Catherine of Siena

The Catholic Church is no stranger to reform. Throughout its two-thousand-year history, many holy, creative men and women have risen to the occasion and introduced necessary changes for the health and well-being of the Body of Christ. Saint Catherine of Siena is one such woman who labored for the institutional Church’s purification and reform during her lifetime. Theologian Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., argues that Saint Catherine’s approach can serve us well today.

In our search for the kind of inner wisdom that can sustain us in our limited, but important, efforts to transform ecclesial and social structures, we would do well to turn to the spiritual classics of our tradition, especially the wisdom of women who were engaged in strategies for change in the Church and world of their own day. One Christian mystic was the fourteenth-century lay Dominican tertiary Catherine of Siena.

The wisdom that guided Catherine of Siena in her efforts on behalf of political and ecclesial reform is evident in her prayers and letters as well as in the major work of mystical wisdom for which she is known, her Dialogue with Divine Providence. The Dialogue is structured as a conversation in which God replies to four prayers that Catherine, like the widow in the Gospel of Luke, prayed persistently. A closer look to the focus of the fourfold petition that she prayed “without ceasing” can provide insight into the kind of prayer that is needed today if contemporary disciples are not to lose heart on our own journeys.

It may be something of a surprise to note that Catherine’s first prayer was for herself, but it is a clear reminder that the call to personal conversion is integral to the vocation of the prophet or reformer. Catherine’s passionate calls for reform in Church and government, as well as her preaching and her ministry on behalf of the poor and the sick, were rooted ultimately in a deeper passion – her desire for God. In her contemplative search for God, however, she came to two clear realizations: the love of God is impossible without love of neighbor, and experience of God brings a deeper self-knowledge that is at once delightful and painful.

This keen awareness of God’s love for every human person and for creation itself was at the heart of all of Catherine’s efforts to reform the Church and the social and political factions of her day. Catherine called for conversion and courage on the part of popes, politicians, political leaders, and even her own mother. But she knew well that she herself was in need of that same transformation.

Her bold criticisms of Church leaders and structures when they failed to incarnate the Body of Christ or to carry out the Church’s mission in the world were grounded in the vocation she had been given to “speak the truth in love.” Catherine never doubted that the Holy Spirit would be faithful to the Church and to Church leaders in spite of their limitations and sinful failures. She prayed faithfully for the reform of “Holy Church,” which she believed to be not merely a human institution, but the Body of Christ at work in the world. That same conviction about the Church’s identity and vocation fueled her calls for reform when ecclesial leaders who, in her words, were meant to be “flowers in the garden of the Church,” were instead “stinking weeds.”

In the Church of the twenty-first century, in which one finds patterns of sexual abuse and financial corruption, manifestations of dishonesty and raw ambition among high-ranking Church officials, and a lack of transparency and accountability in aspects of ecclesial structures, Catherine’s love and prayer for a sinful Church and its leaders is not easy to embrace. But it was that love that empowered her to speak so frankly and that enabled those she addressed to hear a call to conversion, rather than simply a harsh judgment. She placed even her strongest critiques of the Church and its leaders in the context of affection, concern, and the possibility of conversion.

Catherine had great respect for hierarchical authority within the Church, but she also believed all members of the Church were called to be obedient to the higher authority that comes from the Holy Spirit, source of all truth. She held herself accountable to Church authorities, but she also criticized explicitly the selection of poor pastors and cardinals for the Church.

Catherine’s prayer for love and of the Church brought clarity and boldness to her calls for reform. She was not concerned about offending others, nor did she limit her speech to what others wanted to hear. She criticized popes and even her dear friends when they did not have the courage of their own convictions. She spoke of being a lover of the truth and a spouse of the truth and had little patience with those she saw as compromising truth in a misguided attempt to “keep peace.”

Catherine respected the fact that the pope and all the Church’s ministers were entrusted with a unique office and responsibility. Yet precisely for that reason she argued that they were in need of consultation and discernment in discovering the truth of God’s will for the Church.

Part of the reason that Catherine was so insistent on the responsibility of all members of the Body of Christ to speak the truth in love was that she was convinced that no one member, not even the pope, had full access to the truth that rests in God alone. Her prayer for the Church was not only a prayer for the conversion of its leaders, but a prayer that the baptized would realize that we are indeed one body with many diverse gifts and responsibilities.

Catherine of Siena does not offer concrete strategies for ecclesial, social, or political change. But her Dialogue, prayers, and letters do provide strategies for the kind of prayer that is necessary to sustain efforts for reform and renewal of Church and world. Catherine’s ability to call others to conversion was grounded in her desire to grow in self-knowledge and virtue and her love and concern for those whose behavior she criticized. The prayer that sustained Catherine of Siena’s strategies for change widened her vision and tempered her judgments of others, even as it strengthened her voice and empowered bold action. Catherine was a peacemaker, but she never sacrificed truth for a false peace. She desired the unity of the Church and supported even weak leaders of the Church of her day, but that love and desire prompted her frank calls for their reform as well.

MARY CATHERINE HILKERT, OP is a Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Exercepted from “On Not Losing Heart: Catherine of Siena and the Strategies of Prayer and Friendship,” in Prophetic Witness: Catholic Women’s Strategies for Reform, ed. Colleen M. Griffith. (New York: Herder & Herder, 2009).