Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of Thomas Jefferson’s Crème Brulee: How a Founding Father and His Slave, James Hemings, Introduced French Cuisine to America.
In 2002, Pope St. John Paul II did something quite rare in history: he restored a previously-removed saint to the Universal Roman Calendar.
The saint whose suppression was reversed by John Paul is St. Catherine of Alexandria. Why the Catherine cult (that’s “cult” as in religious devotion, not “cult” as in pseudo-religious brainwashing) was suppressed is an interesting story.
In 1969, Pope Paul VI issued a revised liturgical calendar. Typically that bit of ecclesiastical housekeeping doesn’t make the news, but Paul VI’s new calendar was so unexpected that it caught the attention of the secular media. In the new calendar, dozens of saints were removed — among them such popular saints as St. Barbara, St. Ursula, and St. Catherine. The reason given was the relative sparseness of authentic biographical material extant. Fair enough, but the new calendar also removed many early popes who were venerated as saints. Finally, there was a third category—saints whose cult was ancient, but again, not enough biographical information was available. An example is St. Chrysogonus, a martyr whose name appears in the Roman Canon of the Mass (the First Eucharistic Prayer). He has an ancient cult, but now his cult is limited to the church named for him in Rome.
It’s was all and is still is, rather confusing.
But to get back to Catherine: there is a beautiful legend about her, but we can’t say what if any part of it is true. According to the story, Catherine was a very intelligent young woman from a well-to-do family in Alexandria, Egypt. She spent much of her leisure time in the Great Library. One day, she fell asleep over her books. In a dream she saw a beautiful lady with even more beautiful little boy sitting on the woman’s lap. The woman asked the child, “Would you like marry Catherine?” The boy replied. “No. She is ugly.”
Catherine woke up in tears.
An elderly man who was sitting nearby came over to see what was the trouble. When Catherine told him her dream, the elderly gentleman explained that the woman was the Virgin Mary and the Child was Jesus Christ. Jesus thought her ugly because she was a pagan and her soul still carried the stain of original sin. The elderly man was a priest, and he offered to teach Catherine the faith.
She learned quickly, was baptized, and soon thereafter she had another dream. Again Jesus and Mary appeared. Again Mary asked if he want to marry Catherine. This time Jesus said, “Yes. She is very beautiful.” Then the Child Jesus placed a ring her finger. When she awoke, Catherine found she was wearing the ring.
When a fresh persecution of Christians broke out in Alexandria, Catherine was arrested. She was sentenced to be torn apart on a spiked wheel, but the moment she touched it the wheel shattered. So the magistrate had Catherine beheaded. Angels carried her body to Mount Sinai and buried it there.
In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian built a monastery on Mount Sinai for a community of monks. St. Catherine’s relics were enshrined there, and have drawn pilgrims, especially from the Orthodox Church, for 1500 years.
In 2000, Pope St. John Paul II traveled to the Middle East. A highlight of his itinerary was a pilgrimage to the Monastery of St. Catherine. He had wanted to hold a prayer service there with clergy from various Christian denominations, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam. But the Patriarch Damianos, the abbot, rejected the idea. To him, it gave the impression that the quest for religious truth is optional, that any religion will do.
And John Paul had another disappointment coming. The patriarch would not pray with the pope for the same that had led him to reject the ecumenical prayer service. For the pope, this must have stung. Of course, it probably didn’t help that one of John Paul’s predecessors had ostensibly downgraded the status of the monks’ beloved St. Catherine.
When the pope returned to Rome, as a gesture to Orthodox Christians, John Paul restored St. Catherine to the liturgical calendar. Now, on her feast day, Nov. 25, Catholic priests stand at the altar and once again offer Mass in honor of St. Catherine of Alexandria.