If you’ve ever dipped into the letters of St. Catherine of Siena, you know she is forever encouraging holiness.
She wants people inflamed with “blazing charity” and bathing “in the blood of Christ crucified.” She wants to see people be who God made them to be and she wants his Church seeking to be worthy of her identity as the bride of Christ.
So, she would urge sisters and cardinals and the pope and lay people alike to “keep living in God’s holy and tender love” and go on in some detail about how that might look in their specific lives.
Her letters were written during a time when the Church was in serious trouble. While the Black Death ravaged Europe, the papacy had relocated to Avignon, France, and several of the republics and principalities of Italy, including the Papal States, were at war with one another. Many clergy had fallen into corruption.
But Catherine’s letters are as relevant today as ever, exuding universally applicable wisdom that makes it easy to see why she is recognized as a Doctor of the Church.
As we have only begun to enter another season of scandal in the Church in the U.S. and in other places around the world — beginning with retired Washington, D.C. archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals — Catherine, who died in 1380, seems to offer in her letters both diagnosis and solution.
More than 380 of her letters exist today, according to Sister Suzanne Noffke, OP, who edited a four-volume translation for Arizona State University (from which all quotes from her letters that follow rely on).
“She would write, it seems, to anyone she thought she might influence, whether for their personal good or of that of the larger Church,” says Sister Noffke. “Her purpose was always deeper than the merely social or informational. She was primarily interested in the eternal dimension of personal lives and societal affairs.”
Take, for example, one 1379 letter to a layman who would later become king of Naples — it could apply to every soul there is — then and now. In her typically encouraging style she opens:
“Dearest brother in Christ gentle Jesus … I long to see you a courageous knight, fighting bravely for the glory and praise of God’s name and the advancement and reform of holy Church.”
“But be aware … that you cannot do this well — you cannot be courageous and come to the help of holy Church — unless you first fight and make war against our three chief enemies, the world, the devil, and our weak flesh. These are the three chief tyrants that kill our soul so far as grace is concerned, no matter what our position, if we use the hand of our free choice to open the gate of our will and let them in.”
It’s a caution to all to never neglect a daily examination of conscience.
Scandals in the Church have everything to do with succumbing to evil, taking up the temptations of the world and forgetting the way of the Lord. And it’s no wonder that our culture today has not found the way of the cross — or the Catholic moral teaching — compelling when a culture within some of the Church’s highest ranks wasn’t buying into it.
Those making war against the tyrants in this way are not as liable to make the news, no doubt. But it is becoming increasingly and brutally clear that an evil rot needs to be rooted out of the life of the Church today. Writing in 1380 to Pope Urban VI, Catherine says:
“You cannot with a single stroke wipe out all of the sins people in general are committing within the Christian religion, especially within the clerical order, over whom you should be even more watchful. But you certainly can and are obligated to do it, and if you don’t, you would have it on your conscience. At least do what you can. You must cleanse the Church’s womb — that is, see to it that those who surround you closely are wiped clean of filth, and put people there who are attentive to God’s honor and your welfare and the good of holy Church. …”
And she warns:
“Do you know what will happen to you if you don’t set things right by doing what you can? God wants you to reform his bride completely; he doesn’t want her to be leprous any longer. If your holiness does not do all you can about this — because God has appointed you and given you such dignity for no other purposes — God will do it himself by using all sorts of troubles.”
Perhaps that is exactly what has happened as light is being shone on places of darkness, as hurting in the Church can begin to find healing by coming out of darkness. The reforms made some two decades ago clearly were not enough — having, among other things, not put in place accountability for bishops accused of sexual abuse or harassment.
Further reform, too, of the climate within the life of seminaries and Church bureaucracies was needed. People have to be motivated by love and deeper conversion to Jesus Christ, holding one another to his standard with rigor and joy for the sake of all of our souls.
This is what St. Catherine was writing to Pope Gregory XI in February 1376:
“I see the infernal wolf carrying off your little sheep, and there is no one to rescue them. So I am turning to you, our father and shepherd, begging you in the name of Christ crucified to learn from him who with such blazing love gave himself up to the shameful death of the most holy cross to save this little lost sheep, the human race, from the devil’s hands. Because of its rebellion against God, here are the devils, holding this sheep as their own possession.”
