FAUSTO GOMEZ OP
In the words of St. Paul VI, Saint Catherine of Siena was “a unique phenomenon… among the sweetest, most original and greatest [saints] history has ever recorded.” I wish to present briefly the 14th century Dominican saint and focus on her Dialogue.
Catherine Benincasa was born on March 25, 1347 in Siena, Italy. Jacobo and Lapa, her parents, had twenty-five children. Catherine, their twenty third, was a pious girl devoted to Jesus and Mary. Early in her life, Catherine offered her life to Christ, her Spouse, and made for him an interior cell in her heart. When she was about seventeen years old, Catherine joined in Siena the “Mantellata,” a group of lay women of the Order of Penance of Saint Dominic, and began a three-year period of prayer and penance while living in seclusion at her home. At about twenty, Catherine left her home and dedicated herself to serving her neighbor, especially the neighbor most in need and the Church. She did this while maintaining the interior cell in her heart for her Divine Spouse. She died on April 29, 1380, after much suffering. She was canonized by Pius II in 1461, proclaimed a co-patron of Europe by Pope Pius XII in 1939 and declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. St. Catherine is one of the patrons of the Diocese of Macau.
Catherine wrote a major work on the spiritual and mystical: The Dialogue of St Catherine of Siena, or The Dialogue of Divine Providence, which is a conversation between God the Father and Catherine. As it has been said, more than a book, it is Catherine’s life. She also wrote hundreds of wonderful moving letters, and about forty-eight soliloquies and prayers uttered by her during periods of ecstasy or while praying aloud. In her works, the extension of her rich life, Catherine links marvelously contemplation and action, prayer and compassion.
St. Catherine’s Dialogue is not easy reading and often repetitive, but it is certainly worth perusing. It is a classic of Christian spirituality and therefore eternally timely and timeless. It is amazing to realize that an unlettered young woman, who learned to read late and did not know how to write well, was able to dictate the incredible conversations (her method of inspired teaching) between God the Father and herself.
Where did she learn all that? “From Jesus,” she told her confessor Raymond of Capua, “my Lord and Teacher, who talked to me as I am talking to you now.” In the book, Catherine thanks God: “The doctrine of the truth that you have communicated to me is a special grace.” Her confessors, especially Blessed Raymond of Capua and other Dominicans, had a great influence on her sublime teachings.
The Dialogue is generally divided into 167 chapters. It starts with an introduction (Ch. 1-2), continues with her doctrine on perfection (Ch. 3-12), on the dialogue (Ch. 13-25), on the doctrine on the Bridge (Ch. 26-87), on tears (Ch. 88-97), on truth (Ch. 98-109), on the Mystical Body of the Church (Ch. 110-134), on divine providence (Ch. 135-153), and finally, on obedience (Ch. 154-165). Catherine’s doctrine on the Bridge is considered one of her most innovative teachings.
God, Eternal Trinity, created us to have eternal life. The relationship with God which was severed after sin was re-established through the blood of Christ Crucified. No one can go to the Father without the aid of Jesus, the Bridge. God the Father tells her: “The soul united to him by his love is ‘another I.’” She repeats: “You are the one who is and I am the one who is not.” The sweet union of the soul with God in Holy Communion: “the soul is in God and God in the soul like the fish is in the sea and the sea in the fish.”
The Bridge is the Only-Begotten Son of God, God and man, intermediary between God and us, the sweet Jesus, Christ Crucified; redemption and grace come from the Blood of Jesus. The Bridge has three states, or steps, represented by the feet, the side and the mouth of Jesus. In the first, the soul leaves vice; in the second, the soul lives off the love of virtue; and in the third – the mouth – the soul finds great peace and stillness. God the Father tells St. Catherine, “To obtain eternal life, it is not enough that my Son is the bridge, but that you utilize it.”
The Bridge is built up with the stones of true virtues. Charity is the queen of virtues, and the one that gives life to all other virtues, the only virtue that enters heaven. Humility is the wet nurse of charity, and patience, its marrow; most holy faith is rooted in obedience.
Christian life, guided by the Holy Spirit, is permeated constantly by “humble and holy prayer” – of gratitude, of praise and especially of petition: “Ask, then, because I [God the Father] do mercy” and invites all to knock at the door of Truth, his Son. Catherine sighs: “Oh Love! I have overcome you with your very love.”
In the Bridge there is a shop: the Garden of the Church, where the pilgrim receives the Bread of Life and the Blood of Christ. The Church is the vineyard of the mystical body, and Jesus is the grapevine which we are grafted into. Those who are not thus grafted will soon become rebels who will be like members separated from the body that soon rot.
There is another bridge over the river where those with grave sins may sink and drown, although the door of God’s mercy is also always open to them. Catherine cautions us: Selfish love is the source of all evil (cf. Ch. 7). Selfish love is a rotten tree planted in the mountain of pride.
Christ, our Bridge of salvation, invites us to live compassionate, fraternal, joyful and prayerful lives. Thus, we help build bridges in our divided world: bridges of solidarity and fraternity between nations and among peoples, in politics, in families, and among religions and cultures.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)