Reflection by Sr. Mary O’Driscoll OP on St. Catherine of Siena
One of the recent Masters of the Dominican Order described Catherine of Siena as ”the woman into whom the whole soul of Dominic passed”. What higher tribute could be paid to a Dominican? Yes, Catherine was a woman into whom the whole soul of Dominic passed. So, as we prepare to celebrate her feastday, we who make our profession in a Congregation with Catherine of Siena as its special protector, can rightly look to her for clues as to how we can live our Dominican life today.
Catherine was a remarkable woman by any standards. She stands out in history as a colourful, strong, passionate and enthusiastic personality, a woman who had a tremendous zest for life, and who put all of herself into whatever she was convinced about. The truth she was most convinced about was God’s overwhelming, staggering love for creation manifested in Jesus Christ. This was the good news that she passionately shared with her world.
In one of her letters, she states that God is the fire and we are the sparks. This is a good metaphor for us Dominicans! It reminds us that only those who are themselves in touch with the God of love can set others on fire. Catherine was in touch with this God, and so she was in her world an energetic, passionate spark from the divine fire. She invites us to be bright sparks from that fire too!
Catherine had an intense appreciation of Dominic. In her writings, she speaks of him as “an apostle who sowed God’s word in the world wherever he went”. She too longed to be an apostle of God’s word in the world. That was why she joined the group of Dominican laywomen living in Siena. From that time on, her whole life can be described as a living out of the Dominican charism. In one chapter of THE DIALOGUE, she describes the Dominican Order as “spacious, joyous, fragrant and delightful ”. Hopefully it is that for us too.
When Catherine speaks of Jesus Christ, she likes to describe him as a Bridge – the bridge of love connecting us to God and to one another. To use a term from Simon and Garfunkel, we can say that for her Jesus is “the bridge over troubled waters”. She invites us, as we make our way along that bridge, to be ourselves reconciling, peace-making bridges stretching out to others over the troubled waters of their lives.
Catherine herself went about the task of bridge-building in all the ways open to her: bringing the message of God’s love and care to the poor and the sick; proclaiming the good news of God’s endless mercy to sinners; counselling people from all walks of life; acting as a peace-maker between feuding families and warring states; working for the unity of the divided church at the time of the Great Western Schism.
All through her life she showed a particular love for the poor. Her sensitivity towards them was evident in the fact that she often went to their homes at night and anonymously left them food and clothing. However, she did not only give help to the poor, she also spoke out in their name, rebuking the wealthy and powerful in society who cheated them and denied them their rights.
Like Dominic who travelled the roads of France, Spain and Italy, on the lookout for people who longed to hear God’s word, Catherine was a woman on the move, something quite extraordinary in her day, eager to bring the good news to as many people as she could. Whenever she felt reluctant to go to a new place where she was needed, she remembered God’s words spoken to her on one occasion while she prayed for light: “You are to plunge boldly into ministry with but one thought in mind, the salvation of others, whoever they are… I will be ever at your side…. Carry on with courage”. It was always in God’s strength and in the name of Jesus Christ that Catherine dared to bring God’s message of love to her contemporaries. Many of us have seen the statue in her honour at the entrance to Siena, in which she has her arms outstretched, an olive branch in one hand and a crucifix in the others. God had told her “Go into the world as a peace-maker, a bridge, in the name and strength of Christ crucified”.
Catherine was a courageous woman of the Church. Consequently, it was not only in secular society, but also in the church of her day, that she found herself in a bridging position. She was a constant supporter of the pope Gregory XI, pumping courage into him when he was afraid. “Come gently! Come without any fear” she urged him on one occasion when he was petrified to move. At the same time, she was aware of the misuse of status and power in the church, and so she spoke out bravely and honestly, calling bishops and other church leaders back to the gospel path. Her deep love of the church enabled her to stay with it in all its suffering and tragic moments, and to never give up hope that although it was at times, as she said, like “a garden overgrown with filthy weeds”, it would one day be renewed and restored to its former beauty, given to it by Jesus Christ.
Catherine’s journey along the Christ-bridge, towards God and towards others, was also a journey into herself, into what she called “the interior cell of the heart”. This cell was where she understood experientially, and most fully, both who the God of love is, and who she was as the one whom God loved so very much. She invites us to live in our interior cell, in touch with ourselves and the God who loves us too ‘so very much’, no matter how distracted, busy or worried we are. It was because she constantly lived in that interior cell that she was able to walk on the two feet of love of God and love of neighbour. Early in her life, God had given her this advice: “Think of me and I will think of you.” As a result, she didn’t get stuck in self-preoccupation. She knew and trusted that her God was lovingly taking care of her, and so she was free to devote herself to the needs of others.
Dominic was a man of great compassion. We hear that he was a naturally joyful person, his countenance radiantly happy, except when he encountered suffering of any kind. Then his appearance would immediately change; he would become sad and his tears would flow. The word which Dominic spoke in the face of suffering was a word of mercy. Catherine did the same. She had a profound perception of the suffering of her world, particularly the suffering caused by sin, and of the deep need there was for God’s mercy. In this respect, she is very like our present pope Francis who continually reminds us of God’s unfathomable, immeasurable mercy. Often in her prayer, Catherine would hear God saying: “I want to show mercy to the world, and I want to do so through you and my other servants.”
As we know, and as pope Francis exemplifies, the gospel of mercy is best proclaimed when it is communicated not only by words, but also by compassionate actions. This was the case with Catherine too. The beggar who received food and clothing from her; the young man who begged her to be present at his execution; the dying woman who slandered her; the haughty theologian who made fun of her: all of these and many others received tangible expressions of her compassion, and as a result were changed. In her compassionate behaviour, Catherine was following not only in the steps of Dominic, but in those of Jesus Christ himself, the one who made divine mercy and compassion visible in our world.
Incidentally, when Catherine speaks of Jesus Christ as a Bridge, she emphasises that this bridge has a roof and walls of mercy [the medieval bridges of her time has walls and a roof]. Once we are on it, we are completely covered and sheltered by God’s mercy, and so we are in the best position to become bridges of mercy for others. How desperately does our suffering universe need bridges of mercy running through it!
And so today, at this point, aware of all the positive energy flowing in this assembly, we ask ourselves: how can we, as members of a Congregation under the protection of St. Catherine of Siena, offer, and even become for others, warm, welcoming bridges, overflowing with compassion and love, as we all make our way over the troubled waters of the times in which we live?
Mary O’Driscoll OP
[Preaching at Mission Area Assembly 25 April 2015]