A letter written a month later gives more clues as to what she might have to say to Pope Francis these days:
“I tell you in the name of Christ crucified that you must use your authority. … You are in charge of the garden of the holy Church. So [first of all] uproot from that garden the stinking weeds filled of impurity and avarice, and bloated with pride (I mean the evil pastors and administrators who poison and corrupt the garden). … Use your authority, you who are in charge of us! Uproot these weeds and throw them out where they will have nothing to administer! Tell them to tend to administering themselves by a good holy life. Plant fragrant flowers in this garden for us, pastors and administrators who will be true servants of Jesus Christ crucified, who will seek only God’s honor and the salvation of souls, who will be fathers to the poor.”
One civil and canon lawyer appearing on the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) in recent weeks tapped into this plea, speaking as a mother who has encouraged the priesthood as a vocation in her house, insistent that the bishops open the doors wide to transparency if the Church is ever going to have a chance at re-establishing credibility in a world that needs the truth of the gospel.
Catherine seemed to hold nothing back in a February 1376 letter to a priest:
“Where is the purity of the ministers of God’s Son? Reflect that just as you demand that the chalice you carry to the altar be clean and would reject it if it were dirty, so God, supreme eternal Truth, demands that your soul be pure and clean, without stain of deadly sin, especially the sin of impurity. … These days we are seeing the exact opposite of the purity God requires! Not only are they not God’s temples carrying the fire of God’s word, but they have become stalls, lodging for pigs and other animals! They carry within the house of their souls the fire of anger, hatred, animosity, and ill will. For they harbor pigs, a filthiness that is incessantly rolling about within them like a pig in the mud. … How bewildering to see Christ’s anointed ones giving themselves over to such wretchedness and immorality!”
Writing to another priest in early 1376, she commended him to be “bathed and drowned in the blood of God’s Son” for strength “to follow in the footsteps of Christ. … My soul longs to see you a true shepherd stripped of all self-centeredness. I would have you courageously keep your wide-open eyes fixed on God’s honor and the salvation of other people. And do keep a good watch, lest the devil rob you of your sheep.”
It’s hard not to think of the people who describe themselves as having been “raised Catholics” or the heartbroken parents who pray their children will raise their grandchildren Catholic.
Men of the cloth, and any known Catholic behaving badly — and this includes indifference to men who do evil in their ranks — doesn’t help and are deep wounds on the Body of Christ.
Again, in the latter half of March 1376, Catherine wrote to a cardinal:
“I say you are a pillar to keep this bride’s home safe. So you must be strong, not weak; for weak things topple with the slightest wind — whether that wind is difficulty, or some wrong that may be done to us, or too much of the world’s abundance and prosperity, pleasure and grandeur.”
In that same letter, she seems to offer advice to Catholics tempted to give up on the Church, saying we must “invest our affection, our desire, our love in something stronger than ourselves — I mean in God, the source of all strength. He is our God who loved us without being loved.”
“And once we have discovered and experienced such a gentle love, strong beyond all other strength, we cannot cling to or desire any other love but him,” she continues.
Today, as lay and clerical voices alike insist on thorough, independent investigations, justice and reform, we can find in St. Catherine’s letter to that cardinal a powerful rallying cry to leadership for ordinary Christians.
“Shame, shame, on our human pride, our self-complacency, our self-centeredness, when we see how good God has been to us, how many gifts and graces he has given us — and not because he has to but because he wants to! Obtuse as we are, we seem not to see or feel this love so hot that, if we were made of stone, it would long ago have burst us open! … I can see no other reason except that the eye of our understanding is not on the tree of the cross. For there is revealed such warm love, such gently persuasive teaching filled with life-giving fruits, such generosity that he has torn open his very body, has shed his life’s blood, and with that blood has baptized and bathed us. We can and should make use of that baptism every day with continual remembrance and great love.”
Reading Catherine’s letters we are reminded we are in this journey — which is about eternity — together.
Reading testimony and accusations against a former cardinal archbishop of one of the most prominent episcopal sees in the United States — one of which involves the first child he ever baptized as a priest — we are all called to urgent duty to prayer and service, including encouraging and insisting on Christ in our daily lives and Church leadership. Anything short of it is not of God.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review and a contributing editor to Angelus.