The Courageous Witness of St. Catherine of Alexandria

A feast-day commentary

Bernardino Luini’s portrait of St. Catherine of Alexandria
Bernardino Luini’s portrait of St. Catherine of Alexandria (photo: Public domain)

St. Catherine of Alexandria’s witness to the faith was short, dramatic and even bizarre.

A beautiful Christian noblewoman martyred in the fourth century, St. Catherine, whose feast day is Nov. 25, had a devoted following in the medieval age. Sadly, these days, this saint with an exciting story has since slipped largely out of the public eye — even though it was another female saint, who has enjoyed nearly universal popularity, St. Joan of Arc, who claimed St. Catherine was one of the saints who appeared to her as a heavenly adviser in the warrior-saint’s military campaigns to free her country from foreign occupation.

Fortunately for those who wish to know more about St. Catherine, Encyclopedia Britannica and New Advent detail her amazing witness.

At 18, Catherine was horrified by the brutal oppression, torture and murder of Christians carried out by Roman Emperor Maximinus II. Determined to put a stop to the suffering of her brethren, she presented herself before the emperor; and with what can only be described as an exponential amount of moxie, she rebuked the emperor for his behavior and demanded that he cease his persecution. She finished her defiant speech with a defense of Christianity itself. 

Furious at being so addressed by a young woman, Maximinus brought forth the most famed intellects in his court to disprove Catherine’s arguments. Undeterred, and fortified by the Holy Spirit, Catherine stood her ground, even managing to convert many of the dazzled sophists as they saw the strength of her arguments. The emperor promptly executed the new converts. 

In an attempt to silence Catherine, Maximinus proposed marriage, offering her wealth and power if only she gave up her faith. 

Catherine refused, and he threw her into prison to be tortured. She suffered unspeakable torments and still kept her faith. Indeed, far from languishing in her cell, Catherine saw a steady stream of visitors, compelling as many as 200 conversions among those souls. Each new soul she won for Christ met a martyr’s end. Finally, determined to put an end to Catherine, Maximinus condemned her to death on the breaking wheel; however, when she touched the wheel, it shattered before the amazed guards. Not to be defeated, Maximinus had her beheaded, and thus ensured that her name was never forgotten. 

It’s an unusual story, and one that is not well known. The full scope of St. Catherine’s life and death takes less than a page to describe, so we are forgiven for not always thinking of her when we imagine the Communion of Saints. Indeed, she is not a terribly convenient saint. She defies every urge we polite modern folk might have to make Catholicism just a bit more palatable. It’s an understandable desire. Miracles and mysticism can all seem a bit gouche in this enlightened era. We may even think that to evangelize properly, we are better off presenting the saints that achieved some more tangible good. To be sure, these holy men and women accomplished much and they are just as worthy of veneration, but we owe the world a more complete picture. This modern age yearns for saints like St. Catherine of Alexandria.

To find proof of this hunger for goodness, look no further than the box-office success of every superhero movie. We want to see the good guys win. But first, we want to see what the victory will cost, to see our heroes prevail after suffering, to come roaring back to win the day. St. Catherine of Alexandria delivers. She stands in defiant reproach of every urge to make Catholicism “polite,” to tone it down to fit modern sensibilities. 

Her brief but brilliant life reminds us that this Church was built upon the blood of fearless men and women whose faith and bravery undermined the strongest empire on earth. Their blood is why our cardinals wear red, to remind them of what they must be willing to give to defend truth. Their sacrifice is remembered in the crimson shoes worn by the popes. They did not surrender their lives so that we could luxuriate in warm sentiments on Sunday and print pretty pieties on bumper stickers. They willingingly walked into the arenas out of love of God and so that others could attain eternal life.

Every saint is radical in his or her own way. Likewise, each and every saint is uniquely holy and serves a distinct role. One path to sainthood is not more worthy of honor than another. But in this age of brokenness and cynicism, let us thank God for this brave young woman who silenced a king and who was so filled with burning love for Our Lord that her touch alone shattered instruments of torture. 

Register correspondent Kelly Marcum writes from Virginia. This column was updated after posting.