“This Is All I Can Do Now” – Applying a Practice of St. Catherine of Siena to Our Current Crisis

St Catherine before the Pope at Avignon, Giovanni di Paulo (1460)

Many Catholics have struggled to find a voice that has been nearly washed out of us by our training. We remember a time when it was unthinkable to criticize a priest; those who did were quickly rebuked, with little opportunity for explanation. Bishops and especially the Pope were not to be questioned let alone criticized. We have now seen the sometimes-horrifying toll of unhealthy deference, of setting a class of men apart from critique or accountability.

Respect surely has its place; we should not correct with unneeded harshness, personal attacks, or demeaning words. However, we must regain a healthy sense of the need to hold our clergy accountable and to insist on what is right. Canon law states the right, duty, and modality of this among God’s Faithful.

According to the knowledge, competence, and prestige which they possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons (Canon 212.3).

God’s faithful are struggling to find their voice, long suppressed. We must find this voice, even regarding the Pope. He has said some alarming things, hurtful things, and has shown little concern for serious charges against Church officials at the highest levels. Even in this case we must find our voice. We must respectful but firm and clear that we expect a full investigation of the charges so that this does not happen again.

All of this feels awkward. It touches some of our oldest training against criticizing popes, bishops, and clergy.

In times like these, we need a Catherine Benincasa.

We know her as St. Catherine of Siena. 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, no matter who you were.

St. Catherine would meet with anyone, from the poorest beggars to kings, governors, bishops, and popes. 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 (e.g., safety, comfort, pleasing worldly powers).

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 could not escape her expressions of grave disappointment and her calls to conversion.

Of special significance for us today is her exchange of letters with Pope Gregory XI. Though he 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 that he and the papacy could not survive. Nepotism was also a terrible problem; 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, popes had become very tied to the world and had “too much to lose.” 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. He only returned to Rome at the prodding of this young woman, not yet thirty, who told him, in effect, to go back to Rome or risk Hell. In 1377, after much delay and fretting, Pope Gregory left for Rome.

Below are some excerpts from a letter she wrote to Gregory XI, just prior to 1377. I think her words speak loudly 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 clergy are still unwilling to maintain holy discipline or enforce canonical penalties on malefactors.

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 as well. The translation I am using here is from Letters of Catherine Benincasa.

In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and of gentle Mary, mother of God’s Son.

Very loved and reverend father in Christ Jesus,

I Caterina, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ and your poor wretched unworthy daughter, am writing to you in his precious blood. I long to see you the sort of true gentle shepherd who takes an example from the shepherd Christ, whose place you hold. He laid down his life for his little sheep in spite of our ingratitude …

You know that the devil is not cast out by the devil, but by virtue. [Mt. 12, 26-27] … You hold the keys, and to whomever you open it is opened, and to whomever you close it is closed. This is what the good gentle Jesus said to Peter …

So take a lesson from the true Father and Shepherd. For you see that now is the time to give your life for the little sheep who have left the flock. You must seek and win them back by using patience and war—by war I mean by raising the standard of the sweet blazing cross and setting out against the unbelievers. So, you must sleep no longer, but wake up and raise that standard courageously. I am confident that by God’s measureless goodness you will win back the unbelievers and [at the same time] correct the wrongdoing of Christians, because everyone will come running to the fragrance of the cross …

By the fragrance of their virtue they would help eliminate the vice and sin, the pride and filth that are rampant among the Christian people—especially among the prelates, pastors, and administrators of holy Church who have turned to eating and devouring souls, not converting them but devouring them! And it all comes from their selfish love for themselves, from which pride is born, and greed and avarice and spiritual and bodily impurity. They see the infernal wolves carrying off their flock and it seems they don’t care. Their care has been absorbed in piling up worldly pleasures and enjoyment, approval and praise. And all this comes from their selfish love for themselves. For if they loved themselves for God instead of selfishly, they would be concerned only about God’s honor and not their own, for their neighbors’ good and not their own self-indulgence.

Ah, my dear Babbo (Father), see that you attend to these things! Look for good virtuous men and put them in charge of the little sheep. …

Up, father! Put into effect the resolution you have made concerning your return and this crusade. You can see that the unbelievers are challenging you to this by coming as close as they can to take what is yours. Up, to give your life for Christ! Isn’t our body the only thing we have? Why not give your life a thousand times, if necessary, for God’s honor and the salvation of his creatures? That is what he did, and you, his vicar, ought to be carrying on his work. It is to be expected that as long as you are his vicar you will follow your Lord’s ways and example.

So come, come! Delay no longer … Take courage, take courage, father! Stay away from the bitterness that cripples but take hold of the bitterness that strengthens—bitterness at seeing God’s name insulted, and strength in the trust that God will provide for your needs. I’ll say no more, for if I followed my inclination I wouldn’t stop as long as I had life in my body!

Forgive my presumption. Let my love and grief for God’s honor and the advancement of holy Church be my excuse in the presence of your kindness.

This is all I can do now. Have pity on the sweet loving desires being offered for you and holy Church in continual tears and prayers. Please don’t treat them with indifference, but act on them vigorously, for it seems that spring is ready to burst into bloom, and soon the fruit will come, because the flowers are beginning to blossom. … As for whatever I can do, I would gladly give my life if necessary for God’s honor and the salvation of souls. Gentle Jesus! Jesus!

