Austerity of St. Catherine seems enigmatic today
By luke eggleston / SUN staff writer
When the 2006 movie The Da Vinci Code first arrived in theaters, one of the most startling images was that of an alleged Opus Dei adherent flagellating himself.
Mortification has fallen into disuse in the modern era, but, according to Father Tim Taugher, the pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Church in Binghamton, the practice still has its place in the church.
Father Taugher was aware of St. Catherine before he became pastor at the church which was named after her but he read more about her after taking over at the Southern Tier parish. A self-described progressive, Father Taugher noted that she was a tremendous champion of church reform and that presents value to him in his own ministry. However, he also asserted that mortification remains a living part of the church.
“Her mortification was extreme but it’s a reminder that in our day and age that mortification should be integrated into spirituality,” Father Taugher said.
The common Catholic practice of fasting, he noted, is a form of mortification.
St. Catherine of Siena’s example holds in tension a number of seemingly disparate elements of faith. Her mysticism and asceticism evoke a figure divorced from the physical world, but St. Catherine of Siena was also a pivotal figure in the political world of 14th century Europe.
St. Catherine was born in 1347 to a successful dyer, Giacomo Benincasa and his wife, Lapa. She was the 23rd out of 25 children.
The extent of her mortification is striking. As early as age six she began scourging herself. Before donning the habit of a Dominican sister, Catherine shut herself in a room in her parents’ house and fasted, scourging herself three times per day with an iron chain in imitation of St. Dominic and sleeping on a board. Initially, she wore a hair shirt but replaced it with an iron-spiked girdle. Her parents had hoped to marry her off and many of her austere practices were in defiance of their wishes.
When her parents finally permitted her to join the Dominican order, Catherine expanded her ascetic efforts, sleeping rarely and subsisting on bread and, apparently, tears. For three years she spoke to no one save her confessor and never left her room except to go to nearby St. Dominic Church.
In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is frequently referred to as “the Bridegroom.”
This image inspired St. Catherine throughout her early years and ultimately throughout her life. The metaphor reverberates throughout the biography written by her close friend and spiritual advisor, Raymond of Capua.
St. Catherine was six years old when she had her first such vision. In his biography of St. Catherine, Raymond of Capua detailed that on one occasion, while she was walking home, St. Catherine looked at the top of a local church where she saw a bridal chamber in which Christ was standing dressed in the clothing of a papal monarch and seated on a throne.
Father Donald Bourgeois, the pastor at Blessed Sacrament Church in Johnson City, writes an article for The Catholic SUN entitled “Role Model.” Each installment profiles a saint or similarly esteemed Catholic and reveals what lessons they provide for individuals today. While St. Catherine’s actions may seem extreme, Father Bourgeois pointed out that her inspired faith is still relevant to Catholics today.
“However extreme her behavior may seem to us today, we should remember that St. Catherine of Siena was motivated by her belief that Jesus, the spotless Bridegroom, deserved a fitting bride, which is the church. St. Catherine was willing to offer even her life to perfect the church, clergy as well as laity. That lesson alone makes her life worth imitating today. We should work and pray constantly for a better church, beginning with our individual selves,” Father Bourgeois said.
A spiritual prodigy of sorts, St. Catherine pledged herself to the “Bridegroom” at age six and made vows of virginity at age seven, according to Bl. Raymond, who described her as a fully grown woman in terms of emotional and spiritual maturity despite her youth.
In addition to her own mortifications, St. Catherine was subjected to temptations and delirium before the culminating moment of her faith.
After some time among the Dominican sisters, the austerities and meditations resulted in the crescendo of St. Catherine’s spiritual life as she was brought into a mystical marriage with Christ. With the Virgin Mary, St. John the Evangelist, the Apostle Paul, St. Dominic and David in attendance, Christ placed a ring on St. Catherine’s finger. According to Raymond, the vision evaporated but the ring always remained on St. Catherine’s finger, though only she could see it.
According to Raymond’s account, the ring was intended to strengthen Catherine to go out into the world in God’s name in order to save souls.
The second phase of St. Catherine’s life was spent in the political world. Allegedly, her advice compelled Pope Gregory XI to move the papacy back to Rome after nearly seven decades in Avignon in France. While in Avignon, the papacy was noted for its corruption.
St. Catherine was very active in reinvigorating the spirituality of the people surrounding Siena. While in her hometown, she gathered about herself a group of like-minded disciples who also lived in poverty. They baked bread to feed the hungry and also evangelized throughout the area.
The return of the papacy to Rome ultimately resulted in the Great Schism when a second papacy was established back in Avignon. The event scandalized the church as a whole and was a tremendous strain on St. Catherine. Eventually, she fell to a stroke in 1380.