Catherine of Siena perfectly exemplifies how a person can be both faithful to the teaching of the Gospel while also be firm when injustice occurs in the Church.
Over the past several months, news about the sexual abuse scandal within the bowels of the Catholic Church hierarchy rocked not only the faith of the Catholic faithful but also caused huge distrust to linger over the 2,000-year-old Church instituted by Jesus Christ. As a cradle Catholic, I am appalled and viciously angry over the vile sins of those men who committed abusive sexual acts on innocent victims. I am also disgusted by the cowardice of those leaders who knew had knowledge of the evils going on and did absolutely nothing to stop it. As a parent of young children who attend a Catholic school, I am a little scared about how to reconcile the love of God with these heinous acts.
On social media, I have seen an array of reactions regarding the news of Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the deeds of a disgraced cardinal, and former archbishop of Washington D.C. Theodore McCarrick. While the most common words to describe these articles include: angry, disgusted, sorrowful, desolate, and confused, I did come across a quote which helped provide perspective—and dare I say it–even hope.
This quote also came from another archbishop, but one on the other end of the spectrum of holiness—Venerable Fulton Sheen. As an advocate for truth safeguarded in the Catholic Church, I imagined he would be just as angry, if not more as me, on the news of the priestly abuse against minors. According to him, “Judge the Catholic Church not by those who barely live by its spirit, but by the example of those who live closest to it.” In other words, our litmus test on the validity or invalidity of the truth housed within the Catholic Church should not be based on hypocrites, but rather on the saints!
The aim of every Catholic is to be a saint. A saint is not a perfect individual who never, ever sinned in their life, but rather a saint is someone who pledges to live a holy life and always seeks forgiveness and mercy whenever they offended God and neighbor. According to Lumen Gentium 5, “Therefore in the Church, everyone, whether belonging to the hierarchy or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification”.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about saints,
We believe in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church; and we believe that in this communion, the merciful love of God and his saints is always [attentive] to our prayers. (CCC 962)
Although a plethora of individuals are canonized as official saints by the Catholic Church, I thought of one particular saint immediately who despised corruption in Church leadership as much as anyone— St. Catherine of Siena. Along with being a strong female saint, Catherine was also a layperson. Despite holding no official leadership position in the Catholic Church, she boldly confronted the pope and urged him to return to Rome. [She lived in the 14th century when corruption ran roughshod through the hierarchy].
As a member of the laity myself, reflecting on Catherine of Siena’s life and testimony to truth helped remind me of three important facts. On top of her courageous witness to face corruption within the Catholic Church no matter the cost, I discovered another fact about St. Catherine of Siena that provides further evidence I need to share what I learned from her: she is the patron saint of Pennsylvania— the very location where this insidious cover-up occurred. Coincidence? I think not! Reading nearly 100 pages of her various letters to Church clergy, secular leaders, and lay faithful, I learned a lot about Catherine’s theology and her strong desire to reform the Catholic Church. Below are four primary reasons the Sienese saint should be the standard-bearer in our fight against corruption in the 21st century.
Stand for Truth, Stand against Corruption:
Among the most famous thing Catherine of Siena is known for is her persistent petition to the pope to end the corruption in the Catholic Church. Influenced by the secular state the papacy moved to Avignon, France. The ability to balance firmness and charity in her tone in letters to Popes Gregory XI and Urban VI show the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the holy lay handmaiden of God. Respectfully, Catherine began her letters by addressing the Supreme Pontiff as “Most holy and dear and sweet father in Christ sweet Jesus” (emphasis mine). This is the appropriate approach we should always have when addressing leadership in the hierarchy.
Over time she gets more and more firm in her message, but Catherine continually hopes for the reformation of the pope’s human failings, “But, I hope, by the goodness of God that you will pay more heed to His honour and the safety of your own flock than to yourself, like a good shepherd, who ought to lay down his life for his sheep” (Letter to Gregory XI).
Along with the Sienesian saint’s letters to the pope, she also wrote to cardinals regarding Church corruption. In a letter to three Italian cardinals, Catherine states,
Return, return, and wait not for the rod of justice since we cannot escape the hands of God! We are in His hands either by justice or by mercy; better it is for us to recognize our faults and to abide in the hands of mercy than to remain in fault and in the hands of justice. For our faults do not pass unpunished, especially those that are wrought against Holy Church.
Similar to the crisis the Church faces today, it is good to remind the hierarchy to repent, assuming we first ask for forgiveness for our own failings.
Cauterize Sin Instead of Covering it Up:
Another key theme in Catherine’s writings is the need for spiritual surgery when sin infects the body of Christ. She warns against the lukewarm treatment of correcting sin tendencies. In a letter to Pope Gregory XI, Catherine proclaims, “If a wound when necessary is not cauterized or cut out with steel, but simply covered with ointment, not only does it fail to heal, but it infects everything, and many a time death follows from it.” The indifference toward the sexual abuse scandal by the Church leadership, for sure the perception of indifference, is something that Catherine of Siena would denounce!
Trust in God’s Infinite Mercy:
Along with Catherine of Siena’s tough stance on corruption and ardent desire to confront sin, the Italian saint refers to the infinite bounds of God’s Mercy. A focus on justice without mercy, leads to a cold and inhumane approach to correcting sin. However, in the tradition of Catholic Church teaching, Catherine presents a balanced approach to judgment and mercy.
Despite the countless times she calls about the abuses of the hierarchy, the Doctor of the Church mentions God’s mercy just as often. Doing a word search over the course of her many letters (see below link), Catherine uses the word mercy no less than 79 times. Ideally, I would like to cite all examples, but that would lead to quite a length article! Her most powerful message I found occurred in a communication to Raimondo of Capua of the Order of the Preachers,
“Be sure that in all things you have recourse to Mary, embracing the holy Cross, and never let yourself fall into confusion of mind, but sail in a stormy sea in the ship of divine mercy.”
Shying away from the trials and suffering will not sanctify the Church in Her time of peril. Catherine reminds us to cling to the mast of the Cross and look to Mary—Star of the Sea, to guide us.
Be Gold Tested in Fire:
The final point I wish to make as to why an examination of the witness, word, and life of the simple 14th-century saint is essential to reforming the 21st century is Catherine’s persistent focus on suffering as a means to galvanize our faith. She uses the following image to describe how painful suffering actually reform us more beautifully and stronger than before—a divine furnace! Writing to Brother Matteo di Francesco Tolomei of the Order of the Preachers, Catherine offers words of encouragement that hope is founded in the love of God, “kindled by the fire of divine charity.” In another letter, to religious sisters, she longed for the passing of their suffering in saying, ”
Dearest mother and daughter in Christ sweet Jesus: I Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in His precious Blood: with desire to see you so clothed in the flames of divine charity that you may bear all pain and torment, hunger and thirst, persecution and injury, derision, outrage and insult, and everything else, with true patience; learning from the Lamb suffering and slain, who ran with such burning love to the shameful death of the Cross (emphasis mine).
Today more than ever, the laity should learn from the incredible witness of the Doctor of the Church. “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”