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On this feast of the great St. Catherine of Siena, let’s turn to her life and learn more about the kind of woman she was. It’s been over 600 years since she died, but holiness is timeless. Her story leaves us with several lessons that can apply to Christians today.
1Stand up for truth in times of conflict
If you think modern-day politics are divisive and dangerous, you should have seen Siena in the 1300s! Warring factions tore apart the Italian peninsula, and most people in power were embroiled in bitter disputes.
Against this backdrop, St. Catherine’s holy life shines all the more brightly. She urged peace to those at war, and humility to those grasping for earthly power. She was a rare advocate for Christ’s truth in her day, a “voice crying out in the wilderness.”
Her efforts to speak the truth and spread Christ’s message made her well-known even during her lifetime, although this was not always to her benefit. In 1378 Pope Gregory sent her to Florence to work for peace after the city made war against the Holy See:
Unfortunately, through the factious conduct of her Florentine associates, she became involved in the internal politics of the city, and during a popular tumult an attempt was made upon her life. She was bitterly disappointed at her escape, declaring that her sins had deprived her of the red rose of martyrdom.
Her response to being spared death is certainly not how most people would respond! Yet we can learn a lot from her fearlessness.
St. Catherine was not afraid to stand up for peace, for mercy, for true charity. Her outspoken witness to the Gospel did not always endear her to others, certainly! But what is right is rarely what is popular.
None of the antagonism and slander she faced deterred her from fulfilling her duty as a Christian.
2Stick to God’s call for you, even in the face of pressure
St. Catherine encountered plenty of opposition from various sources throughout her life. Surprisingly, one of these sources was her own parents:
At the age of 16, Catherine’s sister, Bonaventura, died, leaving her husband as a widower. Catherine’s parents proposed that he marry Catherine as a replacement, but Catherine opposed this. She began fasting and cut her hair short to mar her appearance. Her parents attempted to resist this move to avoid marriage, but they were unsuccessful.
At that time, it was common practice for a woman to marry her sister’s widower. Catherine’s persistent refusal to obey her parents in this matter must have seemed like wilful stubbornness. But she knew that God had other plans for her, and even filial love would not turn her away from God’s will.
We hear much nowadays about “listening to an inner voice.” If this “inner voice” is the “still, small voice” of God speaking within our consciences, then it’s only right that we should follow it against all odds.
St. Catherine carefully discerned God’s will for her and then persevered in doing it. Her determination to obey God’s call, even in the face of worldly pressures, is an example to us all.
3Work for God’s Kingdom, on earth as well as in heaven
It can be easy to brush off worldly calamities with the assurance that “It will all even out in the next life.” But St. Catherine did not take this approach at all, even though the spiritual world was a real and constant presence around her.
Not only did she devote herself to serving the poor and sick, but also St. Catherine was very involved in the civil and ecclesiastical politics of her time. She was known to
tend the sick, especially those afflicted with the most repulsive diseases, to serve the poor, and to labour for the conversion of sinners … She began to dispatch letters to men and women in every condition of life, entered into correspondence with the princes and republics of Italy, was consulted by the papal legates about the affairs of the Church, and set herself to heal the wounds of her native land by staying the fury of civil war and the ravages of faction.
Prayer and meditation energized and guided her efforts. St. Catherine was a living example of the “faith and works” of which St. James wrote, saying, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also” (James 2:26).
St. Catherine reminds us that Christians have a serious moral obligation to work for justice and peace in this life. She balanced her spiritual devotion with very active efforts to do God’s work on earth.