29th April. Catherine of Siena, Patron of Europe

1st Reading: 1 John 1:5–2:2

The message we have heard from him and proclaim to you

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Gospel: Matthew 11:25-30

No one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Catherine of Siena

Caterina Benincasa (1347-1380) was born in Siena, Italy, daughter of a cloth dyer (Giacomo) and Lapa Piagenti who had a very large family. The house where Catherine grew up is still in existence. Lapa was about forty years old when she prematurely gave birth to twin daughters, Catherine and Giovanna. Giovanna was handed over to a wet-nurse, and presently died, whereas Catherine was nursed by her mother, and developed into a healthy child. Catherine had her first vision of Christ when she was age five or six, saying that Jesus smiled at her, blessed her, and left her in ecstasy.

Her older sister Bonaventura died in childbirth and within a year her younger sister Giovanna also died. While coping with this grief, the sixteen-year-old Catherine was now faced with her parents’ wish that she marry Bonaventura’s widower. Absolutely opposed to this, she started a massive fast and cut off her long hair. Catherine later advised her confessor and biographer, Fr. Raymond of Capua, to do during times of trouble what she did as a teenager: “Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee.” Eventually her father gave up and permitted her to live as she pleased.

Her wish to join the Dominican Order was resisted by her mother until Catherine fell seriously ill with violent fever and pain, which made her mother accept her wish to join the local association of Dominican Tertiaries. Lapa persuaded the Sisters of the Order to take in her daughter. Within days, Catherine seemed entirely restored, and determined to live as a tertiary outside the convent, at home with her family. The sisters taught Catherine how to read, and she lived in almost total solitude in the family home. Her custom of giving away food and clothing without asking permission cost her family significantly but she demanded nothing for herself. Catherine received the habit of a Dominican tertiary from the friars of the Order, however, only after vigorous protests from the Tertiaries themselves, who up to that point had been only widows.

In about 1366, Catherine experienced what she described as a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus, later a popular subject in art. Other miracles recounted by Raymond of Capua’s include her reception of the stigmata and her receiving communion from Christ himself. He also records that she was told by Christ to leave her withdrawn life and enter the public life of the world. She then dedicated much of her life to helping the ill and the poor, taking care of them in hospitals or homes. Her pious activities in Siena attracted a group of followers, both women and men, while they also brought her to the attention of the Dominican Order, which called her to Florence in 1374 to interrogate her for possible heresy. After she was deemed sufficiently orthodox, she began travelling with her followers throughout northern and central Italy advocating reform of the clergy and advising people that repentance and renewal could be done through “the total love for God.”

Catherine made her views known to all whom she met; and from the early 1370s began dictating letters to various scribes. These letters widened her audience to include figures in authority as she begged for peace between the republics and principalities of Italy and for the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome. She carried on a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, asking him to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States. In June 1376 Catherine went to Avignon as ambassador of Florence to make peace with the Papal States, but was unsuccessful. She also tried to convince Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, with the effect that he returned to Rome in 1377. Following Gregory’s death and during the Western Schism of 1378 she supported Pope Urban VI, who summoned her to Rome, where she lived until her death in 1380. The Western Schism would trouble her until the end of her life.

More than 300 of Catherine’s letters have survived and are considered important works of early Tuscan literature. In her letters to the Pope, she often referred to him affectionately simply as Papa (“Pope”), instead of the formal form of address as “Holiness.” Other correspondents include Raymond of Capua, the kings of France and Hungary, and the Queen of Naples. Approximately one third of her letters are to women. Her other major work is The Dialogue of Divine Providence, a dialogue between a soul who “rises up” to God and God himself, as recorded by members of her circle. Often assumed to be illiterate, Catherine is said by Raymond in his biography to have read both Latin and Italian. Another hagiographer, Tommaso Caffarini, claimed that she could write in her own hand, though most if not all of her written work was dictated.


A beacon of light

Catherine of Siena’s mysticism did not withdraw her from the world. She was deeply involved in what was happening in Europe and in the church in her time. It was she who persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from Avignon, insisting that the Pope’s place was beside the bones of the martyrs. Shortly after his return, Pope Gregory died. He was succeeded by Pope Urban VI who turned out to be a disastrous Pope. The cardinals regretted their decision and elected a second Pope but could not persuade Pope Urban to retire. The church now had two Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, a situation that was to last for several decades. Catherine remained faithful to Urban, in spite of his faults because he had been duly elected. She was convinced that the wound in the body of Christ could only be healed by great sacrifice. She prayed that she might atone for the sins of the church, and shortly afterwards collapsed and died. Catherine stood out as a beacon of light in a dark time. That is the calling of each one of us. We are all called to be mystics to some degree. The Lord’s invitation, “Come to me, all who labour and are overburdened,” is addressed to us all. He calls out to all of us to come to him, to know and love him as he knows and loves us. In calling us to himself he also sends us into the world afire with the flame of his love.[Martin Hogan]

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