True sanctity does not easily fit into our notions of being merely nice or humble. The lives of the actual saints of the Church exude joy and can bring great encouragement to many around them. But it is also true that the great saints were irksome and unsettling to many. Most of the great saints had encountered the holiness of God and wanted to see that holiness be like a fire cast on the earth. When you really want to please God rather than men, you’re not going to be easily silenced in the face of sin and injustice, nor will you be engaging in pleasantries that merely cover over sin.
Catharine Benincasa was such a soul. We know her as St. Catherine of Siena. And though renowned for her love, generosity, and humility, as well as her power to heal, console, and cast out demons, she was no shrinking violet. If she saw something in your soul that was unholy, you were going to hear about it. And it didn’t matter who you were.
St Catherine would meet with anyone from the poorest beggars to kings, governors, bishops, and popes, and none of them were denied her love and encouragement. Neither were they spared the hard truths that God gave her to say. Only God was to be pleased, not man. Spiritual truths were to be extolled over every temporal matter like safety, comfort, and pleasing the powers-that-be.
She loved the Church but remained gravely concerned with the condition of the beloved Bride of Christ. Particularly egregious to her was the condition of so many clergy, right on up the ranks. Even the popes of her time, whom she acknowledged as the sweet Vicars of Christ, and her beloved father (“Babbo” in her native Tuscan) could not escape her expressions of grave disappointment and her calls to conversion.
Of special significance for our time is her exchange of letters with Pope Gregory XI. Though he himself led an exemplary life in many respects, he was a weak, shy, even cowardly man. He was deeply compromised by his temporal ties to power, wealth, and protection, without which he feared he and the papacy could not survive. Nepotism was also a terrible problem, as his own family members kept him wound around their fingers.
Most of the early popes died as martyrs. But by the time of the Avignon Papacy, the popes had become very tied to the world and had “too much to lose.” Instead of facing their opponents boldly, preaching the gospel, and refusing to be afraid, they had fled to Avignon and had been in residence there for decades, living behind fortified walls, protected by armies, and compromised by alliances with secular rulers. It had to stop.
Gregory XI was the last of the Avignon popes, but he only returned to Rome at the prodding of a young woman, not yet thirty, who told him, in effect, to “man up.” Perhaps most disconcerting to him was the fact that she seemed to know of a secret vow he had made to God that if he were to be elected Pope he would bring the papacy back to Rome. How could she know? But she did. Yet after all, was that not why he sought her advice? She knew God, and fearful though her words were, they were compelling, for he knew that God was speaking to him through her. In 1377, after much delay and fretting, he left for Rome.
I want to produce here some excerpts from a letter she wrote to Gregory XI just prior to 1377. I think her words speak to the clergy of today. The specific issues that beset clergy today are somewhat different, but not that different. The Church no longer commands extensive temporal power or rule. But too many (though not all) clergy still exhibit a need to “man up” when it comes to teaching with clarity and authority. And too many clergy, pastors in parishes, and bishops in dioceses, are unwilling to maintain holy discipline or enforce canonical penalties, ever.
St. Catherine confronts this tendency in her letter and does not, to put it mildly, regard this favorably. She sees it as mired in self-love and in the refusal to suffer with the Lord, who died for us at our hands rather than lie to us. She uses the image of a wound that needs to be cauterized with hot irons rather than soothed with oil. But the weak clergy who do not want to hear the cries of protest use only oil to soothe, even though this does not heal and in fact only leads the wound to get worse and in the end cause death. Such malpractice is rooted in self-love, not true zeal to heal and prevent spiritual death.
Well, I have already said too much; I will let Saint Catherine speak for herself. If you think my blogs are long, try reading St. Catherine’s letters! I present here only excerpts of a much longer letter to Pope Gregory; she wrote several others, too. The translation I am using here is from Letters of Catherine Benincasa
In the Name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary: To you, most reverend and beloved father in Christ Jesus, your unworthy, poor, miserable daughter Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, writes in His precious Blood … the soul is constrained to love what God loves and to hate what He hates. Oh, sweet and true knowledge, which dost carry with thee the knife of hate, and dost stretch out the hand of holy desire … [But if a prelate] sees his subjects commit faults and sins, and pretends not to see them and fails to correct them; or if he does correct them, he does it with such coldness and lukewarmness that he does not accomplish anything, but plasters vice over; and he is always afraid of giving displeasure or of getting into a quarrel. All this is because he loves himself. Sometimes men like this want to get along with purely peaceful means.
