Saint Catherine of Siena died at thirty-three on April 28, 1380. A member of the lay Dominicans, she became a major force in troubled times in the Church. She was a terrible pain in the side of many – especially within the church. But this grew out of her deep love of Christ.
For about three years she enclosed herself in her room in contemplation with the Lord – suffering terrible temptations but also mystical experiences of the presence of Christ.
Something happened on the day before Ash Wednesday in 1367. She described it as a mystical espousal with the Lord who place a ring on her finger, visible only to herself. But what is even more extraordinary is that this began a second stage of her spiritual life, a life devoted to serving the poor, the sick, prisoners and victims fo the plague. She resisted, wanting Christ for herself. But, as she related in The Dialogue, Christ tells her:
You must love others with the same pure love with which I love you.
She also gathered a group of disciples around her who affectionately called her Mamma.
But this was not the only call she believe she received from the Lord. In 1374, after a near-death experience, she began to speak publicly and preach about the evils of corruption in the church and poverty. She also was a peacemaker, especially between feuding families in her hometown.
Some church authorities were upset by a lay woman preaching but her holiness won out.
She was especially adamant that the Pope who was residing in Avignon, France, should return to Rome. Her letters are full of strong words, addressing the pope as if he were a naughty boy. “Be a courageous man for me and not a coward,” she wrote.
This, of course, set tongues wagging about this troublesome woman. But she finally persuaded Pope Gregory IX to return to Rome. But after his death there were more troubles when a Pope and an anti-Pope were elected.
Although she supported the very unworthy Pope Urban VI, she also had strong words for him:
Sweetest father, the world cannot bear any more; vices are so abundant, especially among those who were put in the garden of Holy Church to be fragrant flowers, shedding the fragrance of virtue; and we see that they abound in wretched, hateful vices, so that they make the whole world reek! Oh me! where is the purity of heart and perfect charity which should make the incontinent continent by contact with them? It is quite the contrary: many a time the continent and the pure are led by their impurities to try incontinence. Oh me! where is the generosity of charity, and the care of souls, and distribution to the poor and to the good of the Church, and their necessities? You know well that men do quite the contrary. Oh me miserable! With grief I say it –your sons nourish themselves on the wealth they receive by ministering the Blood of Christ, and are not ashamed of being as money-changers, playing with those most sacred anointed hands of yours, you Vicar of Christ: without speaking of the other wretched deeds which they commit.
In light of the current controversies about the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, we should recall the life and preaching of St. Catherine of Siena who was not afraid to speak out in the face of the evils of her time, even those found in the papal household. She, like many religious women I know, saw evil and spoke out, based in her love of Christ and love of His poor.