(St. Catherine of Siena, Letter 74 to Gregory XI at Avignon)

Such words still ring true today! We must exhort Pope Francis to hear our cries for investigation and reform. We must speak in love and with respect, but we must also speak insistently and with clarity. The very credibility and fruitfulness of the Church is at stake. We have a duty and a right to speak to him in this way—so do our bishops. In Catherine’s words, “This is all I can do now.” The Pope must decide whether to hear our heartfelt cry or ignore it, but we cannot stop. All we can do now is to cry out insistently for justice and for a purification of the Church.

Thank you, Mother Catherine. May you, who converted the heart of Pope Gregory XI and summoned him to courageous manhood, now imbue us, the clergy and people of today, with that same fortitude and determination to call for what really heals, even if the honesty hurts.

Reminders on the Road to Victory – A Witness to the Truth of a Teaching from St. Catherine

One of the great battles in the spiritual life is mastering our emotions, by God’s grace. Our emotions are not evil, but they are unruly and easily manipulated by the world and the devil. Our own flesh (fallen nature) also contributes to the difficulty of self-mastery.

Yet as I have often testified, if we are faithful to the Lord and to prayer, growth in the spiritual life happens. Many of my once-unruly emotions have become more stable and are more quickly assuaged when they arise. I feel very good and confident about the progress I have made because I know it is the Lord who has accomplished it. Yes, I did my work: prayer, spiritual direction, Scripture, confession, Mass, and psychotherapy, but I know it was the Lord. For example, I remember awaking one morning and realizing that some very deep hurts from the past were gone. I couldn’t say when they had left; it seemed as though they had just evaporated. God was signaling me that it was over; they were gone, just gone. I felt a forgiveness, even a compassion, for those who had hurt me. I knew that I wasn’t the one who had accomplished this. Without God’s grace, I was prone to cling to my anger and resentments and rehash the injustices I had felt. Thankfully those feelings have never returned.

Anxiety was always the unruliest of my emotions. Beginning at ten years of age I would have crippling bouts of anxiety and panic. During these periods I could barely sleep and would obsessively ruminate over the fears that seized me. As a boy, I was terrified of various things: a house fire, someone breaking in and killing our entire family, etc. As I grew older and had more duties and responsibilities, I would have periodic attacks of extreme anxiety about assignments or about presentations/sermons I had to give.

The sporadic nature of these bouts seemed to confirm their demonic source. I could go for months, even years at a time, and be fine; suddenly, and usually for no apparent reason, I would feel an overwhelming panic or anxiety. For example, when I had been a priest for over ten years and been preaching and teaching with ease, I suddenly went through a period of grave anxiety over my Sunday sermons. I would worry all week long about the upcoming sermon.

Whether or not these were satanic attacks, the fact is that demons are opportunistic. They found doorways in my psyche and I, with the Lord, knew that deliverance prayer alone wasn’t going to be enough. The doors had to be closed. The work of grace and my cooperation with the Lord was going to have to win the day.

The heart of the battle occurred during a ten-year period, from my mid-thirties to my mid-forties. The medicines were these: prayer, spiritual direction, psychotherapy, sacraments, liturgy, the purification of the intellect (since most feelings come from thoughts), and learning by grace to trust God.

As in any battle, the victories came, but there were also setbacks and relapses. Little by little, trust triumphed over anxiety. A more stable, serene, and confident joy became my set point.

Now in my mid-fifties, I can say that the most recent ten years have been largely and increasingly victorious. I am seldom anxious about anything today. Thank you, Lord, and thank you also for all who have helped, guided, consoled, and encouraged me in my journey!

Every now and again, usually for just a moment (or no more than a day), I am reminded that I hold this treasure in an earthen vessel and that I need to stay “prayed-up”; I need to maintain the disciplines I have learned. Maybe it is a dream in the middle of the night from which I struggle to recover. Perhaps it is just a memory that seems all too real. Maybe it is the looming possibility of a new duty. Thanks be to God, though, the reminders are brief and whatever anxiety comes is manageable. I cannot tell you how grateful I am to God for this gift!

St. Catherine of Siena writes of these “reminders” in her major work, The Dialogue of Divine Providence. God the Father teaches her why He permits them:

Sometimes I resort to a pleasant “trick” with [the spiritually mature] to keep them humble …. For the sensual emotions slumber [even] in the perfect soul but they do not die. This is why, if they relax their efforts, or let the flame of holy desire grow dim, these emotions will awaken. It is essential to remain in holy fear of me …. Otherwise … the emotions seem to be asleep and it seems that they do not feel the weight of great sufferings or burdens. But then, in some tiny thing that really is nothing (that they themselves will later laugh at), their feelings are so aroused that they are stupefied. My providence does this to make them grow and go down into the valley of humility. [I do this] to give them give opportunity for merit, to keep them in the self-knowledge whence they draw true humility, to make them compassionate instead of cruel toward their neighbors so they will sympathize with them in their labors. For those who have suffered themselves are far more compassionate to the suffering than those who have not suffered

(The Dialogue of Divine Providence, p. 145).

We still need pricks and blows lest in our progress we become prideful or think that something is so far in the past that we forget to be grateful for our deliverance. The point is that we should never lose heart nor think that all progress is lost when we see a simple reminder of our frailty. With God we are strong, but only with God. Salutary reminders of this are necessary and the Lord, who loves us, provides them.