Tuesday, 25 January 2011

On 'ordinary' lay saints...

One often hears complaints, on certain types of blogs, and in books on the 'theology of the laity', about the relative dearth of lay saints.

The wrong type of saints?

What this is generally code for is not that there aren't many lay saints in the calendar, for there are; but that they are in some way the 'wrong type' of lay saint, disdained by many today for their hardline positions (such as St Monica, St Augustine's mother), their positions (kings and queens) or their defense of Christian dedication and virtue, such as the virgin martyrs. 

Now these days I rather suspect we need once more to be reminded of the heroic courage of the martyrs; those who converted their husbands and thence their countries; and those faced with the apostasy of their children, and more.  These are times when we need to be inspired to cope with the lesser persecutions that are becoming increasingly common in our society, even to be prepared, if necessary to disobey immoral laws.

All the same, it is nice to be reminded from time to time of the lay holy women and confessors who have been recognized by the Church even though they carried out no heroic deeds, yet learnt heroic virtue!

Catherine of Genoa, a married saint

Pope Benedict's General Audience on Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) has received some coverage for the saints' teaching on purgatory as a state rather than a place.  But now that the full text translation of the Audience is (finally) available, it can be seen that her life is also an inspirational model for married women, so here are some extracts from the Audience on this aspect of her life:

...Catherine was born in Genoa in 1447. She was the youngest of five. Her father, Giacomo Fieschi, died when she was very young. Her mother, Francesca di Negro provided such an effective Christian education that the elder of her two daughters became a religious.

Unhappy marriage

When Catherine was 16, she was given in marriage to Giuliano Adorno, a man who after various trading and military experiences in the Middle East had returned to Genoa in order to marry.

Married life was far from easy for Catherine, partly because of the character of her husband who was given to gambling. Catherine herself was at first induced to lead a worldly sort of life in which, however, she failed to find serenity. After 10 years, her heart was heavy with a deep sense of emptiness and bitterness.

[The Pope's summation here seems something of an understatement: according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "The marriage turned out wretchedly; Giuliano proved faithless, violent-tempered, and a spendthrift. And made the life of his wife a misery. Details are scanty, but it seems at least clear that Catherine spent the first five years of her marriage in silent, melancholy submission to her husband; and that she then, for another five, turned a little to the world for consolation in her troubles."]


A unique experience on 20 March 1473 sparked her conversion. She had gone to the Church of San Benedetto in the monastery of Nostra Signora delle Grazie [Our Lady of Grace], to make her confession and, kneeling before the priest, “received”, as she herself wrote, “a wound in my heart from God’s immense love”. It came with such a clear vision of her own wretchedness and shortcomings and at the same time of God’s goodness, that she almost fainted.

Her heart was moved by this knowledge of herself — knowledge of the empty life she was leading and of the goodness of God. This experience prompted the decision that gave direction to her whole life. She expressed it in the words: “no longer the world, no longer sin” (cf. Vita Mirabile, 3rv). Catherine did not stay to make her Confession.

On arriving home she entered the remotest room and spent a long time weeping. At that moment she received an inner instruction on prayer and became aware of God’s immense love for her, a sinner. It was a spiritual experience she had no words to describe ( cf. Vita Mirabile, 4r).

It was on this occasion that the suffering Jesus appeared to her, bent beneath the Cross, as he is often portrayed in the Saint’s iconography. A few days later she returned to the priest to make a good confession at last. It was here that began the “life of purification” which for many years caused her to feel constant sorrow for the sins she had committed and which spurred her to impose forms of penance and sacrifice upon herself, in order to show her love to God.

On this journey Catherine became ever closer to the Lord until she attained what is called “unitive life”, namely, a relationship of profound union with God.

Spiritual direction from God

In her Vita it is written that her soul was guided and instructed from within solely by the sweet love of God which gave her all she needed. Catherine surrendered herself so totally into the hands of the Lord that she lived, for about 25 years, as she wrote, “without the assistance of any creature, taught and governed by God alone” (Vita, 117r-118r), nourished above all by constant prayer and by Holy Communion which she received every day, an unusual practice in her time. Only many years later did the Lord give her a priest who cared for her soul.

Catherine was always reluctant to confide and reveal her experience of mystical communion with God, especially because of the deep humility she felt before the Lord’s graces. The prospect of glorifying him and of being able to contribute to the spiritual journey of others alone spurred her to recount what had taken place within her, from the moment of her conversion, which is her original and fundamental experience.

Practical charity

The place of her ascent to mystical peaks was Pammatone Hospital, the largest hospital complex in Genoa, of which she was director and animator. Hence Catherine lived a totally active existence despite the depth of her inner life. In Pammatone a group of followers, disciples and collaborators formed around her, fascinated by her life of faith and her charity.

Indeed her husband, Giuliano Adorno, was so so won over that he gave up his dissipated life, became a Third Order Franciscan and moved into the hospital to help his wife.

Catherine’s dedication to caring for the sick continued until the end of her earthly life on 15 September 1510. From her conversion until her death there were no extraordinary events but two elements characterize her entire life: on the one hand her mystical experience, that is, the profound union with God, which she felt as spousal union, and on the other, assistance to the sick, the organization of the hospital and service to her neighbour, especially the neediest and the most forsaken. These two poles, God and neighbour, totally filled her life, virtually all of which she spent within the hospital walls....

With her life St Catherine teaches us that the more we love God and enter into intimacy with him in prayer the more he makes himself known to us, setting our hearts on fire with his love.

In writing about purgatory, the Saint reminds us of a fundamental truth of faith that becomes for us an invitation to pray for the deceased so that they may attain the beatific vision of God in the Communion of Saints (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1032).

Moreover the humble, faithful and generous service in Pammatone Hospital that the Saint rendered throughout her life is a shining example of charity for all and an encouragement, especially for women who, with their precious work enriched by their sensitivity and attention to the poorest and neediest, make a fundamental contribution to society and to the Church.

Do read the rest of the Audience, particularly for her teaching on purgatory.

St Catherine's feast day is 15 September.


Stephen K said...

Kate, you have presented a moderate yet sympathetic and attractive precis of the reason why she is regarded as a saint: not knowing anything of Catherine of Genoa, I appreciate, through your portrayal, something of her character and will indeed read the rest of the Audience. As far as I am concerned, her work with the sick and suffering epitomises the selfless love the rest of us do and should aspire to. I'm not worried particularly about what or how she believed and think it slightly incongruous to characterise any feelings or convictions she had as "hardline" when it appears, from your summary, that she acted solely out of a sense of her need and love of God.

I think the problem is often that we all get attached or focused on the barriers and categories we erect ourselves: here is a woman whom I think an ordinary person can relate to and be inspired by.

Thanks for this article, Kate.

Kate said...

You've misinterpreted me Stephen, I wans't suggesting St Catherine wa 'hardline' (though I suspect she would be perceived as such by modern standards!), my comment was on why some disliked certain other 'ordinary' lay saints.

But glad you liked the article.

Stephen K said...

Sorry,just to clarify. I'm afraid I didn't express myself as clearly as I might have: I fully realised you weren't calling her "hardline", but were referring to others who might do so! I was implicitly picking up on your comment in suggesting such a characterisation was inappropriate.