The following is a reflection shared by one of our sisters as part of our Novena in honour of St Catherine:
Looking for inspiration and guidance in the face of the recent upheavals in the Church that have left us all a bit bewildered and shocked I turned to Catherine of Siena. The Church in her time too was in crisis and Catherine could in fact take her stand among the ranks of present day journalists exposing the sins of the Church, so strong and forthright is her condemnation of any one from Pope to pauper who was causing scandal and discrediting the Church of Christ. Indeed very few of the Church’s present critics could equal her when it comes to plain speaking. An extract from one of her letters says it all
In whatever direction you turn among secular and religious priests, clerics and prelates, small and great, you see nothing but offence against God. They all exhale the stench of grave sin.
This was the Church that Catherine saw when she looked around her. Catherine a young woman as she puts it herself ‘restless with a tremendous desire for God’s honour and the salvation of souls’ could have been forgiven if she had become totally disillusioned and had walked away from such a travesty of the ideal but she didn’t walk away. She remained faithful to the Church which was so plainly failing in its mission and which bore little resemblance to Jesus its head and founder. Not only did she not walk away but it was within that very Body of Christ disfigured wounded and broken as it was, a Church whose ‘limbs were rotting’ that Catherine became a Saint. That is why I think Catherine is in a privileged position to speak to us.
How and why did Catherine remain faithful to the Church? How does Catherine differ from so many modern day critics of the Church? The answer to that is very simple but very profound. Catherine loved the Church. Faith gave her eyes to see past the Church’s sin into its heart. Catherine viewed the Church not as a human institution that depends on human approval and can be overthrown or collapse but as the Body of Christ, made such at the price of Christ’s own blood. She realised what so many of our contemporaries seem to forget- the Church is Divine in its origin and that the way to Christ is through the Church that he loves. In one of her letters she writes
no one can enter into the abyss of the Trinity to savour the beauty of the Godhead except through the Church it’s spouse-since we must all pass through Christ Crucified, and his gate is found only in Holy Church. I saw this bride offering life, for she has so much life within her that no one can kill her. And she was bestowing strength and light; nor can anyone intrinsically weaken her. And I saw that her fruit never fails but is always increasing.
She kept her eyes fixed on the Cross and there she saw how loved and lovable the Church is.
Christ loved the Church and gave his life for her to make her holy and to bring her pure holy and spotless into his presence.
For Catherine that was enough. This is I think an extremely important insight to hold on to. Let us too look to Jesus in faith and learn from him as He hangs on the Cross how to love the Church as He loves it.
Catherine also gave me three very direct answers to questions I’ve been asking as I see our beloved Church being attacked from within and without. Those questions are- where do I fit in to all of this and what is God asking of me as we live through this time of tribulation?
Catherine’s immediate response in the face of the grave sin within the Church is that of one who from her knowledge of her own sinfulness realises that her sin is part of the sinfulness of the Church. She sees herself as part of the problem and believes herself responsible for the contradiction between the purity the Church should have on the one hand and the sin that in fact poisons it. If only her prayer and sacrifice were more in earnest the Church would reform. ‘It is my many sins that prevent the Church’s renewal,’ she laments over and again.
Catherine doesn’t stand over and against the Church judging and condemning it but stands alongside and within it knowing herself to be a sinner every bit as much in need of God’s mercy as anyone else. Is it not the same for us?
Then from the knowledge of her wretchedness and the weakness of the Church springs her intercession. Her life becomes one long plea to God for mercy, a plea culminating in her self offering on behalf of the Church.
I offer my life to you Eternal Trinity for your sweet spouse unworthy though I am. I ask only to see the renewal of that sweet spouse your Church. This I beg of you
God hears her plea and to aid her intercession reveals to her the true state of the Church in graphic detail. He then goes on to say
I have told you all this to give you more reason for bitter weeping over the blindness of my ministers, and to give you a deep knowledge of my mercy. In this mercy you can find trust and security, offering to me these ministers of holy Church and the whole world, and begging me to be merciful to them. The more you offer me sorrowful and loving desires for them, the more you will prove your love for me. For the service neither you nor my other servants can do for me you should do for them instead. Then I will let myself be constrained by the longing tears and prayers of my servants, and will be merciful to my bride by reforming her with good and holy shepherds.
He also explains to her and to us how she must both practice virtue and serve her neighbour to truly advance the reform of the church. In the Dialogue he says to her
You recall that I have already told you that I would satisfy your anguished longings by reforming holy Church through good and holy shepherds. I will do this, as I told you, not through war, not with sword and violence, but through peace and calm, though my servants sweat and tears. I have set you as workers in your own and your neighbours’ souls and in the mystic body of holy Church. In yourselves you must work at virtue; in your neighbours and in the church you must work by teaching and example. And you must offer me constant prayer for the Church and for every creature giving birth to virtue through your neighbour. For as I have already told you every virtue and every sin is realized and intensified through your neighbours. Therefore I want you to serve your neighbours and in this way share the fruits of your own vineyard.
Such was Catherine’s wisdom shared with me these past days and I think she would be very happy if we could all take to our hearts, as a special gift from her spoken directly to each of us today, the Father’s word’s to her
To this work I have appointed you - devote, then your life and heart and mind wholly to that Bride for me, with no regard for yourself.