I stood before her tomb: St. Catherine of Sienna at Sant Maria Soph de Minerva, Rome’s only Gothic church. Her remains were entombed in the high altar, which was gorgeous. Her likeness had been sculpted and laid in a glass sarcophagus. I gave an offering, lit a candle, and said The Lord’s Prayer. Later I thought of how I would have asked her to pray for me, if I prayed to saints.
There were were a few things Catherine did not like about the Catholic Church the same way there are a few things I do not like about the Church of the Nazarene. In fact, when we were in Rome, I was seriously considering leaving my denomination because of decisions made on the general leadership level that I thought were nonbiblical and unethical. I didn’t know if I could stay a member–especially an ordained minister–when I doubted decisions and motives at the highest levels of our leadership.
Catherine was born in 1347 in Siena, Italy. This was the time of the Great Schism in the Catholic Church with France and Italy vying for power. 75 years earlier French cardinals and the monarchy had succeeded in moving the papacy to Avignon, France. A move the Italians saw a betrayal of the highest order. For a time there were two popes because Rome and Italy refused to recognize the French “puppet” pope. By the time Catherine was born the papacy was firmly established in France.
Catherine did not like this, nor did she like the avarice, greed and lust, she saw in the highest levels of the Catholic Church. She did not think the Pope, cardinals, and bishops should live in such luxuries mansions and houses on the offerings of the poor. Catherine joined the Dominican order when she was 16. When the Black Plague came to Siena, she and a few others cared for the sick and dying. After the plague she continued to minister to the poor and needy in Siena. She would go into ecstatic trances and pray. Her disciples would write down what she said. She was also a great letter writer. In her short lifetime, she dictated over 400 letters using three secretaries. She would dictate to one then move to next. Her letters went to the pope, cardinals, kings, queens, priests, and other leaders urging them to put Christ above all and obey him without regard to possessions, fame, or social standing.
Her main purpose in life became to route out the corruption in the Church and restore the papacy to Italy. She wrote to Pope Gregory XI saying, “Since God has given you authority and you have assumed it you should use your virtue and powers; and if you are not willing to use them, it would be better for you to resign what you have assumed; more honor to God and health to your soul it would be.”* Surprisingly, Pope Gregory listened to her, but he did not act immediately.
In the meantime, Catherine became a mediator in a dispute between the Papacy and the city of Florence, Italy. Pope Gregory had sent his hated French officials to Florence and excommunicated them. This paralyzed the city, shutting down it’s trade and local economy. The city, thinking it had no other recourse, began plans to declare war on the Pope and other papal states joined the fight. Catherine urged the Pope to be patient. The Florentines knew of Catherine’s boldness and great spirituality. They invited her to come and negotiate between them and the Pope. She did. After several meetings the leaders wanted Catherine to go to France and present their case to the Pope. They would send an embassy to ratify the agreement she made with the Pope.
Catherine went to the pope’s palace in Avignon. Again the rich luxury he was living in troubled her. But she had no problem counseling him and telling him that he should be more concerned with the Church’s mission of salvation and spiritual riches and not temporary possessions. Catherine’s words and work might have had quick success if the Florentines would have kept up their end of the bargain and sent the embassy right after Catherine set out. It took four months for them to arrive, and when they did, they did not consult Catherine and refused to acknowledge that she had been sent as their mediator.
During her time in Avignon Catherine continued her fight “against the selfishness and self-interest” that kept the papacy in France. “She roused the Pope’s sense of duty to move the Papacy back to Rome, sustaining his wavering resolution and soothing his fears.” Pope Gregory’s cardinals had told him if he moved to Italy, he would be poisoned. Catherine’s response was that there was plenty of poison in France as well as Italy. Her counsel to him was “Do not be a boy, be a man. I beseech your Holiness in the name of Christ Crucified to make haste. Adopt a holy deception; let it seem that you are going to delay for a time, and then do it swiftly and suddenly, for the more quickly it is done, the sooner will you be freed from these torments and troubles.”
The opposition to Catherine and her mission to move the papacy back to Rome was so great that Pope Gregory had to stop meeting with her. They communicated through letters as Catherine made her way back to Italy. After several weeks, the Pope finally made his move sailing from Marseilles to Genoa where Catherine was. There the Pope disguised himself and met secretly with Catherine. There is no record of their conversation, but Gregory continued onto Rome.
Catherine once again resumed her role as mediator between the Pope and Florence. While meeting with magistrates in Florence, a mob who stood against the Pope tried to kill her. The mob found her in the garden of the house she was staying in outside of Florence. Catherine bared her neck to them and said, “I am Catherine. Do to me whatever thou wilt. But I charge you in the name of the Almighty, to hurt none of these who are with me.” Confused by her self-sacrifice the mob left. Finally Catherine persuaded the leaders of Florence to be reconciled to the Papacy, and Pope Gregory signed the peace treaty. Not long after that Gregory died.
The next pope, Urban VI (who was Italian) called Catherine to Rome. While she was there civilian and military leaders sought her advice, and the poor and needy trusted her to help them. Catherine continued her correspondences to many countries, gradually convincing “Germany, Hungary and Sweden” that Pope Urban was the true pope.
Until the end of her life Catherine continued to fight against the avarice and greed of the Church along with scheming officials, whom Catherine considered to have no spirituality. She wanted “to acheive a righteous church government.”
It would not be long though until Catherine died. Shortly before her death, in four days, while in a spiritual ecstasy, she dictated what become known as her Dialogue. It is now called The Book of Divine Doctrine. “It has a significant place in Italian literature, ranking with Dante’s Divine Comedy as an outstanding attempt to express the union of the soul with God.”
There are three volumes of Catherine’s work: The Book of Divin Doctrine, her prayers, and her letters. She was 33 when she died and joined the Christ she had served so faithfully all of her life.
So how would I have asked Catherine to pray for me? I would ask her to pray that I would have the same courage and perseverance she had in correcting the sins of her church. I would ask her to pray for the same boldness she had in confronting leaders when they are wrong. I would ask for the patience it would take to see significant changes happen, and that I would not lose hope. I would ask her to pray for the wisdom and discernment in what to do with the fact that my denomination puts massive burdens on 80% of its churches, and does not take care of its pastors, because its resources are going into buildings that are not needed, just as the luxuries of the Catholic upper hierarchy were not needed. There are things that do not change. Status, power, and temporal possessions still tempt the church (whatever branch it may be), and the church still gives in regardless of what it costs the typical church-goer and lower leaders such as pastors. Oh to have Catherine’s boldness and fearlessness to confront the corruption without worrying about what it would cost me.
All quotations are taken from Edith Deen’s Great Women of the Christian Faith (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour and Co., Inc.: 1959) pp. 50-60.
Me standing before Catherine’s tomb
Sant Maria Sopha de Minerva
The main aisle in Sant Maria Sopha de Minerva