April 29, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – In our family, we enjoy reading books aloud almost every evening after dinner. In this way, we’ve managed to read through hundreds of books over the years—mostly imaginative literature, but sometimes biographies, histories, or religious works.
At the recommendation of others who had read it, one springtime we took up Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset, author of the novel Kristin Lavransdatter. Undset converted to Catholicism in 1924, at the age of 42, and eventually became a lay Dominican, like Catherine herself. We were spell-bound by this book, amazed at Catherine’s spiritual gifts and human qualities, delighted by the vigor of her writings (which Undset quotes or summarizes throughout), appalled at the clerical and political corruption of her age, and edified by her response to it, at once charitable and courageous.
How remarkable is the shining knowledge and serene wisdom of Catherine on every profound question she ever spoke about—this girl who had barely had any education and who said, with simplicity, that the Lord taught her everything she knew! She used to dictate two or three letters at a time to her various secretaries and never lost the thread of her thoughts. No atheist could ever explain how something like this is even remotely possible on a materialist reading of the universe. She is living proof of the reality of God and the infusion of His grace.
Catherine was born on March 25, 1347, and died on April 29, 1380. When she was added to the general calendar of the saints in 1628, April 29th was occupied by the great Dominican St. Peter the Martyr (often depicted in European art with a sword halfway through his head, as he was killed by a Catharist assassin), so she was given the date April 30th—a date she retained until 1969, when Peter Martyr was dropped from the general calendar and Catherine put in her place.
I would like to share some passages in Undset’s biography that particularly struck me. I will be citing from the original Sheed & Ward edition from 1954. (Strangely, the new Ignatius Press edition omits the powerful opening chapter by Undset, which concludes with the lines: “They [blessed Birgitta of Sweden and blessed Catherine] came to play a part in world politics, and to correct, advise and direct—sometimes even order and command—the Vicar of Christ on earth,” and consequently numbers Undset’s chapter 2 as “chapter 1,” etc., which is, to say the least, misleading to the reader. One wonders if perhaps the content of the opening chapter was thought to be too edgy?)
St. Ignatius of Loyola gets credit for his discernment of spirits, but we can find in her works a vivid anticipation of the same principles. Jesus says to her at one point:
My visions are always accompanied at first by a certain amount of fear, but as they unfold they bring a growing feeling of security. First comes bitterness, but later comes strength and consolation. The visions which come from the devil create at first a feeling of security and sweetness, but they end in terror and bitterness. My way is the way of penitence. At first it seems hard and difficult to follow, but the further you pursue it, the happier and sweeter it appears. The way of the devil, on the other hand, is sweet and happy to begin with, but as the soul pursues the way of sin it goes from bitterness to bitterness, and the end is eternal damnation. (p. 44)
Christ says again to Catherine, who never sought publicity and, if anything, ran from confrontation:
I shall send you to the popes and the leaders of My Church and to all Christians, for I choose to put the pride of the mighty to shame by the use of fragile tools. (p. 102)
The situation of the period was terrible, as the French-controlled papacy remained comfortably settled in Avignon, perpetuating “the Popes’ Babylonian captivity,” while the state of the Church, in general, went from bad to worse:
The people lost their love and trust in the Church of Christ since its power to lead souls into the right way and to heal the wounds of the exhausted people had been so sadly weakened. The morals of the clergy, both the higher and the lower, had in many places sunk so deep that the hearts of the faithful were filled with horror and grief. In many parts there was a terrible ignorance of religion; practically no religious teaching was given, men and women knew almost nothing of the faith which they officially professed…. But no place suffered from the absence of the Vicar of Christ from the old capital of the Church so much as Rome itself. (pp. 118–19)
Reading such words today can only make us marvel at how history repeats itself, except never in quite the same way; for though a bishop dwells in the old capital of the Church, he has dispossessed himself of the title of Vicar of Christ, reducing it to a mere “historical title.”
In words devastatingly applicable to the fear that has gripped the world and driven responses to the coronavirus, Catherine writes to a Cardinal Legate, Pierre d’Estaing, in 1372:
A soul which is full of slavish fear cannot achieve anything which is right, whatever the circumstances may be, whether it concern small or great things. It will always be shipwrecked and never complete what it has begun. Oh, how dangerous this fear is! It makes holy desire powerless, it blinds a man so that he can neither see nor understand the truth. This fear is born of the blindness of self-love, for as soon as a human being loves himself with the self-love of the senses he learns fear, and the reason of this fear is that it has given its hope and love to fragile things which have neither substance nor being and vanish like the wind… Seek for nothing but the honour of God, the salvation of the soul, and the service of the beloved Bride of Christ, the Holy Church. (pp. 139–40)
Catherine writes to another church dignitary, Gérard du Puy:
Our Lord hates above all things three abominable sins: covetousness, unchastity, and pride. These prevail in the Bride of Christ, that is to say, in the prelates who seek nothing but riches, pleasure, and fame. They see the demons from hell stealing the souls which have been put into their keeping, and are completely unmoved, for they are wolves who do business with divine grace. Strict justice is needed to punish them. In this case exaggerated mercy is in fact the worst cruelty. It is necessary for justice to go hand in hand with mercy to put a stop to such evil. (p. 141)
In 1375, she addressed to Pope Gregory XI a letter described by Undset as “nothing less than a serious warning.” Catherine tells Gregory “the victim of self-love becomes indifferent to sins and faults among his subordinates… Either he attempts to punish them so half-heartedly that it is useless, or else he does not punish them at all” (p. 166).
