1347 – 1380
Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
St. Peter was not martyred in Frankfurt, Germany; Alexandria, Egypt; or Jerusalem. He could have been. God, in His Providence, wanted St. Peter’s blood to spill on Roman soil, so that His One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church would drop anchor in the then capital of the world. This does not mean that Catholicism is bound to St. Peter’s Basilica and Rome in the same way that Judaism was bound to the temple and Jerusalem. The Jews’ long sojourn in Egypt made the Exodus necessary. They had to return to the land of the promise, where they then built a temple in gratitude. When they were later exiled to Babylonia, the Jews wept for their lost city until they returned to the Holy Land. Rome does not have the same theological significance for Catholics as Jerusalem does for Jews. Rome is not the successor of Jerusalem. It is not a holy city like Mecca is for the Muslims. The symbolic and jurisdictional primacy of the Pope over the universal Church is rooted in his being the successor of St. Peter. This is an indisputable theological and historical fact. However, the Petrine ministry is one thing, and where it is exercised is another. The location of the Petrine ministry has never had the same theological weight as the ministry itself. Peter, yes. Always. Rome, yes. So far. Mostly.
Today’s saint was a mystic, a contemplative, and an ascetic who used secretaries to compose her letters, because she could not read or write. Yet for all of her interior distance from the world and its concerns, St. Catherine of Siena threw herself at the feet of the Pope, then reigning in Avignon, and begged him to return to Rome. The “Babylonian Captivity” of the papacy in present day France had gone on for almost seven decades and caused scandal due to its political nature. The move to Avignon was not motivated by irreversible cultural shifts, such as the Muslim conquering of Constantinople in 1453. The Muslims have never left Constantinople, leaving the Orthodox Patriarch there standing over a carcass. Perhaps moves are sometimes necessary for the good of the faithful. Unfortunately, the transfer to Avignon was not such a good move, even though the city was within the Papal States.
It is not often that a single person can effect the course of history as much as a battle, a treaty, or a Council. Incredibly, though, St. Catherine of Siena’s efforts to return the papacy to Rome were successful. The Pope returned because of her. She wrote so powerfully, spoke so passionately, and exuded such intense holiness that the Pope was overwhelmed. She also seemed to have prophetic powers, even knowing what the Pope was thinking or had previously thought. She was clearly of God. St. Catherine could not be ignored. Thus, sixty-seven years of seven French Popes ruling far from Rome ended. In 1376 Pope Gregory XI abandoned Avignon and followed in the footsteps of so many medievals—he went on pilgrimage to the tomb of St. Peter. And he stayed. The eternal city was a widow no longer.
St. Catherine was born into a large and pious family that imbued in her all the Christian virtues. She eagerly drank in all that her parents poured out. She went for true “gold” early in life. She practiced extreme penances, conversed with God, experienced ecstasies and visions, and dictated hundreds of letters and books and reflections filled with the most profound spiritual and theological insights. Her fasts were so severe that she often survived on the Holy Eucharist alone. She died at the age of 33, worn out by penances, travel, and the burden of her involvement in so many pressing ecclesial affairs. She was canonized in 1461. Her body can be seen in a glass coffin under the main altar of the Dominican Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. Her skull is found in her native Siena.
St. Catherine of Siena, your love of God was expressed in so many vibrant ways and in a fervent love of His Church. From your exalted place in heaven, we seek your powerful intercession to make all Catholics more ardent in their love of the Trinity, of the Passion, and of the Papacy.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
CATHERINE, the daughter of a humble tradesman, was raised up to be the guide and guardian of the Church in one of the darkest periods of its history, the fourteenth century. As a child, prayer was her delight. She would say the “Hail Mary” on each step as she mounted the stairs, and was granted in reward a vision of Christ in glory. When but seven years old, she made a vow of virginity, and afterwards endured bitter persecution for refusing to marry. Our Lord gave her His Heart in exchange for her own, communicated her with His own hands, and stamped on her body the print of His wounds. At the age of fifteen she entered the Third Order of St. Dominic, but continued to reside in her father’s shop, where she united a life of active charity with the prayer of a contemplative Saint. From this obscure home the seraphic virgin was summoned to defend the Church’s cause. Armed with Papal authority, and accompanied by three confessors, she travelled through Italy, reducing rebellious cities to the obedience of the Holy See, and winning hardened souls to God. In the face well-nigh of the whole world she sought out Gregory XI. at Avignon, brought him back to Rome, and by her letters to the kings and queens of Europe made good the Papal cause. She was the counsellor of Urban VI., and sternly rebuked the disloyal cardinals who had part in electing an antipope. Long had the holy virgin foretold the terrible schism which began ere she died. Day and night she wept and prayed for unity and peace. But the devil excited the Roman people against the Pope, so that some sought the life cf Christ’s Vicar. With intense earnestness did St. Catherine beg Our Lord to prevent this enormous crime. In spirit she saw the whole city full of demons tempting the people to resist and even slay the Pope. The seditious temper was subdued by Catherine’s prayers; but the devils vented their malice by scourging the Saint herself, who gladly endured all for God and His Church. She died at Rome, in 1380, at the age of thirty-three.
Reflection.—The seraphic St. Catherine willingly sacrificed the delights of contemplation to labor for the Church and the Apostolic See. How deeply do the troubles of the Church and the consequent loss of souls afflict us? How often do we pray for the Church and the Pope?
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.