By John Paul II
Born in Siena in 1347, [St Catherine of Siena] was blessed from her early childhood with exceptional graces which enabled her to progress rapidly along the spiritual path traced by St Dominic on a ourney of perfection which combined prayer, selfdenial and works of charity.
Catherine was 20 years old when Christ showed his special love for her through the mystical symbol of a wedding ring. This was the culmination of an intimacy which had matured in hiddenness and in contemplation, thanks to her constantly abiding, even outside the monastic walls, in that spiritual dwellingplace which she loved to call her “interior cell”. She was quickly able to blend the silence of this cell, which rendered her completely docile to God’s inspirations, with remarkable apostolic activity. Many people, including members of the clergy, gathered around her and became her disciples, recognising in her the gift of spiritual motherhood. Her letters circulated throughout Italy and Europe as a whole. Indeed, by the assurance of her bearing and the ardour of her words, the young woman of Siena entered into the thick of the ecclesiastical and social issues of her time.
Catherine was tireless in her commitment to resolving the many conflicts which afflicted the society of her time. Her efforts to bring peace reached the level of European rulers such as Charles V of France, Charles of Durazzo, Elizabeth of Hungary, Louis the Great of Hungary and Poland, and Giovanna of Naples. Her attempts to reconcile Florence with the Pope were also notable. Placing “Christ crucified and sweet Mary” before the parties involved, she made it clear that in a society inspired by Christian values there could never be grounds for conflict so serious that the reasons of force need prevail over the force of reason.
Yet Catherine was well aware that such a conclusion was unthinkable if souls had not first been moulded by the power of the Gospel. This was why she stressed the reform of morals to all, without exception. To monarchs she insisted that they could not govern as if the realm was their “property”: knowing that they must render to God an account of their exercise of power, they must instead uphold “holy and true justice” and become “fathers of the poor”. The exercise of sovereignty was not to be separated from the exercise of charity, which is the soul both of one’s personal life and one’s political responsibility.
With the same vigour, Catherine addressed churchmen of every rank, demanding of them the most exacting integrity in their personal lives and their pastoral ministry. The uninhibited, powerful and incisive tone in which she admonished priests, bishops and cardinals is quite striking. It is essential – she would say – to root out from the garden of the Church the rotten plants and to put in their place “new plants” which are fresh and fragrant. And strengthened by her intimacy with Christ, the saint of Siena was not afraid to point out frankly even to the Pope, whom she loved dearly as her “sweet Christ on earth”, that the will of God demanded that he should abandon the hesitation born of earthly prudence and worldly interests, and return from Avignon to Rome, to the Tomb of Peter.
With similar energy Catherine then strove to overcome the divisions which arose in the papal election following the death of Gregory XI: in that situation, too, she once more appealed with passionate ardour to the uncompromising demands of ecclesial communion. That was the supreme ideal which inspired her whole life as she spent herself unstintingly for the sake of the Church.