St Catherine is the most celebrated Lay Dominican, and a source of inspiration.
What does she say to us for today?
A twenty fourth child, a home full of noisy mischievous children, Catherine loved her family, loved her nephews and nieces. She was warm and affectionate.
At fifteen she overheard plans for her marriage, she said: No. Her mother, Mona Lappa, turned to Thomas, Catherine’s adopted brother, a Dominican, in the hope that he would talk sense to her. Little did she know!
Faced with Catherine’s adamant rejection of marriage Thomas suggested she might become a nun. Catherine said: No! She wanted to serve God in prayer at home. In jest Thomas suggested she might cut off her hair. “Then they will realise that you mean business.” She did.
The family were furious. How dare she! Work was heaped on her. Adversity was the source of inspiration. Guided by an impulse of the Holy Spirit, Catherine made herself a secret room within her own heart where she could remain with the Lord.
Raymond of Capua her confessor and spiritual guide recalls how she would often say to him, especially, when he was involved in too much business or when he had to go on a journey: “Build yourself a room within your own heart and never put a foot outside it.”
Today she urges us to build a place within the cave of our heart, a sense of God, of Jesus dwelling within. Is it true that the last child tends to be spoilt? It is no surprise then, that Catherine was a bit precocious, self-willed. She knew how to stamp her foot and get what she wanted. When she was seventeen/eighteen she applied to join the Lay Dominicans.
At prayer she spoke with the Lord as a friend talks to a friend. Illiterate, Catherine asked: “If it is your will that I should sing the psalms please teach me yourself”. He did. She loved the phrase “O Lord, come to my aid. O Lord, make haste to help me”. A colourful, strong, passionate and enthusiastic personality she put all of herself into whatever she did.
When she was twenty, the Lord called Catherine to combine a life of apostolic activity with one of prayer. “Your room will no longer be your dwelling place. For the salvation of souls, you will leave the city of your birth. I shall be with you always.” She was not pleased and resisted. She feared that it would separate her from the Lord. He reassured her: “I have no intention of parting you from myself, but rather of making sure to bind you to me all the closer, by the bond of your love for your neighbour.
“Remember that I have laid down two commandments of love: love of me and love of your neighbour… On two feet, you must walk my way. On two wings, you must fly to heaven. I shall be your guide in everything it will be your lot to do.”
Accompanied by Mona Lappa she began to visit the hospitals in Siena, nursing the sick. She loved the Misericordia, the house of Mercy. She, also, visited the sick in their homes. Outside the walls of the town was the leprosarium. Here Catherine looked after Tecca. Old, suffering from leprosy, Tecca had a vile tongue, Catherine visited her twice daily but every time Catherine came to visit, Tecca poured abuse upon her. Catherine nursed her to the end and Tecca died repentant.
Quickly, Catherine’s ministry grew. Asked by the city to settle disputes between different warring families she was asked to negotiate peace between the city of Florence and the Holy See. She set out for Avignon on a donkey accompanied by her loyal companions. She failed to negotiate a peace but met the Pope, Gregory II. She cajoled him and at last persuaded him to return to Rome.
He died within a year and was succeeded by Urban Vl. Urban had a difficult temperament. The Western schism broke and Catherine wrote to him, berated him for his tactlessness and lack of mercy in dealing with people. “Justice”, she wrote, “must be set in mercy.” The Pope went in awe of her: “This little woman is too much for me.”
The Lord encouraged her and promised support: “Empty yourself for your neighbour but do it for him and you will be filled as you empty yourself.” A group of disciples gathered round her – lay people, religious, priests, poets.
One of her most dramatic interventions concerned Niccolo di Toldo. A young man from Perugia he made some remarks about the Sienese government and was sentenced to death. Catherine describes her visit to him in prison and helped him to die with courage.
“I went to visit him… he was consoled and made his confession… He made me promise that for the love of God I would be with him at the time of his execution. In the morning before the bell tolled I went to him… I took him to Mass and he received the Eucharist… there remained a fear that he would not be brave at the last moment…’Stay with me and do not leave me and then I cannot but be well and will die content.’ ‘I will wait for you at the place of execution and I think his heart lost all fear… I waited at the place of execution in continual prayer… seeing me he laughed and asked me to make the sign of the cross over him… He knelt and stretched out his neck and I bent down over him… he kept repeating ‘Jesus and Catherine’ and as he said the words I received his head into my hands…”
“When... love for me and love for your neighbour – are gathered together... you find that I am your companion, and I am your strength and your security. “ D. 54
Her prayer, like St Dominic’s, is marked by intercession, the prayer of asking. As she was dying, she repeated Dominic’s promise to the brothers. She comforted those about her: “I shall be with you always and be of more use to you in heaven than I was on earth.” In other words, ask me to intercede for you.
Restore health to the sick,
And life to the dead.
Give us a voice to cry to you,
For mercy for the world,
And for reform of holy Church.
Listen to your own voice
With which we cry out to you.
- Prayer of St Catherine