Sts. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila: 2 Towering Figures of Catholic Faith

COMMENTARY: In 1970, Pope Paul VI declared St. Catherine and St. Teresa doctors of the Church.

Sts. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila were named doctors of the Church 50 years ago.
Sts. Catherine of Siena and Teresa of Avila were named doctors of the Church 50 years ago. (photo: Public domain)

“The only real sadness,” wrote Leon Bloy, “the only real failure, the only real tragedy in life, is not to be a saint.” 

He was absolutely spot-on, of course, which is why the saints are the least sad of all Christians. Their lives were not tragic; they did not come unstuck at the end. 

And in that blessed company to which all the baptized are called, standing at the very summit of the stair, we find the mystics and doctors. Surely these are the happiest of all. Because, owing to all that they knew and were thus able to pass on to others, the level of their beatitude amid the realms of eternal glory will be that much higher. 

But there are not so many of them — 36 to be exact, from the 30,000 or more saints whom Mother Church has canonized since she began keeping records. But it wasn’t until the high medieval period that the distinction was drawn concerning those saints whose teaching was so striking, so especially exemplary, that the designation of “doctor” (from the Latin docere, meaning “to teach”) needed to be affixed to their name, as well. 

And of these 36, only four are female, a fact that hardly reflects poorly on their sex, given the exceedingly impressive pedigree of holiness and learning they possessed — beginning with the two towering figures we celebrate this week and next.

It was 50 years ago in Rome, during the pontificate of Pope St. Paul VI, that St. Catherine of Siena (Oct. 4) and St. Teresa of Avila (Sept. 27) were given their doctoral status. 

“How can we forget,” he asked, speaking first of Catherine, “the intense work carried out by the saint for the reform of the Church?” This fearless young woman, he reminded the world in his homily, spoke often, and always uncompromisingly, to corrupt bishops and cardinals, “the sacred shepherds to whom she addresses her exhortations, disgusted with holy indignation by the ignorance of not a few of them, quivering for their silence, while the flock entrusted to them was dispersed and ruined.” 

And then, a moment later as it were, he speaks of Teresa, a woman no less courageous, who bravely undertook the reform of her own Carmelite order. Pope Paul gave her the title “Doctor of Prayer” because her teaching was “full of enchanting simplicity … of wonderful depth,” a woman armed with the wisest counsel, yet so charmingly set down in her Autobiography that has enriched and delighted generations of readers.

What was it about these two women that so commends them to us today that moved the Church back in 1970 to honor them in this exceptional way? What was the precise witness of their sanctity? Is it still meaningful for us today?

Begin with Catherine, then, who lived 700 years ago in “the calamitous 14th century,” so splendidly documented by the late Barbara Tuchman in her book The Distant Mirror. It was a world marked by widespread plague and pillage, along with a papacy riven by schism. Into that world of seething instability God set down this extraordinary young woman, whose task, as she saw it, was not to reform the Church, but to conform herself to Christ, love for whom would then become the launching pad for the necessary reforms to follow. 

“I desire above all to see you, the true light, as you really are,” she tells us in her Dialogue on Divine Providence. But here she faces sheer mystery, deeper even than the sea. So that the more she strives to find, the more she will need to search, redoubling her efforts to know One whom none of us can finally know. God will sternly remind her of this fact, revealing to her that “I am he who is, and you are she who is not.” Which leaves her, and by extension everyone else, positively breathless before the abyss separating ourselves from God: 

“I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more. When you fill my soul I have an ever greater hunger, and I grow more famished for your light.” 

Thus thrown upon the limitless resources of God, Catherine will be given her assignment, which is to admonish great big bishops and cardinals — including the errant Pope Gregory XI, who, having decamped to Avignon, needs most emphatically to be reminded that, if he is to fulfill God’s will, he must return at once to Rome. In due course, he will listen to her; and she, by God’s grace, will have rescued the papacy.

A couple of centuries later, meanwhile, we find ourselves among the high Castilian plains, where a shrewd and tough-minded nun named Teresa is busy reforming Carmelites all across Spain. 

No fewer than 17 convents will be established, each determined on a life of evangelical perfection. In stark contrast to the lax practices that had previously defined religious life, she urges her sisters to take up a life of purest contemplative consent to God. And so, in the midst of constant hardship and illness, the great work goes forward, punctuated by numerous visions — the most celebrated of which is the one recounted in Chapter 29 of her Autobiography, in which an angel, armed with a flaming arrow, pierces her heart with the love of Christ: 

“The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it, nor will one’s soul be content with anything less than God.”

If the only sadness is not to be a saint, then the surest remedy for sadness is to become one, bending every effort to configure mind and heart to God. 

“The future of the Church,” Father Joseph Ratzinger said in a 1969 radio broadcast, “can and will issue only from those whose roots are deep and who live from the pure fullness of their faith.” 

The future, in other words, assuming God permits us to have one, belongs to the saints, those blessed few who wish above all to belong to God.

“Love calls for love in return,” St. Teresa tells us. “Let us strive to keep this always before our eyes and to rouse ourselves to love Him.” It is quite simple, really. “A condition of complete simplicity,” in fact, as the poet Eliot reminds us at the very end of Four Quartets: 

(Costing not less than everything)

And all shall be well and

All manner of thing shall be well

When the tongues of flame are in-folded

Into the crowned knot of fire

And the fire and the rose are one.

This column was updated after posting.