Category Archives: women

A trouble-making mystic

Catherine of Siena, a Dominican lay woman from the fourteenth century, was a mystic who had a deep sense of the presence of God in her life. In her early life she spent much time in solitude, praying and fasting.

St. Catherine of Siena tomb; Santa Maria sopra Minerva

This did not, however, keep her from responding to those in need. After an intense experience of what is described as espousal to Christ, she began to work in a hospital with the sick.

But she did not stop at charity – though this was very important for her. She was asked several times to work to bring about peace including in the midst of a conflict between the papacy and the city of Florence. She also was an advocate of the poor and a champion of peace to others. As she wrote to the King of France:

“Repent! Think of death and its uncertainty. Be a father to the poor, as the steward of what God has entrusted to you. Don’t you consider what great responsibility for evil falls upon you when you refuse to do what lies in your power? What a devilish botch in the eyes of God is this war between brothers. Cut out these stupidities.”

She also attracted many followers who came to listen to her speak of God. But that led her to be a strong advocate for reform in the Church.

She was particularly appalled at the lifestyles of the bishops and priests:

“They ought to be mirrors of freely chosen poverty, humble lambs, giving away the Church’s possession to the poor. Yet here they are, living in worldly luxury and ambition and pretentious vanity a thousand times worse than if they belonged to the world! In fact, many laypersons put them to shame by their good and holy lives.”

She was especially critical of the pope who was living in Avignon, France, a virtual tool of the French throne. She managed to get Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. In the face of his fear of being poisoned, she told him: “Be not a timorous child, but manly . . .” She was a supporter of his successor, Urban VI, in the face of an anti-pope. But though she considered him the “sweet Christ on earth,” she was not afraid to exhort him also to be courageous and not a coward.

We find in St. Catherine an incredible combination of ways of following Christ – prayer, fasting, asceticism, mysticism, preaching, care of the sick, peacemaking, and advocating for the reform of the church. I wonder how she kept all of them together.

Perhaps it was because she experienced heaven in her life. As Catherine noted in a phrase often quoted by Dorothy Day who also combined many ways of following Christ – and was also a trouble-maker:

“All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the way.’”

A great lake of beer

Today is the feast of a great Irish saint, Brigid of Kildare, who died in 525.

Little beyond legend is known of her life. Probably baptized by St. Patrick, she was the abbess of a double monastery – with both monks and nuns.

But what comes across is her compassion and generosity to the poor. There is a legend that she was a slave when she converted to Christianity, but her owner soon freed her because she was giving away so much to the poor.

Each day I try to read about the saints in Richard McBrien’s Lives of the Saints and Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints. What strikes me is how often the saints, especially bishops, are noted for their generosity to the poor.

Brigid is no exception. She is said to have wanted “to satisfy the poor, to expel every hardship, to spare every miserable person.”

One year she distributed beer for 18 churches out of one barrel, from Holy Thursday until Pentecost. Another time a women with leprosy asked for milk; Brigid had none but gave her water which turned into milk; when the woman drank the milk she was healed.

So today, if it is your custom, have a beer in memory of Saint Brigid but, more importantly, find a way to share with a poor person.

In this way we can live – and not only pray – the prayer of Saint Brigid:

I should like a great lake of beer for the King of Kings. I should like the angels of Heaven to be drinking it through time eternal. I should like excellent meats of belief and pure piety. I should like flails of penance at my house. I should like the men of Heaven at my house; I should like barrels of peace at their disposal; I should like vessels of charity for distribution; I should like cheerfulness to be in their drinking. I should like Jesus to be there among them. I should like the three Marys of illustrious renown to be with us. I should like the people of Heaven, the poor, to be gathered around us from all parts.

Agnes: sex, weakness, and love

Today is the feast of St. Agnes, virgin and martyr, who was beheaded at the age of 12 or 13, about the year 304.

The young virgin Agnes was sought by many suitors. When she refused, she was denounced as a Christian. When she refused to sacrifice to the idols, she was sentenced to a brothel. When an “aura of purity” prevented her from being raped, she was condemned to death by beheading.

The story sounds so pious and sentimental that it can be easily dismissed as part of a puritanical Catholic approach to sexuality.

But it is more than that.

The first hint is the prayer for today’s Mass when we pray to God who chooses “what is weak in the world to confound the strong.”

By chance this year the first reading is the anointing of David. When Samuel thinks that the oldest son of Jesse ought to be the new king, God tells him:

Do not judge from his looks or his stature…. The Lord does not judge as humans do; humans see with the eyes; the Lord looks into the heart.

Agnes had the courage to stand up for her faith, her integrity. Despite her age, she “confounds the strong” by her faith.

I think that the best  commentary on Agnes is in Robert Ellsberg’s All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, a book which I have been reading regularly for the past few years.

In the story of Agnes… the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to define her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According ot the view shared by her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead. Agnes did not choose death. She chose not to worship the gods of her culture. The God she worships sets an altogether different value on her body, her identity, and her human worth. Espoused to God, she was beyond the power of any man to “have his way with her.”

