80% of the population of Siena died the year after her birth because of the Bubonic Plague!
The Bubonic plague arrived in Sicily the same year that St. Catherine of Siena was born. The following year, 1348, eighty percent of the population of Siena would die from the disease.
Outbreaks of the disease would continue throughout Catherine’s life. One Sienese chronicle reports, “And no bells tolled, and nobody wept no matter what his loss because almost everyone expected death… And people said and believed, ‘This is the end of the world.’” It was a time of philosophical cynicism, political instability, and extraordinary suffering.
And yet this was the scene for Catherine’s discovery of her vocation to love God and to love her neighbor.
Catherine spent three years of her life in solitude, growing in an intimate relationship with God. This monastic time was filled with many graces and intense prayer. Catherine feared that if she were to re-enter an active, apostolic life (engaging again in worldly affairs), that her relationship with God would suffer.
The Lord told Catherine, however,
I have no intention of parting you from myself, but rather of making sure to bind you to me all the closer by the bond of your love for your neighbor. Remember I have laid down two commandments of love: love of me and love of your neighbor… It is the justice of these two commandments that I want you now to fulfill. On two feet you must walk my way (Life of St. Catherine of Siena by Raymond of Capua).
The marriage of the two great commandments became the rule of her own life. After her years of solitary prayer, Catherine gave herself over to caring for the poor and the sick. Catherine desired to be a servant of others because Christ had been the servant of all and redeemed humanity by his precious blood.
In a letter to Caterina di Scetto, another laywoman who belonged to the mantellate in Siena, Catherine describes her vision of charity saying,
Take care not to love your neighbor for your own profit, for that would not be responding to the love which God has for you. For as God has loved you gratuitously so he wills that since you cannot love him in this way, you would do so toward your neighbors, loving them, as I said, gratuitously and not as a debt.”
For Catherine love of God is where our virtues begin, and in our love of neighbor they come alive. Because this love comes from God, it must be without constraint.
Catherine could love in this way because of her total trust in Divine Providence. In a particularly moving passage in her Dialogue, Catherine hears the Lord say to her,
Everything was made by me, and without me nothing can exist. Therefore, if it is beauty you want, I am beauty. If you want goodness, I am goodness, for I am supremely good. I am wisdom. I am kind; I am compassionate; I am the just and merciful God.
So often charity is inhibited because of a lack of trust in what the Lord is doing. Hearts are held back, growth is stunted by the shadows of doubt that all things belong to the Lord and were redeemed by his blood.
As we begin to long for life “post quarantine”; as our neighbors continue to be in need; as we pray for the Church, hoping for renewal in life and vigor, like Catherine, we have to confidently hand everything over to Christ.
Despite plague, isolation, the complications of her own family life, and the political turmoil of her day, Catherine gave herself over to love of God and love of neighbor.
May this novena — which begins April 20 to end on her April 29 feast day — give us the same grace!
Heavenly Father, your glory is in your saints. We praise your glory in the life of the admirable St. Catherine of Siena, virgin and doctor of the Church. Her whole life was a noble sacrifice inspired by an ardent love of Jesus, your unblemished Lamb. In troubled times she strenuously upheld the rights of His beloved spouse, the Church. Father, honor her merits and hear her prayers for each of us, and for our whole parish family. Help us to pass unscathed through the corruption of this world, and to remain unshakably faithful to the Church in word, deed, and example. Help us always to see in the Vicar of Christ an anchor in the storms of life, and a beacon of light to the harbor of your Love, in this dark night of your times and men’s souls. Grant also to each of us our special petition . . . (State your own intentions) We ask this through Jesus, your Son, in the bond of the Holy Spirit. Amen. St. Catherine of Siena, Pray for us.