Catherine tells the pope openly that in the last resort it is he who carries the whole responsibility for the terrible abuses which are draining the life of the Church, even though according to human reckoning he may be a fine person with many good qualities. Nevertheless it is he who is responsible for the bad shepherds and the treacherous monks whose shameful way of living is undermining the faith of believers. (p. 167)
At one moment Undset pauses to speak about the paradox of the papacy—obviously she doesn’t belong to that facile school of thought for which a given pope is “the Holy Spirit’s choice” and so he must be doing and teaching all the right things:
[A]s it has been put in the hands of men to appoint a man as the Vicar of Christ, it is only to be expected that the voters will all too often vote from impure, mean, or cunning motives, for a man who will become an evil to the Church of God on earth. God will nevertheless watch over His Church, raise and restore again what mankind may ruin or soil; it is necessary, for mystical reasons which the saints have partly seen and understood, that the offence should occur. But woe to that person through whom the offence comes. (p. 170)
Catherine nevertheless retained an unshakeable faith in Divine Providence and in the indefectibility of the Catholic Church, in spite of the sins of her members and especially of her shepherds. In the same year (1375), she wrote in a circular letter to the general and elders of Lucca:
The Church is His bride; the faithful sons of the Church are they who prefer to suffer death a thousand times than to leave it. If you reply that it looks as though the Church must surrender, for it is impossible for it to save itself and its children, I say to you that it is not so. The outward appearance deceives, but look at the inward, and you will find that it possesses a power which its enemies can never possess. (p. 172)
To three Italian cardinals, she wrote: “You deserve punishment more than words” (p. 247).
In what has to be one of the most remarkable letters ever written, Catherine admonished her spiritual director, Raymond of Capua (who later wrote an important biography of the saint) for his fear of possible ambush and capture in a journey he was to undertake:
My very dear Father in Jesus Christ, I Catherine, Christ’s servants’ serving-woman and slave, write to you in His precious Blood, full of longing to see you grow out of your childhood and become a grown man… For an infant who lives on milk is not able to fight on the battlefield; he only wants to play with other children…. But when he becomes a grown man, he leaves behind him his sensitive self-love. Filled with holy desire, he eats bread, chewing it with the teeth of hate and love, and the coarser and harder it is, the better he likes it… He has become strong, he associates with strong men, he is firm, serious, thoughtful; he hastens to the battlefield with them, and his only wish is to fight for the Truth… You were not yet worthy to fight on the battlefield, and therefore you were sent behind the lines like a little boy; you fled of your own free will, and were glad to do so, because God showed mercy for your weakness… Oh bad little Father, what happiness it had been for your soul and mine if you had cemented a single stone in the Church of God with your blood, out of love for the precious Blood… We have truly reason to complain when we see how our wretched deeds have lost a great reward for us. Oh, let us lose our milk teeth and cut instead the strong teeth of hate and love. (pp. 253–54)
Catherine and Raymond had a deep friendship in Christ and their love was only strengthened by the clarity of their candid correspondence. In spite of being chided as “a little boy,” Raymond must have been mature indeed to respond so well to such frank criticism! In a letter after this, Catherine continues her advice to her director, whom she knows will be entrusted with more and more responsibilities:
You will not be able to enjoy much of the solitude of the cell, but it is my will that you carry with you everywhere the cell in your heart, for you know that when we are enclosed in it the enemy cannot harm us…. Love the table of the Cross and nourish yourself with the soul’s food in holy vigilance and ceaseless prayer; say Mass every day unless you are absolutely prevented…. Cast your weakness and slavish fear from you, for the Holy Church has no use for such servants. (p. 270)
Sigrid Undset concludes with an eloquent peroration to the “martyrdom” suffered by this great Sienese saint in her 33 years of tireless prayer and labors:
It is certain that Catherine voluntarily—and few women have ever had such an inflexible will—chose to suffer ceaselessly for all she believed in, loved, and desired: unity with God, the glory and honour of His name, His kingdom on earth, the eternal happiness of all mankind, and the re-birth of Christ’s Church to the beauty which it possesses when the radiance of its soul shines freely through its outward form—that form which was then stained and spoilt by its own degenerate servants and rebellious children. As Catherine expressed it: the strength and beauty of its mystical body can never diminish, for it is God; but the jewels with which its mystical body are adorned are the good accomplished by its sincere and faithful children. (p. 289)
St. Catherine was unquestionably among the most sincere and most faithful Christians the world has ever known—like the ancient saints “of whom the world was not worthy” (Heb 11:38), and yet who have left a decisive mark on the Church and on human civilization. Her spiritual doctrine remains ever fresh and full of life, accurate and relevant.
May she intercede for us as we strive to be those “firm, serious, thoughtful” soldiers of Christ who “hasten to the battlefield…to fight for the Truth.”