29Apr St Catherine of Siena, Patron of Europe

29 April 2019.

1st Reading: 1 John 1:5, 2:2

The message we have heard from him and proclaim to you

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

Responsorial: Psalm 22

Response: I will praise you, Lord, in the assembly of your people

I will fulfill my vows before those who fear the Lord.
The lowly shall eat their fill;
they who seek the Lord shall praise him:
May your hearts live forever! (R./)

All the ends of the earth
shall remember and turn to the Lord;
all the families of the nations
shall bow down before him. (R./)

To him alone shall bow down
all who sleep in the earth;
before him shall bend
all who go down into the dust. (R./)

And to him my soul shall live;
my descendants shall serve him.
Let the coming generation be told of the Lord
that they may proclaim to a people yet to be born
the justice he has shown. (R./)

Gospel: Matthew 11:25-30

Nobody knows the Father except the Son and those to whom Jesus reveals him

Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and nobody knows the Son except the Father, and nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

St Catherine of Siena

Caterina Benincasa (1347-1380) was born in Siena, Italy, daughter of a cloth dyer (Giacomo) and Lapa Piagenti who had a very large family. The house where Catherine grew up is still in existence. Lapa was about forty years old when she prematurely gave birth to twin daughters, Catherine and Giovanna. Whereas Giovanna was entrusted to a wet-nurse, but soon died, Catherine was nursed by her mother, and survived. Catherine had her first vision of Christ when she was age five or six, saying that Jesus smiled at her, blessed her, and left her in ecstasy.

Her older sister Bonaventura died in childbirth and within a year another sister also died. While coping with this grief, the sixteen-year-old Catherine was anguished by her parents’ proposal that she marry her brother-in-law, Bonaventura’s widower. To show her rejection of this proposal, she started a hunger strike and cut off her long hair. Catherine later advised her confessor to do during times of trouble what she did as a teenager: “Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee.” Eventually her father gave up and let her live as she pleased.

Her wish to join the Dominican Order was resisted by her mother until Catherine fell seriously ill with violent fever and pain, which made her mother accept her wish to join the local association of Dominican Tertiaries. Lapa persuaded the Sisters of the Order to take in her daughter. Within days, Catherine seemed entirely restored, and determined to live as a tertiary outside the convent, at home with her family. The sisters taught Catherine how to read, and she lived in almost total solitude in the family home. Her custom of giving away food and clothing without asking permission cost her family significantly but she demanded nothing for herself. Catherine received the habit of a Dominican tertiary from the friars of the Order, however, only after vigorous protests from the Tertiaries themselves, who up to that point had been only widows.

About 1366, Catherine had what she described as a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus. Other miracles recounted by Raymond of Capua’s include her reception of the stigmata and her receiving communion from Christ himself. Raymond also records how Christ got her to leave her cloistered life and actively engage with others. After this she dedicated herself to helping the ill and the poor, caring for them in hospitals or their homes. Her apostolate attracted a group of followers, both women and men, while they also brought her to the attention of the Dominican friars, who called her to Florence in 1374 to interrogate her for possible heresy. When her orthodoxy was accepted, she went throughout northern and central Italy promoting reform of the clergy and calling all Christians to repentance and renewal through total love for God.

Catherine shared her views with everyone she met. Then from the early 1370s began dictating letters to various scribes. Her audience grew to include figures in authority as she begged for peace between the republics and principalities of Italy and for the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome. She corresponded with pope Gregory XI, seeking reform of the clergy and of the administration of the Papal States. In 1376 Catherine went to Avignon as ambassador of Florence to try to make peace with the Papal States, but without success. She tried to convince pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, and he did return to Rome in 1377. During the Schism of 1378 after Gregory’s death, she supported pope Urban VI. The latter summoned her to Rome, where she lived until her death in 1380.

More than 300 of Catherine’s letters have survived and are considered important works of early Tuscan literature. In her letters to the pope, she often referred to him affectionately simply as Papa (“pope”), instead of the formal form of address as “Holiness.” Other correspondents include Raymond of Capua, the kings of France and Hungary, and the Queen of Naples. Approximately one third of her letters are to women. Her other major work is The Dialogue of Divine Providence, a dialogue between a soul who “rises up” to God and God himself, as recorded by members of her circle. Often assumed to be illiterate, Catherine is said by Raymond in his biography to have read both Latin and Italian. Another hagiographer, Tommaso Caffarini, claimed that she could write in her own hand, though most if not all of her written work was dictated.

A beacon of light

True mysticism does not withdraw one totally from the world. Catherine of Siena was deeply involved in what was happening in the church in her time. It was she who persuaded pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from Avignon, insisting that the pope’s place was in Rome, near the bones of the Roman martyrs. Shortly after returning to Rome, Gregory died. He was succeeded by Urban VI who turned out to be a disastrous pope. The cardinals regretted their decision and elected a second pope but could not persuade pope Urban to retire. The church now had two rival popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, an unfortunate schism that was to last for several decades.

Catherine remained faithful to Urban, in spite of his faults because he had been duly elected. She was convinced that the wound in the body of Christ could only be healed by great sacrifice. She prayed that she might be allowed to atone for the sins of the church, and shortly afterwards collapsed and died. Her faith stood out as a beacon of light to the church in a dark and turbulent century. That is the vocation that we all have from God. We are all capable of being mystics to some degree. The Lord’s invitation, “Come to me, all who labour and are overburdened,” is addressed to us all his followers. He wants us to come to him, to know and love him as he knows and loves us. Perhaps he also seeks to send us into the world afire with the flame of his love?

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