We Need Saints.
In an age collapsing under the weight of sin and wandering aimlessly without a moral compass, we need holy women and men to be raised up to shake the church and bring conversion to a world waiting to be born again. We need saints.
Saints put legs on the Christian faith. Our age is an age with no real heroes. Saints are heroes of the Faith and they need to be held up high once again! They inspire us, no matter what our state in life or vocation. They need to be imitated, as they imitated Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 4:16).
Saints are a gift for the whole Church. They remind us that the Risen Jesus Christ still walks in our midst, making ordinary men and women extraordinary. And, Christ can do the same with each one of us. That is why their stories are recounted in our common family history. This is called hagiography.
The stories of these great heroes of the Faith help us to aspire to follow the Lord in our own lives. They are a part of that that great cloud of witnesses which the author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews speaks of in this verse:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1
Today, in the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar, we commemorate one of the greatest women saints of Christian history, Catherine of Siena. She is an outstanding example for all who follow Jesus Christ and desire the healing and unity of the Church in our own day. More than anything else, we need saints in this urgent hour.
These beautiful words are found in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours on this Feast. They came from the pen of this strong woman of God who found her strength in a deep communion with God:
“Eternal Trinity, Godhead, mystery deep as the sea, you could give me no greater gift than the gift of yourself. For you are a fire ever burning and never consume, which itself consumes all the selfish love that fills my being.” – Catherine of Sienna
Like all the saints, this extraordinary woman came from an ordinary background. That is why knowing her story helps us to understand that the power of the Holy Spirit can transform all who surrender themselves completely to the Lord. We are all called to holiness; all called to make the Risen Savior real by our words and deeds. We are all called to be saints.
Let us consider her life, and choose to learn the Way of the Lord Jesus from her example.
Born in 1347, Catherine Benincasa was the twenty-fifth child born to Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa. Her father Giacomo was a wealthy businessman. Her mother, as one can imagine, had her days and nights filled with caring for twenty-five children!
At the age of six, Catherine was walking home when she saw Jesus seated in glory. Accompanying him were members of the heavenly family, the Church triumphant – Peter, Paul, and John.
It was on that day that young Catherine decided to surrender her whole life to the Lord in prayer and service to the Church, the Body of Jesus Christ.
Catherine’s parents wanted her to marry. Like most parents, they wanted their daughter to have the best life that they could provide. They presumed that meant marriage and motherhood. At first, they resisted young Catherine’s desire to surrender the joys of marriage for her greatest desire, the life of remaining celibate out of love.
Catherine wanted to give her whole life in a prophetic witness of the life to come. She desired to forsake marriage to one man for marriage to Christ and his Church. In life wholly surrendered and consecrated to God and his Church, she found her fulfillment.
Over time, like many parents of saints and heroes of the faith, Catherine’s parents began to see the finger of God working in their daughter’s life. They could not stand in the way. In fact, they began to pave the way in prayer.
At the age of sixteen, Catherine chose the way of another hero of the faith, St. Dominic, in responding to the grace of her vocation. He had left a way of life for all who sought to live what the church has called the “evangelical counsels”, the Dominican Order. Catherine became a tertiary (lay follower) of the Dominican rule and embraced a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience.
She lived this response to the Gospel while still living with her family. Catherine understood that the mission field is often found in our own backyard!
She first reached out and cared for those whom others avoided in the hospital located in Siena, her own hometown. She, like so many other saints and heroes throughout the history of the Church, believed that Jesus hid himself in the face and the wounds of the poor.
She preferred the lepers and the cancer patients, loving them with the love of the Crucified One whom she loved. Then the Lord gave her sisters, women who recognized that Catherine was a servant of the Lord, and they began to walk the way of the Lord with her.
When the plague broke out in Siena, one of her friends wrote: “She was always with the plague-stricken. She prepared them for death; she buried them with her own hands. I myself witnessed the joy with which she nursed them and how effective her words were.”
Catherine regularly frequented the prisons and loved to work with those preparing for execution. One of the many stories told of her concerns one prisoner, whom she led to faith and baptism.
Having heard he was afraid to die, she wanted him to experience the love of Jesus so much that she stayed with him, holding his head even as he was executed, so that he would die encountering the love of God, manifested in a follower of his Son, Jesus Christ!
Catherine’s reputation for holiness spread throughout Italy. Her wisdom and ability to bring true reconciliation and authentic peace to hostile parties led to her being sought out by families and political leaders who were at odds with one another.
That same gift was offered, as were all of her gifts, to the Church. Rome, the center of Western Christianity, had fallen into decay. The pope was in Avignon in the South of France. Though the Church in her hour was struggling, Catherine remained loyal. She referred to the pope as the “sweet Christ on earth”, recognizing that the Church, even in her human imperfections was, and still is, the loving plan of the Lord, making him present in every age.
Having heard from the Lord in prayer that the pope must return to Rome in order to begin the needed reforms of the Church, she courageously advised Pope Gregory (and sought the support of every cardinal who would receive her letters) that he must return to Rome.
In 1377, Gregory did return to Rome. When he died the next year, Urban VI was elected in Rome and a rival pope, Clement VII, installed in Avignon. A time of great upheaval, division, and suffering – what came to be called the Great Schism – swept the Church.
Catherine’s heart broke over the divisions in the body of Christ. She persevered in prayer and continued her counsel to all who would listen: pope, cardinals, kings, princes and bishops.
In January of 1380, while praying at Peter’s tomb, she experienced the great weight of the Church fall on her own shoulders, and she offered herself and her suffering as a “victim” for the renewal of the Church.
On April 29 of that same year, around midday, God called her to Himself. Days before her death, she wrote, “If I die, let it be known that I die…of passion for the Church.” Her deathbed prayer is a model of love poured out for all who follow Jesus Christ and desire the healing and unity of the Church in our day:
“Oh eternal God, receive the sacrifice of my own life on behalf of the mystical Body of Holy Church. I have nothing else to give except what you have given me.”
Doctor of the Church
Catherine was a prolific letter writer. At least 400 of her letters have survived. Leaders of church and state regularly sought out her wisdom, even though she was never formally educated and only learned to read and write as an adult.
She wrote only one book titled, Dialogue, which is an ongoing account of her intimate conversational relationship with the Lord whom she loved so intimately. She considered herself espoused to him.
It was at the age of thirty-three, the same age at which Jesus offered Himself on the altar of the Cross, that Catherine was called home to the Father.
Companions of Catherine regularly noted how she maintained her joy, even in suffering, and her femininity, even in her dogged and courageous contending with Church leaders!
Her witness of life and her extraordinary letters became a great influence on another woman hero of the faith, Teresa of Avila. Teresa of Avila credited her own call to spiritual progress (in addition to the influence of the Lord himself) to the prayers and example of Catherine.
Pius II canonized Catherine. Pius IX declared her, along with Francis of Assisi, the second patron of Italy. In 1970, Pope Paul VI proclaimed Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa’s twenty-fifth child, never formally educated, to be a Doctor of the Church.
That title speaks to us of a profound truth. It is intimacy with the Lord which makes men and women theologians, not necessarily formal academic study. Though it is desirable, it is prayer and communion with the Lord which is most important.
Father, raise up women like Catherine of Siena for this new missionary age of your Church. Women who are so in love with you, and so conformed to the image of your Son that they can do for your Church in this hou, what she did in her own.