Province of St. Albert the Great, USA

St. Catherine of Siena for Our Times

It would be easy, in some ways, to pick a favorite quote pertinent to St. Catherine, and reflect upon that, such as the one in which she addressed God in prayer: “I am the one who is not, and you are the one who is.”[1] It reflects St. Catherine, the mystic, as manifest in her Dialogue and in her Prayers, wherein she herself addressed God as “O mad lover!”[2] and addressed both God and Christ as “O gentle Truth, gentle Love.”[3] Her approximately 385 letters, however, convey another side of Catherine, in which we discover Catherine the diplomat, as one who brings God’s passionate love into the tumultuous political landscape of her day. From her life within the abyss of God’s mercy and immeasurable love she seemingly without fear ventures forth into the abyss of Florentine, Sienese, and papal politics. She was a saint within a polarized Church and a source of strength for us within our own polarized times. She was both deeply spiritual and political, and one for whom “bridge” was a highly symbolic image. Her mystical life and her active life unfolded together.

In the fourteenth century Pope Clement V located the papacy in Avignon and thus began its “Babylonian captivity” (1309-1377). Florence was at war with the pope (1376-1378). There was the Great Western Schism (1378-1417). The Black Death or bubonic plague pandemic impacted Western Europe with unimaginable death tolls, and struck Siena particularly in 1348 and 1374, during which Siena lost up to 50% of its population. Gregory XI brought the papacy back to Rome in 1377. On April 8, 1378, Urban VI was elected to follow Gregory XI. On September 20, Clement VII was elected, an antipope. Urban, a Neapolitan, as pope, became increasingly tyrannical, leading the French cardinals to declare Urban’s election invalid, thereupon electing Clement. Each pope excommunicated the other. Catherine was born in 1347, the year before the plague struck Siena and during the Avignon papacy, and she died on April 29, 1380, during the Great Western Schism. Catherine supported the papal cause against anti-papal forces and was pro-Urban VI throughout the tumultuous times.[4] One can readily see in the complexities of this history the backdrop for Catherine’s life and mission, all of which were a concern for her. What did it mean for this church reformer to remain a woman of resolve within a divided and polarized Church? That is a question for our times also.

A common theme in both Catherine’s mystical writings and political letters was that of love: the love of God (subjective and objective genitives) and love of neighbor, which is a manifestation of the love of God. An egoic self-love, or false self-knowledge, is the root vice par excellence. Humility or true self-knowledge is the soil from within which all other virtues are nourished as they blossom forth in charity. How does one love from within a space of humility and charity those with whom one disagrees, and significantly disagrees?

Catherine’s being a lay Dominican tertiary in a polarized world and divided church made me ponder what Catherine would do in our divided world and polarized church today. At the same time, I was reading The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World by Father Aaron Wessman, a Glenmary Home Missioner, graduate of Louvain, on Glenmary’s leadership team, whom I met through the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. In the introduction to his book, he writes:

Negative polarization and division in the United States are affecting all we hold dear: our country, communities, schools, places of worship, relationships, and families… Across the United States, good, thoughtful, and caring people are being subsumed into the vitriolic intensity of cultural polarization.[5]


This is not the place to review a book that I highly recommend, but to alert us to a reality of which we are already aware, about which we ourselves may feel helpless or even angry. Wessman articulates carefully abundant research about what polarization in fact is, its dynamics,[6] its impact on the Church, the metaphors we use such as “war” when we find ourselves at war in the culture wars,[7] the potential for a different metaphor that resonates with discipleship, namely Jesus’ incarnational movement or “crossing over” into true dialogue. I might refer to it also as bridgebuilding, which brings us back to Catherine’s powerful metaphor but in a different context.       

            Catherine develops the image of Christ as bridge at great length in her Dialogue,[8] Christ who is the bridge between heaven and earth, between the human and the divine – a bridge over troubled waters! – the way and the truth and the life. Christ must remain that same bridge for us today. The bridge is Christ’s teaching. It will enable us not only to cross over into life with God but can also enable us to cross over into dialogue with “the other.”  Catherine gives great attention to the stairs to the bridge which have several references, one of which is to the three stages of the spiritual life or three degrees of love, through which we come to the inseparability of love of God and love of neighbor.[9]