In a highly sexualized culture, persons – especially women – are reduced to commodities, things to be bought and used. But the example of Agnes is the example of one who refuses that narrow notion of the person.

God made humans for love – not as “love” objects, but as persons, subjects, who can love and be loved with the love that God shows us in becoming human and living with us.

We can live this love as married persons or a single persons. The key is whether we love.

Pope Francis and the women who accompany Jesus

The big news in the Catholic world yesterday was Pope Francis’ interview with the Jesuit editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, translated and published in America magazine, here.

The mainline press has emphasized his remarks on issues on sexual issues, often without putting the pope’s remarks in context.

But his remarks on prayer and discernment, as well as his critical remarks on his past and his acknowledgement of himself as a sinner, are what ought to move us to conversion.

Pope Francis also remarked that “We must … investigate further the role of women in the church.”

Perhaps we should start with today’s Gospel, Luke 8: 1-3.

Jesus is going around preaching the Good News, accompanied by the apostles and some women – including Mary of Magdala and others. These provided for this traveling team from their own resources.

Mary and the women seem to be the same women who prepared Jesus’ body for burial and were the first witnesses to the resurrection when they went to the tomb on Easter morning.

These women show us the church as a community of sharing and of witnessing. They provide for Jesus and the apostles from their own resources. They show more courage than the apostles when they accompany Jesus at Calvary, help in burying him, and then go to the tomb on Easter morn.

They are women of courage, not afraid to accompany Christ, not afraid to put their lives in precarious places – as many women still do.

I think of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and the many groups of mothers of the disappeared throughout Latin America who faced repressive governments.

I think of the religious women who serve among the poorest and those on the margin.

Pope Francis noted in the interview that

Religious men and women are prophets…. In the church, the religious are called to be prophets in particular by demonstrating how Jesus lived on this earth, and to proclaim how the kingdom of God will be in its perfection. A religious must never give up prophecy.… Prophecy makes noise, uproar, some say ‘a mess.’ But in reality, the charism of religious people is like yeast: prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel.

The women in today’s Gospel and many women throughout the history of the church have been prophets, witness of the Reign of God.

Their lives challenge us to be witnesses to the risen Christ in the midst of human suffering and poverty – even as we care for each other out of our own resources.


St. Catherine of Siena – mystic activist

Whoever loves me will be loved by my Father,
and I will love him and reveal myself to him.
John 14: 21

From her early childhood, Catherine of Siena had intense mystical experiences of God’s love. She devoted herself to prayer and contemplation.

But at one point she experienced God’s call to leave the comfort of the contemplative life to show God’s love to others. She resisted but finally she found God in caring for the poor, preaching penance to great crowds of people, working for peace, and castigating lax church leaders, and goading the pope to return to Rome from the “Avignon captivity.”

Recalling her own reluctance to leave the quiet of her cell, she wrote to those who wished to cling to their personal consolation:

These people find all their pleasure in seeking their own spiritual consolation — so much so that often they see their neighbors in spiritual or temporal need and refuse to help them… But they are deceived by their own spiritual pleasure, and they offend me more by not coming to the help of their neighbors’ need than if that had abandoned all their consolations.

God’s revelations and consolations are not for ourselves, but are a call to love God and neighbor. As a wise Jesuit priest once asked me on a retreat, “Are you seeking the God of consolation or the consolation of God?”

Catherine of Siena experienced deeply the love of God and had a strong devotion to the Passion of Christ, But she ultimately wore herself out in her work for peace and for the unity and reform of the church – as well as by her harsh ascetic practice. She died in Rome on April 29, 1380, at the age of thirty-three. She is buried under the main altar of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.

As Robert Ellsberg well puts it:

What was distinctive about Catherine was the way she mediated through her own heart the burning love of Christ and the needs of her time.

The tomb of St. Catherine of Siena

The tomb of St. Catherine of Siena

Hearing the poor

I have seen the humiliation of my people in Egypt
And I hear their cry when they are cruelly treated by their taskmasters.
I know their suffering.
Exodus 3: 7

Do we, like our God, know the suffering of the poor?

In the US, today is the feast of St. Katherine Drexel, the founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who lived from 1858 to 1955.

Born into the rich Drexel family in Philadelphia, she learned to listen to the poor from her parents, especially her step-mother. Her family used to open the doors of their mansion three times a week to provide food, clothing, and money to the poor. Their parish priest who later became the bishop of Omaha, Nebraska, opened her heart to the plight of native Americans and the injustice they were suffering.

When her father died this three daughters received a large inheritance which all three used to benefit the poor. Katherine used her money to help Native American missions in the West.

But Katherine felt the call to religious life. Her parish priest urged her not to become a contemplative nun as she originally wished but to wait for God’s call.

She experienced that call and founded a religious order whose mission is to respond to the needs of Native Americans and African Americans.

