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Pilgrimage Mass: Basilica San Domenico, Siena
Saturday, March 3, 2018

That parable from Luke’s gospel has been a favorite of mine ever since I was a junior in high school and had to write a little essay about it.  And what better place to reflect on that parable than in Siena, the city of St. Catherine, the woman, the mystic, the saint who refused to take no for an answer!

 In the parable, it was a judge who refused the woman’s repeated and insistent requests; in the life of St. Catherine, it was Popes, not judges, who gave her the cold shoulder.  Popes in the plural because at one point there were three who claimed to be Pope.  Catherine was undeterred. She was a woman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. She was courageous, outspoken, and tireless in her efforts to sort out that mess!

 Catherine was born here in Siena into a large family (she was a twin, the 23rd child in a family of 24!). The year was 1347.  She lived to be only 33, but she accomplished a whole lot in those few short years!

 Catherine was open to God from the start. As a young girl of 6 she had a vision of Christ who appeared to her right over this very church where she spent so much of her time.  She gave her heart to Christ at once and decided not to marry so he could be her spouse.  Her mother wasn’t pleased, to put it mildly.  At one point, much to her mother’s distress, Catherine cut her hair to make her unattractive to young men.  Catherine is often pictured as a nun but she really remained a lay woman.  When she was 16 or 17 she did become a Third Order Dominican and her mother wasn’t please about that either.  She dismissed her household servants and made Catherine do their work.  She also took her room away from her so she wouldn’t have a place to pray (how in the world did she ever rate a room with 24 siblings!).  In any case, God told Catherine to turn inward to the “cell of her own soul” and she would find Him there.  She did.  Her father finally came to her rescue, gave her back her room, and allowed her to pursue the prayer she was so attracted to, and it was then that she began to have mystical experiences, sometimes terrifying, sometimes rapturous.

 At around age 19, Catherine heard Jesus calling her to reach out to the sick and the poor.  She started nursing people with the most repulsive diseases.  One day, as she was leaving this very church, she met a beggar who cried out for alms.  She had nothing to give him but she told him if he would go home with her, she would give him clothes, food, money. But he wanted something then and there so she tore the little metal cross off her rosary and gave it to him.  He went off blessing her for her kindness. That night, Jesus appeared to her holding up that cross which was now studded with jewels.  He asked her if she recognized it; she said yes, but that it didn’t look like that when she gave it away. He replied, “No, your love has done this to it, and I will give it back to you on judgment day before the angels and saints to show how you have loved me.”

 Not long after, Catherine heard God calling her to become active in the affairs of the Church and State. She began letter-writing campaigns to princes, papal legates, and popes (she actually couldn’t write but she could dictate!).  At the time, the Pope was in Avignon, under the thumb of the French king, and – against all odds and despite the opposition of the French king - Catherine traveled to Avignon and after a great many efforts and many rebuffs, eventually prevailed upon the Pope, Gregory XI, to return to Rome.   Sometime later when a new Pope was elected - an Italian - the French cardinals revolted and went back to Avignon where they elected their own Pope.  The new Pope  summoned Catherine to Rome where she spent her last years working strenuously for the unity and the reform of the Church and serving the destitute and down-and-out.

 It would be fair to say that Catherine sacrificed her life for the unity and the reform of the Church.  All that took its toll on her, of course.  She died young but like that woman in that gospel parable, Catherine never gave up. 

 The Church honors this scarcely literate but visionary and profoundly holy woman as a Doctor of the Church, and Italy rightly honors her, along with St. Francis of Assisi, as one of the two great patrons of Italy.

Father Michael G. Ryan





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