            Wessman’s image of “crossing over” and Catherine’s image of a bridge challenge us to live a graced life that is not pain free. It is not easy to love “the other,” even just to listen to the other. It is a risk to cross over the bridge, a lonely call to build one. Polarization challenges the very fiber of what it means to be the Body of Christ. We must think bridge, think of the steps, think first step, think risk, think crossing over, but not just think. Be bridge, take the risk, take the first step. Don’t think us and them, don’t think what I might lose, don’t think later, not now. Think of Catherine. Don’t let the challenges get us down. Remain hopeful. If anything was of importance to Catherine it was the unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

Elias Marechal, a monk of the Trappist Abbey in Conyers, Georgia, who died this past February 26, tells the story, in his book Tears of an Innocent God, of an elderly Tibetan Buddhist monk, Patrul, following upon the Chinese annexation of Tibet. Patrul was imprisoned in a carefully crafted cell with a ceiling so low that he could not stand and walls so spaced that he could not stretch out. After a week he was placed in another cell, but windowless. After fifteen years of this, a guard appeared to announce that he had been released! Somehow he made his way to the Tibetan settlement in India where the Dalai Lama received him and asked him: Was there ever a time when you felt in serious danger?!! “Only when I sensed the possibility of losing the compassion I felt toward my captors -- one in particular. The loss of compassion would have split my heart in two.”  What an example of love of enemy! When the Dalai Lama himself is asked if he hates the Chinese, his answer is always: “Why would I want to drag more hatred into the world?”[10] What incredible testimony to contemplative action.

To love as Catherine loved, to seek to incarnate the compassion of God in a wounded world and divided Church, the kind of compassion within Catherine’s theology that God Himself is, this is not a pain free challenge but nevertheless a gospel imperative, for which we must brave ourselves in our own difficult times. This is no time to say that I am for Apollos; I am for Paul; I am for Benedict; I am for Francis. We all live for the sake of the gospel.

Catherine clearly lived in polarized times. The Church needed reform; it was like a leper;[11]she did not give up on it. Her world was fraught with dangers. The Hundred Years War between England and France broke out in 1337, ten years before Catherine was born. What does Catherine have to teach us as we approach the coming storm? We could ask Tom McDermott.[12] Maybe his answer would be “Legion!” for she has much to teach us. Certainly, among the lessons we could learn from her would be her courage, her fidelity to the Church even though she knew well it needed reform, and a deep even mystical knowledge of God’s infinite mercy and love.

            Perhaps we just pray with her in our own troubled times and ask for her intercession:

O eternal Father! O fiery abyss of charity! O eternal beauty! O eternal wisdom, O eternal goodness! O eternal mercy! O hope and refuge of sinners! O immeasurable generosity! O eternal infinite Good! O mad lover! … Why then are you so mad? Because you have fallen in love with what you have made![13]

May we have the courage both to love and to build bridges so that there will be no us and them in the Body of Christ.


[1] See The Prayers, 11, Noffke translation, either edition, also its accompanying footnote with reference to Raymond of Capua’s similar reference.

[2] See Dialogue, Noffke translation, chapters 30 and 153, pp. 72 and 325.

[3] E.g., see Dialogue, Noffke translation, chapter 89, page 163; The Prayers, nos. 1, 5, 9.

[4] See Letters, vol IV, from Rome, Noffke translation, e.g., to Pope Urban VI himself, pages 55, 204, 215, 354; to Stefano di Corrado Maconi in Siena, pages 72, 99, 219, 319; as well as other letters from Rome.

[5] Aaron Wessman, The Church’s Mission in a Polarized World (Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City Press), 13.

[6] Ibid., e.g., the mechanisms of sorting (geographical, identity-based, and virtual), homogenization, and intensification (grounded in the importance of group belonging, and thus identity and its complexities, particularly the nature of current political identity and the us vs. them politics).

[7] Ibid., chapter four on the complex history, pervasive presence, and power of the culture war metaphor, in contrast to the ways of speaking about Christian discipleship and mission.

[8] There are references throughout the Dialogue, but especially in chapters 26-87, pp. 64-160, also chapter 166, pp. 361-363. Images comparable to “bridge” for Christ that Catherine uses are road, gate, and key.

[9] Dialogue, chapter 74, page 137.

[10] Elias Marechal, Tears of an Innocent God (Paulist Press, 2015), 60-61.

[11] Dialogue, chapters 13-14, pp. 49-50

[12] See Thomas McDermott, O.P., Catherine of Siena, Spiritual Development in her Life and Teaching (Paulist Press, 2008).

[13] Dialogue, chapter 153, p. 325.