St. Catherine of Genoa: Get Thee to a Confessional

We can honor St. Catherine, and her life of heroic virtue, by learning from her holy example and going to Confession before Easter.

Marco Benefial, “The Vision of St. Catherine Fieschi Adorno of Genoa,” 1747
Marco Benefial, “The Vision of St. Catherine Fieschi Adorno of Genoa,” 1747 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Catherine of Genoa lived in the Renaissance period of cultural decadence and indulgence. A daughter of a noble family with connections to the Church’s hierarchy, Catherine’s petition to join a convent at the age of 13 was nonetheless denied because she was too young. Shortly thereafter, she was married to a nobleman befitting her own station. Miserable with her philandering husband, Catherine’s piety, which had been noteworthy as a child, weakened. She numbed her pain with empty pleasures, though not sinking to her husband’s debauchery.

Because she was a 15th-century Italian noblewoman, Catherine maintained the rituals of Catholicism, despite her spiritual tepidity. In 1474, at the urging of her sister, a nun, she went to Confession, where she was overcome with the depth of her own sinfulness, and the corresponding love her Creator must have for her, in order to forgive her sins.

Catherine left the confessional, determined to repent and reform, which she did, foregoing her previously lavish lifestyle in favor of performing corporal works of mercy and charity among the city’s poor. Her husband, Julian, moved by his wife’s newfound devotion, slowly reformed his life as well, though not before he had brought them to financial ruin. In the wake of this material misfortune, the couple moved into one of the city’s largest hospitals to better serve the impoverished and infirm. Catherine eventually became the hospital’s manager and remained there until she died in 1510, 13 years after her husband.

St. Catherine lived in the 15th century, but her struggle against self-indulgent habits, petty vice, and a culture seeping in decadence is certainly one relatable to those living in the West during this post-modern age. One advantage she may be able to claim over us is that she lived in a civilization that was still steeped in the trappings of religion, if not still in belief itself. Catherine may have drifted from God in the early years of her marriage, but she still was exposed to the sacraments with regularity. As such, she found herself willing to step into that confessional, where her journey to sanctity began.

Our proud and relativistic culture has fallen out of the habit of naming our sins. Indeed, we celebrate many of them. And even when we do not celebrate, we do our best to ignore them. Where once absolution was recognized as a necessity for entrance to heaven, many Catholics now consider it optional. A 2015 Pew Research survey found that of self-identified Catholics, only 43% went to Confession once a year and of that number less than half went more than annually.

Catholics are required to go to Confession once a year if they are conscious of committing a mortal sin (and they must not receive Holy Communion until they have confessed this sin). But even those with only venial (less grave) sins weighing on their souls would be mistaken if they viewed the Confession as an option they may safely forego. St. Catherine reminds us that the grace offered by the Sacrament of Reconciliation is not a nicety gifted to us by the Church, nor is it only needed by murderers and adulterers (to name a few more obvious mortal sins). All sin separates us from God, albeit by different degrees. It is Confession that heals that rift and brings us back to him, and the grace we receive from absolution fortifies us against committing further sins.

It is timely then, that we remember St. Catherine of Genoa during the season of Lent, when we are called in a particular way to repent, to prepare our souls for the suffering of Good Friday, so that we may celebrate with Our Lord on Easter Sunday.

We can honor St. Catherine, and her life of heroic virtue, by learning from her holy example and going to Confession during Holy Week. Maybe even bring a friend.

St. Catherine of Genoa, pray for us!

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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