You may very well ask: what does a female lay Dominican tertiary have to do with the male Catholic priesthood? That normally would be a good question; unless that female lay Dominican tertiary is St. Catherine of Siena. While she was not a consecrated “nun” her bold confidence before princes, kings and popes, her motherly love for her friends and co-workers and her passion for Jesus Christ and His Church and His priests made her a loving and formidable character to deal with in her 33 short years on this earth.
I received the privilege of kneeling before the tomb of this saint and Doctor of the Church at the Dominican Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, while I was still a seminarian studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of New York. It always struck me as nothing less than miraculous and awe-inspiring that this relatively uneducated lay Dominican Tertiary could not only be a saint, but a Doctor of the Church and display the wisdom and fortitude to reform the Church when it needed it so desperately.
Born Catherine Benincasa at Siena, Italy she was the youngest of 25 children. She received her first vision of Jesus Christ in priestly vestments wearing a pope’s crown at six years-old. Sts. Peter, Paul and John the Evangelist in the vision accompanied Jesus to young Catherine. After dedicating her virginity to God she turned down many marriage proposals, much to her parents chagrin. While us priests may not have to turn down marriage proposals after ordination, there are many other kinds of earthly proposals we will have to master such as power, fame and desire for popularity. She wasn’t turning down marriage, she was choosing the marriage God wanted for her – Himself. Pope St. John Paul II writes about “Celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven” in his catechesis, Theology of the Body. Catherine joined the Sisters of Penance of St. Dominic, a secular religious group known as the “Mantallate,” due to the heavy style Dominican capes they wore. They did not live in community; much like us diocesan priests, but came together for Holy Mass and prayers.
Catherine went on mission and traveled extensively, first to convince the pope to return from Avignon, France to Rome and mediate peace in Italy. Her ministry brought her much hardship, much like us priests, including physical sufferings and being chastised as proud and self-assertive due to her apostolic zeal and fortitude. How often young, energetic, zealous priests are accidentally harmed, wounded and labeled as arrogant due to their zeal or wanting to do new things which the pastor won’t let them, due to “extra work load.” She was even accused falsely because she was accompanied by groups of young men and women. Look how Pope St. John Paul II was recently accused of having an “inappropriate relationship” with a married woman with whom he was a friend. True self-giving friendships are deeply important and nourishing for both celibates and those in Holy Matrimony. St. Catherine’s primary concern seemed to be the reform of the Church she loved so much. Her love was proven to the extent, which she was willing to suffer. Are we priests willing to suffer for our bride – the Church?
St. Catherine literally went to France to remind the pope who he was, so to speak, and remind him that his fatherly responsibilities were in Rome, not Avignon, France. Yes even female lay or consecrated women cannot only pray and intercede for us priests but also remind us who we truly are – Bridegrooms of the Bride, the Church. They can remind us of the important collaboration needed between the laity and the clergy including those of consecrated religious life. Sometimes a layperson or consecrated person can help us with our priestly identity. While it’s probably true that most of us priests will not receive the stigmata, extraordinary mystical knowledge, visions, revelations, rapture, mystical espousal and mystical marriage that St. Catherine received. These extraordinary mystical gifts remind us a little of the Mystery and Almightiness of God and that we priest participate in the greatest Mystical act in the world – the consecration of the Holy Eucharist, whom we are espoused to in a special way, everyday, due to our sacred ordination. St. Catherine teaches us to stay faithful in our everyday prayer life and spiritual practices. She often wrote about the preparation needed to receive Holy Communion and not to weaken our spiritual resolve in the face of loss, pain and suffering, even from those people we serve. Her whole life smacks of “priestly” mission to kings, princes, and sacred priests. Remember, the laity share is the common priesthood of Christ and this should carefully be explained to them so as to not confuse and divide but rather to clarify and unite them in love with the Sacred Priesthood. She did all this with limited education because it was through her weakness that Christ’s strength shined forth. Can the good Lord do this through our limitations and weaknesses as well? St. Catherine’s spirituality, while contemplative, is still largely apostolic. Christ said to her: “go forth from the quiet of contemplation and courageously bear witness to my truth.” Our prayer life must nourish us yet it must also nourish others. We must be priests of prayer, mediation and contemplation yet be imbued with prophetic and apostolic zeal for the Church. She pleaded with the pope, cardinals and legates alike and she did it with the authority of Jesus Christ. St. Catherine left the Church some 400 letters, as well as her only major work called The Dialogue, mystical conversations with God the Father.
God the Father gave St. Catherine many messages for all of us to remember, one of my favorites is very good for all of us priests to remember: “I prune you with trials, embarrassments, insults, ridicule, mistreatment and correction, as well as hunger and thirst, both by words and by actions, in a manner that pleases me, according as each one can endure. The quality of a person’s love is proven to be perfect or imperfect in such trials.” Also, another excerpt from the Dialogue says the following: “the patience of my servant is proved during attacks and in weariness; during these, the intensity of his love will grow in accordance with his compassion for his enemy. Such a person is more moved by insults done to me or to others than insults directed at himself. This is the way of the perfect and in it they continue to grow. In fact, this is why I allow these things to happen. They may experience a burning desire for my mercy to be granted to certain souls; for this they beg constantly, taking no rest. In doing this they find that the more they forget themselves, the more they discover me.” This is something all of us sacred priests need to remember as we intercede for each other, but also our brothers and sisters in Christ, who make up the Mystical Body of Christ – His Bride the Church.
Father Tom DeSimone was ordained a priest on May 13, 2006, the Feast day of Our Lady of Fatima. He most recently served as Parochial Vicar of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish in White Plains, NY. He joins the staff of the Theology of the Body Institute on a three year leave from the Archdiocese of New York, to become the Institute’s first ever full time spiritual advisor and Director of Clergy Development.