General Audience on Saint Catherine

Author: Pope Paul VI


Pope Paul VI

"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 helpnoting 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. 24).

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. Joergensen, 495).

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 Apostolic Blessing.  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
8 May 1969, page 5

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