Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Virgin and Martyr
c. Late third–early fourth centuries
November 25—Optional Memorial
Liturgical Color: Red
Patron Saint of philosophers, apologists, and all who work with wheels
An obscure Egyptian wins the double crown of virgin-martyr
The armies of Alexander the Great swept south and east from Greece three hundred and thirty years before the infant Jesus ever gently swayed in His Mother’s arms. After Alexander conquered Egypt, he founded a new coastal city and crowned it after himself. Alexandria, Constantinople, Caesarea, Antioch, and numerous other foundations gratified the colossal egos of the mighty men who laid deep foundations and raised high walls to commemorate themselves and their patrons. How different from the Christian era and its venerable custom of naming places in honor of the Lord, Mary, and the Saints—San Francisco, Christchurch, El Salvador, Sao Paolo, Asunción, and on and on. Today’s saint—Catherine of Alexandria—appropriates Alexander’s name for Christianity, something beyond the imagining of that Greek pagan of old.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria was a virgin-martyr from the waning years of the persecuted Church in the early fourth century. Reliable documentation about her life may still lie undiscovered in a dusty codex whose heft is sagging a shelf in a neglected monastic library. Until such authentic corroboration of her life is brought to light, however, the total absence of verifiable facts make Catherine an enigmatic figure. Precisely due to this dearth of biographical information, Catherine’s feast day was removed from the Church’s universal calendar by Pope Saint Paul VI in 1969.
In 2000, Pope Saint John Paul II went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land to properly commence the third millennium. Among the holy sites he visited was Mount Sinai, Egypt, on whose summit Moses received the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The Orthodox Monastery on Mount Sinai is named in honor of Saint Catherine, after a legend which holds that her relics were borne there by angels upon her martyrdom. The Orthodox Abbot of the monastery refused to pray with the Pope during his visit to Saint Catherine’s, regrettably. Among the unstated reasons for this rebuff may have been Catholicism’s suppression of Saint Catherine’s feast in 1969. So in 2002, Pope Saint John Paul II restored Catherine’s feast day, perhaps as an ecumenical gesture to the Orthodox.
Devotion to Saint Catherine began in the late first millennium among the Orthodox. Her cult migrated to the West with the crusading knights when they returned from the Holy Land in the twelfth century. Devotion to Saint Catherine exploded in popularity throughout the High Middle Ages until she was one of the most commonly invoked saints in all of Europe. Even a college at England’s Cambridge University was established in Catherine’s honor in 1473. It is said that Catherine was a beautiful young woman from a noble Alexandrian family who had a miraculous conversion to Christianity, compelling her to make a vow of virginity. Her erudition and persuasive gifts convinced fifty of the Emperor’s most able philosophers of the truth of Christianity. Catherine then had further successful forays in converting the Emperor’s own household and soldiers. When she rejected the Emperor’s romantic entreaties, he sentenced her to be shred to pieces on a spiked wheel. But Catherine’s bindings were miraculously loosened and she survived the ordeal, only to then suffer beheading, thus earning the double crown of both virgin and martyr.
In the summer of 1425, a young French girl named Joan, standing in her parent’s garden, gazed into the mist closely enveloping her and saw something. It was Saint Michael the Archangel and two women wearing rich crowns. One of these women was Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Catherine spoke sweetly and softly to young Joan, saying that she would be Joan’s counsel, guide, and protector. She even promised to one day lead Joan to paradise. Years later, when Joan acquitted herself well under questioning by theologians, just as Catherine had done when questioned by philosophers, the townspeople said that Joan of Arc was none other than Saint Catherine of Alexandria come down to earth again.
Saint Catherine of Alexandria, your intelligence and devotion led you to be outspoken for Christ. Intercede on behalf of all Christians, making them fearless in their advocacy for, and defense of, the truths of our faith, even to the point of death.