful to the rightful claimant to the papal throne, Urban VI, and continued to advise and encourage him through her letters. Clement VII would eventually be declared an anti-pope and the Western Schism would finally be ended. No matter how bleak things might seem, God always works things out for the good of those who love Him and who persevere in His love, even if they must suffer for a time for doing what is right.
So, with respect to the current situation of the Church and in society, St. Catherine of Siena is given to us as a model and example of fidelity in difficult times to God, to the Church, and to the Holy Father. She did not allow any of the evils around her to detract from her relationship with God, to damage the virtue of charity in her soul, or to take away her peace. She continued to love God and her fellow man regardless of the trials and tribulations she faced. May she be an example to all of us of holiness, virtue, and charity, most especially for the laity who are called upon to bring Christ, His love, and His message of the Gospel out into the world.