A saint I greatly admire, and whose Memorial is April 29, is St. Catherine of Siena, Virgin and Doctor of the Church. St. Catherine is known particularly for her tenacity in addressing the societal ills of her day and her forthrightness in challenging the Church leaders to be true shepherds of their flock. This included telling Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome from Avignon in France.
The popes of the day used Catherine as an emissary in addressing political and social tensions. In her attempt to bring peace between Rome and Florence, Catherine was nearly assassinated. Yet, what impresses me most about Catherine’s life is how everything was centered on and flowed from her relationship with Christ and His Church.
She saw her spiritual life as a “mystical marriage with Jesus” and she belonged to a group of pious women associated with the Dominicans (Order of Preachers). Nonetheless, her life was not a hidden one, but lived out in the world and in service of the ill and the poor. It is interesting to note that, contrary to the custom of the day, she learned to read and write and was known for her letters and her lay preaching. When she died in Rome at the age of 33, it would be Pope Urban VI who would officiate at her funeral at the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.
This past Sunday, on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, also referred to as “Good Shepherd” Sunday, Jesus used the image of a “good shepherd” to describe himself and his mission. As one Scripture commentary notes, it gives “[A]nother insight into Jesus’ dream of how the world might be … In gathering the lost and searching for the scattered, Jesus does the work of his Father who desires that all should be found, welcomed, loved, and cherished in the family of God” (cf. Living Liturgy, p. 117).
In particular, the commentary states that, “As our Good Shepherd, Jesus fights for us, saves us from the gaping jaws of whatever or whoever seek to grab and destroy our discipleship and wound the little ‘flock’ of the Christian community. He shepherds us with his loving care so that we may ‘have life and have it more abundantly’” (cf. Living Liturgy, p. 116).
Needless to say, the tasks of gathering, defending, loving, and nurturing the life of discipleship is the heart of what it means to be a “bishop” today and his call to continue the role of the Good Shepherd in the Church. “[Speaking and] living the truth in love” (cf. Eph 4:15) is a key component in this mission.
Consequently, there are some sensitive subjects that I feel obliged to address with the Catholic faithful of the Diocese of Syracuse so that all may clearly understand the Catholic Church’s moral and doctrinal teaching on some of the social issues of our day. St. John Paul II would speak of this need in these terms: “An even more generous, intelligent and prudent pastoral commitment, modeled on the Good Shepherd, is called for in cases of families which, often independently of their own wishes and through pressures of various other kinds, find themselves faced by situations which are objectively difficult” (“On the Family,” 1981, #7).
I cannot touch on all issues nor provide you with an exhaustive treatise concerning the ones raised. However, over the course of the coming weeks I will share you with some basic catechesis on the Holy Eucharist and Sunday Mass, the sanctity of human life, the marriage teaching of the Church, and gender identity and the Church’s outreach LGBTQ parishioners. I do encourage the faithful to use, as well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, or the YOUCAT to further one’s understanding of Church teaching.
The reason for my writing about these matters is not to start a debate in the Diocese of Syracuse over Church teaching. Rather, I believe it is of the utmost importance for all of us to properly understand the origin of, along with the direction provided by, such instruction. As disciples of Jesus, you and I are challenged that our love in word and deed must be an extension of Christ’s love and the very reflection of God who is “love” (cf. 1 Jn 4:8).
Such counsel leads us to the calling we have received at baptism — “the universal call to holiness” — and that our progress in that call “tends toward ever more intimate union with Christ” (CCC, 2014). It invites us to consider the simple standard of whether our actions in life are leading us closer to Christ and His Church or farther away. Particularly important is the exclusion of any disingenuous living that is contradictory to our state in life whether married, ordained, consecrated, or single. Is one’s lifestyle compatible with being called a disciple of Jesus?
Pope Francis spoke of this awareness in his 2018 Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” (“Rejoice and Be Glad”). He wrote:
“Equally sacred, however, are the lives of the poor, those already born, the destitute, the abandoned and the underprivileged, the vulnerable infirm and elderly exposed to covert euthanasia, the victims of human trafficking, new forms of slavery, and every form of rejection. We cannot uphold an ideal of holiness that would ignore injustice in a world where some revel, spend with abandon and live only for the latest consumer goods, even as others look on from afar, living their entire lives in abject poverty” (GE, 101).
This leads me again to the life and witness of St. Catherine of Siena. I discovered that she is patroness of many areas related to modern day life: fire, illness, the United States, Italy, miscarriages, people ridiculed for their faith, sexual temptation, and nurses. As one noted for being a living Gospel for all people to hear and for her efforts at peacemaking in a divided Church and political scene, I think she is one we can turn to especially in these days as we seek healing in both our Church and in our world.
Catherine further highlights recent papal teaching on the role of women in the Church. This past January Pope Francis, while consistently stating that the Church does not have the faculty to confer priestly ordination on women, again underscored the need for the feminine imprint upon the Church in roles of service and leadership. Thus, besides appointing women to key Vatican positions, he has also opened the ministries of lector and acolyte to lay men and women. Both are beautiful and modern-day illustrations of St. Catherine of Siena’s own contribution to the Church and social scene of her day.
Let me conclude by sharing with you St. Catherine’s prayer to the Holy Spirit, certainly an appropriate one for these days leading up to Pentecost:
Holy Spirit, come into my heart; draw it to Thee by Thy power, O my God, and grant me charity with filial fear. Preserve me, O ineffable Love, from every evil thought; warm me, inflame me with Thy dear love, and every pain will seem light to me. My Father, my sweet Lord, help me in all my actions. Jesus, love, Jesus, love. Amen.