I say that this is the very worst cruelty which can be shown. If a wound when necessary is not cauterized or cut out with steel, but simply covered with ointment, not only does it fail to heal, but it infects everything, and many a time death follows from it.
Oh me, oh me, sweetest “Babbo” [a term of affection in her native Tuscan which translates roughly as “Papa”] mine! This is the reason that all the subjects are corrupted by impurity and iniquity.
Oh me, weeping I say it! How dangerous is that worm [of self-love] we spoke of! For not only does it give death to the shepherd, but all the rest fall into sickness and death through it.
Why does that shepherd go on using so much ointment? Because he does not suffer in consequence! For no displeasure visits one and no ill will, from spreading ointment over the sick; since one does nothing contrary to their will; they wanted ointment, and so ointment is given them.
Oh, human wretchedness! Blind is the sick man who does not know his own need, and blind the shepherd-physician, who has regard to nothing but pleasing, and his own advantage—since, not to forfeit it, he refrains from using the knife of justice or the fire of ardent charity! But such men do as Christ says: for if one blind man guide the other, both fall into the ditch. Sick man and physician fall into hell.
Such a man is a hireling shepherd, for, far from dragging his sheep from the hands of the wolf, he devours them himself. The cause of all this is, that he loves himself apart from God: so he does not follow sweet Jesus, the true Shepherd, who has given His life for His sheep.
Truly, then, this perverse love is perilous for one’s self and for others, and truly to be shunned, since it works too much harm to every generation of people.
I hope by the goodness of God, venerable father mine, that you will quench this in yourself, and will not love yourself for yourself, nor your neighbor for yourself, nor God; but will love Him because He is highest and eternal Goodness, and worthy of being loved …
O “Babbo” mine, sweet Christ on earth, follow that sweet Gregory (the Great)! For all will be possible to you as to him; for he was not of other flesh than you; and that God is now who was then: we lack nothing save virtue, and hunger for the salvation of souls.
… Let no more note be given to friends or parents or one’s temporal needs, but only to virtue and the exaltation of things spiritual … have that glorious hunger which these holy and true shepherds of the past … hungered and famished for the savor of souls.
… Following Christ, whose vicar you are, like a strong man … Fear not; for divine aid is near. Have a care for spiritual things alone, for good shepherds, good rulers, in your cities—since on account of bad shepherds and rulers you have encountered rebellion.
Give us, then, a remedy … Press on, and fulfill with true zeal and holy what you have begun with a holy resolve, concerning your return, and the holy and sweet crusade. And delay no longer, for many difficulties have occurred through delay, and the devil has risen up to prevent these things being done, because he perceives his own loss.
Up, then, father, and no more negligence! Raise the gonfalon of the most holy Cross, for with the fragrance of the Cross you shall win peace.
We await you with eager and loving desire. Pardon me, father, that I have said so many words to you. You know that through the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh … I beg you to do what you have to do manfully and in the fear of God … Remain in the sweet and holy grace of God. I ask you humbly for your blessing. Pardon my presumption, that I presume to write to you. Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love [Letter to Gregory XI, quoted in Letters of Catherine Benincasa pp. 49-51].
Such words still ring true in our day! For too many today in the Church would use the “oil” of accommodation to the culture today, a culture filled with sexual confusion, in which disposable marriages and easy grace without repentance are demanded. To heal such wounds, the cauterizing of the hot iron of truth is needed. Applying the oil of consolation may meet with fewer protests from those who are sick from lies, but in the end this does not help heal the putrefying wounds. Despite the protests, only the hot iron will do.
It’s time for clergy to man up and apply the more difficult medicines. May the upcoming synod show forth the vigor and courage to which St. Catherine summons us.
Thank you, Mother Catherine. May you, who converted the heart of Gregory XI and summoned him to courageous manhood, now imbue us, the clergy of today, with that same fortitude and determination to do what really heals, even if the current age protests.