I thought we could look at Pope Benedict XVI’s 2011 general audience, in which he taught about St. Catherine of Genoa – a mystic who was also given a vision of Purgatory, which she wrote about in her Treatise on Purgatory. Pope Benedict is a great teacher, after all!
First, a little background on St. Catherine. Born in 1447 in Genoa, Italy, to a noble family, she was the youngest of five children. She lost her father at a very young age. At 13 she wanted to join the convent and become a nun like her older sister Limbania, an Augustinian nun. That desire may have been fleeting because Catherine agreed to be married at the age of 16. She had a very unhappy marriage for many years due to her husband’s temper and his penchant for gambling. The marriage was also childless.
A bitterness and unhappiness took over Catherine’s heart because of her marriage, until a conversion experience redirected the course of her life.
Pope Benedict shares that story:
Her conversion began on March 20, 1473, thanks to an unusual experience. Catherine went to the church of St. Benedict and to the monastery of Our Lady of Graces for confession and, kneeling before the priest, “I received,” as she herself writes, “a wound in my heart of the immense love of God,” and such a clear vision of her miseries and defects, and at the same time of the goodness of God, that she almost fainted. She was wounded in her heart by the knowledge of herself, of the life she led and of the goodness of God. … Catherine then left, leaving her confession interrupted. When she returned home, she went to the most isolated room and thought for a long time. At that moment she was inwardly instructed on prayer and became conscious of God’s love for her, a sinner – a spiritual experience that she was unable to express in words (cf. Vita Mirabile, 4r). It was on this occasion that the suffering Jesus appeared to her, carrying the cross, as he is often represented in the iconography of the saint. A few days later, she returned to the priest to finally make a good confession. The “life of purification” began here, a life that for a long time caused her to suffer a constant pain for the sins committed and drove her to impose penances and sacrifices on herself to show her love of God.
Pope Benedict explains that Catherine became increasingly close to the Lord. In fact, for the next 25 years of her life, Catherine’s only spiritual director was the Lord Himself. She received Holy Communion every day (which was rare during her time) and spent the rest of her life serving others, primarily the sick in the hospital in Genoa, where she became director. Her husband, Giuliano, was converted, too, became a Third Order Franciscan, and joined her in her work serving those at the hospital.
Pope Benedict describes the depth of her spiritual life and their shared work:
The place of her ascent to mystical summits was the hospital of Pammatone, the largest hospital complex in Genoa, of which she was director and leader. Thus, Catherine lived a totally active life, despite the profundity of her interior life. In Pammatone a group of followers, disciples and collaborators was formed around her, fascinated by her life of faith and her charity. She succeeded in having her husband himself, Giuliano Adorno, abandon his dissipated life, become a Franciscan tertiary and go to the hospital to help her. Catherine’s participation in the care of the sick went on until the last days of her earthly journey, Sept. 15, 1510.
At one point during her life, Catherine was given an experience of Purgatory. She wrote about it later in a work entitled Treatise on Purgatory. Pope Benedict explains Catherine’s understanding of Purgatory as an interior experience, rather than a “place” that we go. She explains it as an interior purifying fire that the soul must undergo as it sees the sin it has committed in relation to the profound mercy of God:
Catherine’s thought on Purgatory, for which she is particularly known, is condensed in the last two parts of the book mentioned at the beginning: Treatise on Purgatory and Dialogues on the Soul and Body. It is important to observe that, in her mystical experience, Catherine never had specific revelations on Purgatory or on souls that are being purified there. However, in the writings inspired by our saint, Purgatory is a central element, and the way of describing it has original characteristics in relation to her era.
The first original feature refers to the “place” of the purification of souls. In her time [Purgatory] was presented primarily with recourse to images connected to space: There was thought of a certain space where Purgatory would be found. For Catherine, instead, Purgatory is not represented as an element of the landscape of the core of the earth; it is a fire that is not exterior but interior. This is Purgatory, an interior fire. The saint speaks of the soul’s journey of purification to full communion with God, based on her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in contrast to the infinite love of God (cf. Vita Mirabile, 171v). We have heard about the moment of her conversion, when Catherine suddenly felt God’s goodness, the infinite distance of her life from this goodness and a burning fire within her. And this is the fire that purifies, it is the interior fire of Purgatory. Here also there is an original feature in relation to the thought of the era. She does not begin, in fact, from the beyond to narrate the torments of Purgatory – as was usual at that time and perhaps also today – and then indicate the path for purification or conversion. Instead our saint begins from her own interior experience of her life on the path to eternity. The soul, says Catherine, appears before God still bound to the desires and the sorrow that derive from sin, and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the Beatific Vision of God. Catherine affirms that God is so pure and holy that the soul with stains of sin cannot be in the presence of the Divine Majesty (cf. Vita Mirabile, 177r). And we also realize how far we are, how full we are of so many things, so that we cannot see God. The soul is conscious of the immense love and perfect justice of God and, in consequence, suffers for not having responded correctly and perfectly to that love, and that is why the love itself of God becomes a flame. Love itself purifies it from its dross of sin.
As we approach November, a month where we remember the Holy Souls in particular, let’s ponder Pope Benedict XVI’s teaching about St. Catherine of Genoa’s understanding of Purgatory and let us pray most fervently for the Holy Souls who must undergo this “loving, purifying fire.”