"The Church is identified with Christ…"
During the General Audience on Wednesday April 30th, the Pope
delivered the following address to many thousands of faithful:
Beloved Sons and Daughters!
Today, April 30th, is a feast for us. The feast of St. Catherine of
Siena. Pius II, also from Siena, proclaimed her a Saint (1461: remember
the magnificent fresco by Pinturricchio, which illustrates the event in
the Piccolomini Library in Siena). Pius IX declared her the second
Patron Saint of Rome (1866). In 1939, Pius XII made her also the Patron
Saint of Italy, with St. Francis of Assisi. Nor can a Pope forget how
much the Roman Pontificate and the whole Church owe this extraordinary
woman, who can never be studied and celebrated enough. It is a fine
thing that a monument was erected to her, a few years ago, here near St.
Peter's, between Castel S. Angelo and the beginning of Via della
Conciliazione, as if running towards this fateful Vatican. It is a fine
thing that so many religious families and Catholic women's associations
should have her as protectress and teacher. You, too, perhaps, know
something of her marvellous life, enough at least to set the name of St.
Catherine of Siena among the sweetest, the most original, the greatest
that history records. As you know, she died very young, here in Rome.
But her thirty-three years of earthly life (1347-1380) were so rich in
inner intensity, so dramatic in exterior activity, so fruitful in
literary expressions, so important in the series of political and
ecclesiastical events of the XIV century, that they oblige the
theologian, the historian, the student of literature, the artist to
consider Catherine a unique phenomenon, and to study in her the teacher
of divine things, the inspired mystic of the stigmata, the woman, bold,
simple and skilful at the same time, who ventured upon diplomatic
initiatives as artless as they were wise, the illiterate writer, who
dictated books and carried on a lively and apostolic correspondence with
hosts of people, the virgin ecstatic in prayer and dedicated to helping
the suffering, the fascinating conversationalist who transformed
interlocutors into disciples, into faithful friends. We must always
remember that it was she, Catherine, who convinced the young French Pope
(he was forty) Gregory XI, weak in health and faint-hearted, to leave
Avignon, whither the Apostolic See had moved with Pope Clement V, after
the sudden death of Benedict XI, and to return in 1376 to Italy, still
rent by bitter divisions, to Rome, though it was turbulent and in very
bad conditions. And it was Catherine who, immediately after the death of
Gregory XI, supported his successor Urban VI in the first critical
events of the famous "Western schism", which began with the
election of the anti-pope Clement VII.
The history of her life is extremely complex and there is no lack of
documentation. It is much too long to narrate it in full. Then, too, the
historical background in which her life was set is so characteristic and
dramatic that anyone attempting to describe it, when dealing with this
humble and splendid protagonist, is obliged to select or to summarize.
The institutional aspect
One aspect especially of this exceptional life interests us, the one
we think is most characteristic: her love for the Church. And this
aspect affects the whole of Catherine's personality, inside and outside.
Biographers and hagiographers cannot help noting it: Catherine is
the Saint whose dominant characteristic lies in her love for the Church,
and for the Papacy particularly. It would be possible to fill a book
with quotations like the following: "Oh, eternal God, receive the
sacrifice of my life in this mystical Body of the holy Church. I have
nothing to give but what You gave me. Pluck out my heart, therefore, and
press it to the face of this Spouse..." (Letter 371). "The
Church is then," Joergensen writes, "from the intellectual and
moral point of view, the centre of existence; it is the solution to the
enigma of life and it is its absolute value, its essential value. In
this world of relativity, it alone is positive..." (p. 511).
"The Church is Catherine's greatest love. No Saint, perhaps, has
loved the Church as much as she... In St. Catherine's soul, the Church
is identified with Christ" (Tincani, p. 39).
In these brief references we will note three points. First: St.
