Dr. Matthew Bunson discusses the life, times and teachings of St. Catherine of Siena
Born: March 17, 1347, Siena, Italy
Died: April 29, 1380, Rome
From the General Audience on St. Catherine of Siena
A true and authentic spiritual family was built up around such a strong and genuine personality; people fascinated by the moral authority of this young woman with a most exalted lifestyle were at times also impressed by the mystical phenomena they witnessed, such as her frequent ecstasies. Many put themselves at Catherine’s service and above all considered it a privilege to receive spiritual guidance from her. They called her “mother” because, as her spiritual children, they drew spiritual nourishment from her. Today too the Church receives great benefit from the exercise of spiritual motherhood by so many women, lay and consecrated, who nourish souls with thoughts of God, who strengthen the people’s faith and direct Christian life towards ever loftier peaks. “Son, I say to you and call you”, Catherine wrote to one of her spiritual sons, Giovanni Sabbatini, a Carthusian, “inasmuch as I give birth to you in continuous prayers and desire in the presence of God, just as a mother gives birth to a son” (Epistolario, Lettera n. 141: To Fr Giovanni de’ Sabbatini). She would usually address the Dominican Fr Bartolomeo de Dominici with these words: “Most beloved and very dear brother and son in Christ sweet Jesus”.
Another trait of Catherine’s spirituality is linked to the gift of tears. They express an exquisite, profound sensitivity, a capacity for being moved and for tenderness. Many Saints have had the gift of tears, renewing the emotion of Jesus himself who did not hold back or hide his tears at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and at the grief of Mary and Martha or at the sight of Jerusalem during his last days on this earth. According to Catherine, the tears of Saints are mingled with the blood of Christ, of which she spoke in vibrant tones and with symbolic images that were very effective: “Remember Christ crucified, God and man….. Make your aim the Crucified Christ, hide in the wounds of the Crucified Christ and drown in the blood of the Crucified Christ” (Epistolario, Lettera n. 21: Ad uno il cui nome si tace [to one who remains anonymous]). Here we can understand why, despite her awareness of the human shortcomings of priests, Catherine always felt very great reverence for them: through the sacraments and the word they dispense the saving power of Christ’s Blood. The Sienese Saint always invited the sacred ministers, including the Pope whom she called “sweet Christ on earth”, to be faithful to their responsibilities, motivated always and only by her profound and constant love of the Church. She said before she died: “in leaving my body, truly I have consumed and given my life in the Church and for the Holy Church, which is for me a most unique grace” (Raimondo da Capua, S. Caterina da Siena, Legenda maior, n. 363). Hence we learn from St Catherine the most sublime science: to know and love Jesus Christ and his Church. In the Dialogue of Divine Providence, she describes Christ, with an unusual image, as a bridge flung between Heaven and earth. This bridge consists of three great stairways constituted by the feet, the side and the mouth of Jesus. Rising by these stairways the soul passes through the three stages of every path to sanctification: detachment from sin, the practice of the virtues and of love, sweet and loving union with God.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us learn from St Catherine to love Christ and the Church with courage, intensely and sincerely. Therefore let us make our own St Catherine’s words that we read in the Dialogue of Divine Providence at the end of the chapter that speaks of Christ as a bridge: “out of mercy you have washed us in his Blood, out of mercy you have wished to converse with creatures. O crazed with love! It did not suffice for you to take flesh, but you also wished to die!… O mercy! My heart drowns in thinking of you: for no matter where I turn to think, I find only mercy” (chapter 30, pp. 79-80).
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Dr. Matthew E. Bunson is a Register senior editor and a senior contributor to EWTN News. For the past 20 years, he has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints, and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.