Lessons in Unity and Holiness from St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!

(photo: Register Files)

Seven hundred years ago, St. Catherine of Siena helped reunite a divided Church, and changed world history, by taking seriously her call to holiness. 

Catherine of Siena was born March 25, 1347, and she died April 29, 1380. She is perhaps best known for the role that she played in encouraging Pope Gregory XI to bring the papacy back to Rome, given that this is where Peter had brought the Church 1,300 years before. Before Gregory XI’s return to Rome, what we now call the “Avignon Papacy,” saw the papal court moved to Avignon between 1309 and 1377.

Catherine’s urgent call to Gregory XI for him to return the papacy to Rome came toward the end of one of her many letters, this one within a series of correspondence during the summer of 1376, when she was ardently urging Gregory XI to make haste to Rome. Catherine’s words are at once chillingly beautiful and historically iconic:

Ah, me, father, I die of grief and cannot die! Come, come, and resist no more the will of God that calls you; the hungry sheep await your coming to hold and possess the place of your predecessor and Champion, Apostle Peter. For you, as the Vicar of Christ, should abide in your own place. Come, then, come, and delay no more; and comfort you, and fear not anything that might happen, since God will be with you.

Pope Gregory XI, whose heart was eventually changed in light of Catherine’s virtuous persistence, relented and soon journeyed to Rome, arriving on Jan. 17, 1377. Catherine of Siena died only three years later, at just 33 years old. Unfortunately, more turbulent days for the papacy specifically, and therefore the Church generally, ensued, but the Church was able to withstand this renewed tumult, due in great part to the solid foundation of being headquartered once again in Rome, a headquarters established by Peter, the Rock, whom Jesus had chosen with those most memorable of words from Matthew 16:18-19, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

How did Catherine, an unassuming young woman from the diminutive town of Siena, reunite the Church? By taking seriously her universal call to holiness, 700 years before the Church’s hierarchy under Paul VI reminded the laity in the Vatican II document Lumen Gentium (one of only four dogmatic constitutions from the Council) that we are all supposed to take to heart that to which the Lord has called us. Chapter 4 of Lumen Gentium, titled “The Laity,” is thus followed by Chapter5, titled “The Universal Call to Holiness in the Church,” where we read, “Therefore, in the Church, everyone, whether belonging to the hierarchy, or being cared for by it, is called to holiness, according to the saying of the Apostle: ‘For this is the will of God, your sanctification’” (the conclusive phrase being an allusion to St. Paul’s words from 1 Thessalonians 4:3 and Ephesians 1:4).

The 21st century world has produced no shortage of menaces that seek to interfere with holiness, as we see in the widespread disregard for human life, referred to by Pope Francis as a broader “throwaway culture.” Indeed, St. John Paul II, in Chapter 3 of his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae: On the Value and Inviolability of Human Life, referenced paragraph 27 of the Vatican II document (and another dogmatic constitution) Gaudium et Spes: On the Church in the Modern World, when he reminded us of the following: 

The Second Vatican Council, in a passage which retains all its relevance today, forcefully condemned a number of crimes and attacks against human life. Thirty years later, taking up the words of the Council, and with the same forcefulness, I repeat that condemnation in the name of the whole Church, certain that I am interpreting the genuine sentiment of every upright conscience: ‘Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator.’

St. Catherine of Siena did far more than simply bring the papacy to Rome. Her manifold writings indicate her deep love for the Lord, as exhibited by her profound personal sanctity by way of her constant recourse to what we now refer to as the “universal call to holiness.” Catherine of Siena, a member of the laity, provided an example that we would be prudent to emulate.

We certainly need more faithful Catholics in public life. We need Catholics who are willing to restore hope and trust in the Church, particularly in the wake of others’ scandalous behavior of any sort. We can pray for our priests and bishops, inspiring them to holiness. As my friend, Archdiocese of Washington priest Fr. Pawel Sass, a native of Poland, once reminded me, “In every era of Church history, when the clergy had a renewal of holiness, the laity followed.” 

We can also look to the bishops and their teachings. As one example of various, the discerning mind will note that Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, of which we will celebrate 50 years on July 25, and whose author, upon his beatification on Oct. 19, 2014, Pope Francis deemed “prophetic,” is rightly lauded by those in the Church who assent to her teachings on chastity.

If unity in the Church is our goal, let us gain a deeper understanding of how to live according to the Church’s teachings, which are necessarily based on Christ’s own, recalling his reminder to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). 

And let us ask for the intercession of a legendarily unitive force in the Church, as we say: St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!

This article originally appeared July 11, 2018, at the Register.