Catherine of Sienna

The United Methodist Church does not make saints. Well, let me clarify. All of you are considered saints in one sense. You are the communion of the saints. In the Christian writings of the New Testament, all who followed Jesus’ teachings were addressed as ‘the saints.’

What I mean to say is, the UMC does not give people the title of “saint”. The Roman Catholic church does that. Typically, Protestant denominations don’t focus or teach as much on saints. We don’t do special services for the feast of St Stephen, or St Joseph. That’s not to say that we ignore saints either. We name our churches after them: St Luke, St Paul, St Matthew. We can study and learn from and about those who have been given a Saintly title.

The Roman Catholic church has a process of determining sainthood designation. Requirements include evidence of living a holy life and having performed a miracle post-mortem. In addition to saints, the Roman Catholic church also designates individuals who are particularly important for the depth of their theological and spiritual teachings. Those they call Doctors of the Church. While there are 10,000 saints, there are only 35 Doctors of the Church of these last 2,00 years and of those 4 are women. In 1970, the Roman Catholic church named the first two women as doctors, theological teachers of great respect. Granted, they did so some 400 years after they were safely dead.

One from the fourteenth century was named Catherine. She was born in Siena, Italy. Thus, she is known as Catherine of Siena. When she delivered ” a rousing sermon” before cardinals and Pope, the Pope is supposed to have uttered, ” this weak woman puts us to shame.” In fourteen century Italy, Catherine was an unexpected force to be reckoned with. Unexpected because she was a woman with no formal education hence little social status. ” A woman who wasn’t silent in church” one biographer calls her.
At 21 she became the official leader of the Dominic order in Siena. quite an accomplishment- particularly to those matronly women of the order who had dedicated decades in service to the order.

Her youth did not stop her from advocating for change. She wrote letters to the pope chastising him, his cardinals, bishops and priests. Church corruption was rampant. The papal throne and its court was opulent; its riches were an obscenity while the people who lived in poverty were taxed heavily to maintain it. Offices of the church, even ordination, were all for sale. Catherine demanded change.

She wrote letters to the king of France imploring peace. She wrote letters to the Pope demanding he return the papacy from France to Italy. She demanded church reform with such ferocity, that people listened to her. She followed her letters with personal visits. She journeyed through difficult and dangerous ways to boldly confront the powers that be.

She confronted religious leaders with what has been described as “cutting sharpness of a “rabid” dog. She threatened them with the wrath of God.

Important people began to solicit her as umpire, peacemaker, and counselor. She had an uncanny charisma about her. People of all walks of life would go to her- playboys to priests, prostitutes to painters. When they left her, they left changed. “She felt driven to activities that we call political and that are nevertheless religious to the core; peace should reign , justice should come to stay, a world completely enslaved to death should be ordered in love and justice. Her prerequisite for this was a simple acknowledgement that ” all men and women are God’s children with rights and dignity.”1 We hear her voice from the fourteenth century as a forerunner of human rights advocacy unheard of in her time.

She did not straddle the fence or menace words or ask people to just keep the peace and be content. Catherine called tyrants by name and made concrete demands. “God has made you a man why do you make yourself a beast?”

Where did she get such strength, such perseverance, such courage to confront pope and king with such boldness?

As a child she was strong-willed. Early on she was enamored by the Egyptian Fathers of the Desert and their hard life in the wilderness. One day she stuck a loaf of bread under her arm and marched through the city gate to search for the desert.2 Catherine was quite pretty and strikingly clever as a child. By adolescence, she dressed in fashionable clothes and had her share of flirtations, but the more her mother pushed for a suitable marriage for her, the more she resisted. As her mother continued with plans to marry her daughter into nobility, Catherine ” cut off her splendid locks” and devoted her time wholly to meditation announcing her betrothal to Christ. By 15 or 16 years of age, she had persevered in gaining acceptance into the lay order of St. Dominic. Others in the order were jealous of her and spread gossip about her which drove her further into seclusion and prayer. All she wanted was to be alone to worship and devote herself fully to Christ. Then she began to have mystical visions- encounters with Christ.

“In one vision Christ commanded her to leave her cell and go among the people. It had been her temptation to look upon people only as factors disrupting her relationship with God. Christ spoke to her: ” you shouldn’t be useful only to yourself, but to others as well… I don’t want to send you away from me. On the contrary, love for people will bind you still more closely to me.” Catherine understood: One is never a Christian only for oneself.

In Catherine’s work God appears as a pulsating center of energy and not as a awaited judge of the world. The love of God created us; God can do nothing but love. Of God she writes, ” love for Me and for one’s fellows is one and the same love. The soul loves its fellow man just as much as it loves me.” Catherine appears to be quoting form the first letter of John chapter 4, where we read, “God is Love.” God is love is simple enough for a preschooler lesson. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to understand just what that means. This godly love is not a romantic sentiment from Valentine’s Day and it’s not an individual feeling, and it’s not theoretical belief.

Love is not a concept, known abstractly; it is an action, lived concretely. We must live it. To know the God of love is to live the God of love. Love God; love neighbor- turns out one cannot obey the first without also obeying the second.

Scripture and our faith tradition names our purpose in this world, to love God and care for one another, to bring forth change of justice. We are to do these things as people of faith. It’s not about us doing it alone. Our faith is not about a privatized belief system. Our faith is one that calls us into the world with courage and boldness, but it’s only through deep practice can we have wisdom, discernment, courage, humility, to Love as Jesus loved- to love as God loves. to be love without condition.

Catherine fought for church reform because her faith was deep… Because her spiritual practices were rigorous. She connected to God’s Spirit – as she united with Christ. She followed in the Way of Jesus and the command of Jesus- love- because she took her faith seriously and intentionally.

The foundation of our love for others, any attempt we can make to love those we fear, those who make us uncomfortable or angry, must come from a holy strength beyond us and in union with God’s presence deep within us.

Jesus ministry was possible because he joined himself to God – in prayer and devotion. Jesus taught love of God, love of brothers and sisters, he taught union with God is possible.

On the last night before his death, he gathered his friends at the table. Reminded them of the command: Love One Another. ” by this they will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. ”

On that night, Jesus Took the bread, gave thanks, broke the bread and gave it to his disciples saying, “take and eat, and remember and love.” When the super was over took the cup, gave thanks and said, “this is a sign of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many, whenever you gather drink from it and remember.”

In praise and thanksgiving for the mighty acts of Jesus and with the with the company of all of God’s people , we proclaim the mystery of our faith …

 

1Christian Feldman. God’s Gentle Rebels: Great Saints of Christianity.
2Ibid. p. 34.