Lessons from St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor and Daughter of the Church

Today is Feast of the Doctor, Virgin, and Mystic, St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), who is also one of two patron saints of Italy and was named by St. John Paul II as one of six patrons of Europe. In a 2012 CWR essay, “Catherine of Siena and Leaving the Church“, Fr. Thomas McDermott, OP, reflected on what the 14th-century mystic can teach us about fidelity to Christ and to a Church in crisis. He noted that Catherine lived in a particularly dark time in Church history:

Catherine lived in worse times than our own because it was not only the Church that seemed to be collapsing, but larger society and even the world itself. The Black Death, or bubonic plague—one of the deadliest pandemics in human history—reached Sicily via Genoese trading ships from the Black Sea the year Catherine was born. It is said that four-fifths of the population of Siena died from the plague the following year. There would be several successive waves of the disease during Catherine’s lifetime. One anonymous chronicler in Siena at the time wrote: “And no bells tolled, and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death…. And people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world.’” 

And things did not improve during her own lifetime:

Catherine lived during a time of pessimism and cynicism. Barbara Tuchman, in her historical narrative A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, described the period as “a time of turmoil, diminished expectations, loss of confidence in institutions, and feelings of helplessness at forces beyond human control.” The popes lived in exile in Avignon between 1309 and 1377, only returning to Rome after Catherine went personally to the papal court and pleaded with Gregory XI. Monasteries and convents in Europe were decimated by the Plague, and in order to re-populate them unsuitable candidates were often accepted. The secular literature at the time described clerical celibacy as a joke. By the time Catherine died in 1380, the Church was in schism with the election of an anti-pope, Clement VII.

But Catherine, rather than despair, or become cynical, grew in her love for the Church:

Catherine was a contemplative whose love of the Church grew in the course of her lifetime, despite the corruption of some of its members. The biographer Johannes Jorgensen said of her spiritual life: “Her love of Jesus expands, grows insatiable, infinite, is transformed into love of His Mystical Body, of the all-comprehensive, all-embracing Holy Catholic Church.” Like other saints and mystics, her contemplation brought her into the heart of the mystery of the Church. What Jacques Philippe says of St. Thérèse of Lisieux could equally be said of Catherine: “[T]he more she centered her being on the love of Jesus, the more her heart grew in love for the Church. […] Indeed, this is the only real way to understand the Church. Anyone who does not have a spousal relationship with God in prayer will never perceive the deepest truth of the Church’s identity.”

We should not forget the dying words of another great mystic, St. Teresa of Avila: “I am a daughter of the Church.”

For Catherine, the Church is Christ and the pope is the “sweet Christ on earth.” However, when Catherine speaks of the sinfulness of the Church, so much present during her lifetime, she most often uses the image of the Church as the Bride of Christ, which St. Paul alluded to in Ephesians 5:25. Here Catherine imagines the Church as a beautiful maiden whose face has been pelted and besmirched by the sins of the Church’s mortal members. Catherine often speaks of sin as leprosy on the face of the Church. It would never have occurred to her to leave the Bride of Christ because of the sins of humanity. For her, the Church is infinitely more than a mere human institution. 

Among various causes of the Church’s sinfulness, Catherine identifies one in particular: a love for the “outer rind” instead of the marrow, i.e., a preoccupation with surface instead of inner realities. Learned people, particularly the clergy, may know much about God, the Church, and Scripture, and yet not be in a love-union with God. The eternal Father tells her that such people “neither see nor understand anything but the outer crust, the letter of Scripture. They receive it without relish” and “approach this Bride [the Church] merely for her outer shell, that is, for her temporal substance, while she is quite empty of any who seek her marrow.” Bad priests “never understood learning because the horns of pride kept them from tasting its sweet marrow.” Knowledge of Christ is not enough; we must be in communion with him.

“Humanly speaking,” Fr. McDermott notes, “Catherine had more reasons for abandoning the Church than we do today, and yet there is not the slightest indication in her writings that she ever considered doing so. What was the basis of her hope?”

Undoubtedly, her belief in the human and divine dimensions of the Church undergirded her hope that one day it would be what God intended it to be. In addition, Catherine reported to her confessor and friend Raymond of Capua that the Lord had assured her several times that the Church’s “beauty will be restored.” In April 1376, she reported to Raymond a remarkable mystical experience in which the Lord “explained and made clear to me every aspect of the mystery of the persecution the Church is now undergoing and of the renewal and exaltation that is to come. He told me that what is happening now is permitted in order to make the Church once more what she should be.”

Read the entire essay.

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About Carl E. Olson 1190 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.