Every now and then, it helps to take a look at the long view. The situation within the Catholic Church currently looks grim. “Conservatives” and “liberals” are taking sides about their opinion of Pope Francis. The abuse crisis seems to be never-ending. Financial malfeasance is common. Leadership is lacking. Politicians are using their might to take aim at church institutions. The media attacks the church.
But, is it really so bad? Is it fair to say, “Well, it could be worse?” Actually, there was a time when it was.
Mary Rezac is a staff writer for Catholic News Agency/EWTN News. She recently penned an article about two “women.” One is an institution (the Roman Catholic Church). One is a saint – Catherine of Siena. She begins her article by providing a summary of the time when St. Catherine of Siena was alive. It was during the 14th century in what is now Italy. At that time, it not only looked grim – it looked like it was the end of the world. The Bubonic plague was sweeping through Europe in waves. It would wipe out 60 percent of the population. Catholics didn’t only have divergent opinions about the church and the Pope. Political posturing and power plays (rather than any theological disagreements) led to the “Western Schism.” This was a split within the Roman Catholic Church that lasted from 1378 to 1417. Three men simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. Many Catholic countries and states had private armies and militias who were at war with each other. In the city of Siena, Catholic families were not only fighting, they were putting out “hit contracts” on each other. Wealthy churchmen were buying positions of influence, power and wealth within the church. Bishops were ensuring family members would succeed them. The Pope feared for his life and had been living in France for 70 years. The pope excommunicated an entire city (Florence) so that no Catholics there were allowed to receive any sacraments. The papal nuncio, sent to Florence to help resolve this issue, was skinned alive in the streets.
As Fr. Thomas McDermott, O.P., a St. Catherine of Siena scholar, told CNA. “St. Catherine lived in terrible times, and people really did think it was the end of the world.” But St. Catherine loved the church, but she was not happy about what was happening in it. She often referred to it as the Body of Christ, in the tradition of St. Paul, McDermott notes. “She says the face of the Church is a beautiful face, but we’re pelting it with filth,” he said. “It has a beautiful face, that’s the divine side of the Church, but we human beings are pelting it; we’re disfiguring the body of Christ through our sins.”
So Who Was Catherine?
St. Catherine is a model for modern times. As I wrote last week, Catherine’s engagement with the culture of her time is relevant for today. Catherine was born March 25, 1347, the 25th child born to middle-class parents in Siena. About half of her siblings did not survive childhood. So her parents were naturally concerned about Catherine, her health, her faith – and her future. Catherine resisted her parents when they attempted to have her marry the husband of one of her sisters who had died. The reason was that Catherine had become very devout, even at a young age. In ways that were counter-cultural at the time, she chose to fast and cut off her hair to make herself less desirable. She would ultimately vow her virginity to Christ and experienced a mystical marriage to him around the age of 21. Her parents were not impressed – nor happy.
This might seem too weird to us today, especially to parents with children. Parents like their religion “safe” for their kids. I have often heard from parents who worry that their children might become ”religious fanatics.” They like the church. They want their children to “have religion” … but not too much. The church shouldn’t interfere with their children being accepted into a top university or getting a good and admirable job. Like St. Catherine, many young people today are hearing – and answering – God’s call. They are engaged in the church in ways that are counter-cultural, yet viable and admirable to their peers. For example, a few weeks ago, I wrote about two college/young adult programs (Fellowship of Catholic University Students and St. Paul’s Outreach). These two ministries are engaging the youth culture in ways that are counter-cultural, but also compelling. Why? Because what they are doing is relevant. The lifestyle that these young people are living is healthy. They are happy. Their lives witness to a life of balance. Other young people want to know what this life is all about.
One of the hallmarks of Catherine of Siena’s ministry was her devotion to Christ. This didn’t happen by itself. It was the fruit of a serious, consistent and intentional prayer and spiritual life. Let’s look at that next week.