Catherine loved the Church in its reality, which, as we know, has a
double aspect. One is mystical, spiritual, invisible, the essential one,
fused with Christ the glorious Redeemer, who does not cease to pour his
blood (who has spoken of Christ's Blood as much as Catherine?) upon the
world through his Church. The other is human, historical, institutional,
concrete, but never separated from the divine aspect. One may wonder if
our modern critics of the institutional aspect of the Church are ever
capable of grasping this simultaneity, or if their grave dissertations,
or vivisections of the mystical Body of Christ, which is the Church (not
only heavenly, but earthly, the Church in time, a body corporate,
personified in men composed of Adam's clay, even if animated by the
gifts of the Holy Spirit), would ever give rise to an expression like
the one, so often quoted, that describes the Pope: "Oh. Papa, Sweet
Christ on earth..." (Letter 185). Catherine loves the Church
as it is. (cfr. Taurisano, "Dialogo", quoting Cordovani, p.IL).
Second point. Catherine does not love the Church for the human merits
of those who belong to it, or represent it. If we think of the
conditions in which the Church was at that time, we can easily
understand that her love had very different motives. And this can be
gathered from the free and frank language in which Catherine denounces
the evils of ecclesiastical organization at that time, and calls for its
reform. St. Catherine does not hide the failings of ecclesiastics, but
as she inveighs against such decadence, she considers it a motive and a
need to love all the more.
Priestly dignity and sacramental function
And so the real motive, and this is the third point, is the mission
of the Church, its priestly dignity, its sacramental function; it is
"the first and fundamental truth that the Church preserves and
communicates to souls... the reality of God's love for his
creatures" (Tincani, 37). "This greatness—Catherine writes
in the marvellous 110th chapter of her Dialogue—is given in general to
every rational creature (she is alluding perhaps to the "priesthood
of the faithful"); but among the latter (it is God speaking) I have
chosen my ministers for your salvation, in order that the Blood of the
humble and immaculate Lamb, my Only-begotten Son, may be administered to
you through them. They have the privilege of administering the Sun,
giving them the light of science, the warmth of divine charity".
The Council does not speak differently (cfr. Lumen Gentium, n.
This is Catherine's love: the hierarchical Church is the
indispensable ministry for the salvation of the world. And for this
reason her life will become a drama, mystical and physical, of
suffering, prayer, activity. "The cross on my back and the
olive-branch in my hand" (Letter 219) became her spiritual and
social mission. Catherine's definition of herself is famous. "In
Thy nature, eternal Deity, I will know my nature", she says in one
of her prayers (24); "and what is my nature? it is fire!" (cfr.
The storm-tossed boat
The last mystical episode of her life is worth remembering. Weak,
exhausted by fasting and illness, she came every day to St. Peter's, the
former basilica. In the porch there was a garden, on the facade a famous
mosaic, painted by Giotto for the 1300 jubilee, and called the barque
(now it appears inside the porch of the new basilica). It reproduced the
scene of Peter's boat, tossed by the night storm, and it represented the
apostle daring to move towards Christ who has appeared walking on the
waves; a symbol of life that is always in danger and always miraculously
saved by the divine mysterious Master. One day, it was 29th January
1380, about Vesper time, Sexagesima Sunday, and it was Catherine's last
visit to St. Peter's; it seemed to Catherine, caught up in ecstasy, that
Jesus stepped out of the mosaic and came up to her, placing the barque
on her weak shoulders; the heavy, storm-tossed barque of the Church; and
Catherine, collapsing under the weight, fell to the ground unconscious.
Historically, Catherine's sacrifice seemed to fail. But who can say that
burning love of hers disappeared in vain if myriads of virgin souls and
hosts of priestly spirits and of faithful and industrious laymen, made
it their own; and it still blazes in Catherine's words: "Sweet
Jesus, darling Jesus"?
And may that fire be ours, too, may it give us the strength to repeat
Catherine's words and gift. "I have given my life for Holy
Church" (Raimondo da Capua, Vita, III, 4). With Our