Mother Katherine continued to distribute the inheritance she had received but did not use the money for the sisters. They had to depend on alms. But with the inheritance schools and missions were opened, including the establishment of Xavier University in New Orleans, the first Catholic university specifically fro African-Americans.

But not content on providing alms, she also spoke out against segregation and her sisters marched in the civil rights movement that began about the time of her death.

As she once said, “If we live the Gospel, we will be people of justice and our lives will bring good news to the poor.”

I vaguely remember that in the late fifties several sisters from her congregation came to ask for support at the parish where I grew up in Darby, just outside of Philadelphia. They asked us to pray for her canonization. I didn’t pay too much attention since I didn’t know much about her life and her mission. Now I appreciate how she followed our God who hears the cries of the poor.

When she was canonized in 2000, Pope John Paul II said:

May her example help young people in particular to appreciate that no greater treasure can be found in this world than in following Christ with an undivided heart and in using generously the gifts we have received for the service of others and for the building of a more just and fraternal world.

May the example of Mother Katherine Drexel inspire us to hear the cries of the poor and open our hearts and our treasures in solidarity with them.

Elijah and the widow

For about ten days the first weekday lectionary readings for Catholics will be about Elijah, the prophet. For many years these stories have inspired me.

Today’s story (1 Kings 17: 7-16) is about the widow of Zarephath, who in her poverty responds to Elijah’s request for water and bread.

She has only enough for one meal of bread and water for her son and herself.  “I am just now gathering some sticks so that I may go in and prepare something for myself and my son to eat – and then die.”

But she shares, after hearing the word of Elijah, “Do not fear.” And there was enough flour and oil for a year!

She risks her life – her food – for a foreign prophet whose only promise is the loving providence of God which he had experienced for several months at the Wadi Cherith, where the water flowed and where crows brought him bread and meat twice a day.

How many times have I seen this generosity, this trust in God, especially from women.

Today a friend, Sister Pat Farrell, and others from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious are in Rome speaking to Vatican officials. I pray that her generosity and her devotion to the God of the Poor – lived out in San Antonio, Chile, El Salvador, and Omaha – may open the way for God to work and multiply the good works of God in this world.

The “Mad” Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo

Thirty-five years ago, fourteen women arrived at the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina to silent walk in protest of the disappeared members of their families.

It was an act of great courage and thousands joined them for their weekly walk around the Plaza, each women with a white scarf around her head. They were called “locas” – mad – by their detractors. But these were the brave women who stood up in the face of repression when men – including church leaders were silent or even complicit with the repression. Only four Argentinian bishops clearly condemned the crimes of the Argentinian dictatorship.

Later committees of mothers of the disappeared appeared in other countries, for example, El Salvador.

Still there are too many unsolved cases in Latin America of the disappeared. Impunity still continues – and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo still march, I believe.

I just learned of this today from  notice of Radio Progreso here in Honduras. There is an article on the mothers by Philip McManus in the book he co-edited with Gerald Schlabach, Relentless Persistence: Nonviolent Action in Latin America, which I’ll read later today.

But here is a quote, on page 95 of that book, from one of the mothers that should inspire us in the struggle for justice:

Like all the mothers, I came to demonstrate to defend the life of my son. Today I can see further ahead. I don’t want another mother, in this country or in any other, to have to live through what I have. Beyond my personal case is the basic principle of the systematic use of repression and state terrorism as a method of government which I must denounce and combat.

Sad to say, many more mothers continue to suffer the disappearance and the death of their children and spouses.

May this violence cease and may we accompany the women in the struggle.


Holy troublemaker Catherine of Siena

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.


Trash can rescuer

Mother Maria Skobtsova (1891-1945), an Russian Orthodox nun, protector of Jews in Paris, was killed in the Appel [Ravensbruck] concentration camp, by the Nazis, on Holy Saturday, March 31, 1945. Canonized by the Russian Orthodox Church, she is a sign of prayerful and effective resistance to evil.

She lived for many years in Paris. One delightful story of her ingenious efforts to save persecuted Jews in occupied France is detailed in Jim Forest’s book Silent as a Stone. She persuaded trash collectors to hide children about to be taken by the Nazis in trash cans so that they could be moved to safe locations.

Hers is a spirituality needed for our time – combining deep prayer and courageous and imaginative resistance to injustice.

In 1938, she wrote:

“Open your gates to homeless thieves, let the outside world sweep in to demolish your magnificent liturgical system, abase yourself, empty yourself, make yourself of no account… Accept the vow of poverty in all its devastating severity; destroy all comfort, even the monastic kind.

“Our times are firmly in tune with Christianity, in that suffering is part of their character….They help us genuinely and completely to accept the vow of poverty, to seek no rule, but rather anarchy, the anarchic life of Fools for Christ’s sake, seeking no monastic enclosure but rather the complete absence of even the subtlest barrier which might separate the heart from the world and its wounds.”