(Vatican Radio) This coming Friday, 29 April, is the feast day of one of the Church’s best loved saints, and Doctors of the Church, St Catherine of Siena. Born in 1347 in the Tuscan city of Siena, she was to live only 33 years; but like her Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, in those few brief years, she changed the course of history. Counsellor to Popes and Princes; to a Europe which had been tearing itself apart, she was instrumental in helping to start a process which would usher in a more stable continent. For this reason, she is not only hailed as a Patron Saint of Italy, but also a Co-Patron of Europe itself.
Listen here as Deacon Phil Andrews discovers more about St Catherine's enduring legacy in the promotion of mercy, and realized in the practise of faith, hope, and love:
However, it is perhaps her spiritual legacy which still affects us in the twenty-first century. The two-fold truth as taught by Jesus to St Catherine was quite simply this: we are created, wounded and broken, yet we are also loved infinitely by Christ. Within these statements lies an important value, that of respect for all human life, and for each other. The legacy of St Catherine enables us to gain a clearer understanding of ourselves, and also the opportunity to know Christ. When this has been attained, then we may look with the loving eyes of Christ, learning to recognize in the other, one who whilst broken, is profoundly loved. St Catherine shows us, therefore, how to understand each other – to be merciful - and to love them with the love of Christ.
Between the main entrance of Vatican Radio’s Rome studios, and the historic Mausoleum of Hadrian, now known as Castel Sant’Angelo, is a monument which honours St Catherine. The image of the saint herself – leaning forward as if to suggest rapid motion - reveals one who is earnestly about the Lord’s business. To the saint’s side is a stone tablet, depicting in bas relief, various stories associated with the saint. For the many Jubilee of Mercy pilgrims who commence their pilgrimage from this location towards the basilica of St Peter half a mile away, these images convey the importance of practising mercy, and it is St Catherine who teaches this lesson. Here is but one remarkable example:
In 1998, a young drug addict, and murderer, Jonathan Wayne Nobles, was executed by the State of Texas for a savage double murder committed some 12 years earlier. Whilst on death row, however, his short life changed forever. Within the prison where he was incarcerated, there was a Lay Dominican Chapter dedicated to St Martin de Porres. He came to know some of the members of this group, and was received into it. It wasn’t long after that he himself set about introducing other prisoners to the Chapter.
The fruits of this became apparent: he made peace with the mother of one of his two victims, and even tried, unsuccessfully, to offer his organs for transplant so that some good might come of his death.
On his final day, he eschewed the customary last meal, preferring to fast in preparation for the longed for Holy Communion that he would receive shortly before being injected with a lethal combination of drugs. Indeed, the prison records listed his last meal as “The Eucharist”; and the day of his execution was to be 8th October, the Feast of the Holy Rosary — the prayer of which had long been part of his daily devotions.
His last recorded words were from the 13th chapter of St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians:
“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends; as for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For our knowledge is imperfect and our prophecy is imperfect; but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” He concluded with verse 13, “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
What could have moved Jonathan Wayne Nobles to effect such a change in his life, and to devote instead his final years on death row to Christ and his Blessed Mother? The answer lies in one of those bas relief images depicted on the monument to St Catherine, where pilgrims seeking mercy now gather here in Rome.
Like Jonathan, St Catherine of Siena had become a Third Order Dominican, and so naturally he would have taken an interest in the stories associated with St Catherine, but one in particular. Although separated by over six centuries, the story of her conversion of the young Perugian, Niccolò di Toldo. He, like Jonathan, had also to face the executioner for the crime of murder, albeit committed during a time of civil disturbance in Siena.
Like Jonathan, Niccolò had been ravaged with despair, furious about the direction his life had taken. However, St Catherine, a woman of radical hope, expressed in charity, and promoted by faith, enabled God to free Niccolò from a raging anger against his judges, and indeed, God Himself.
In her hands, Niccolò experienced a conversion so sweet, that he begged her to be at his side during the execution. A promise she kept. In St Catherine’s own words:
“He was so comforted and consoled that he confessed his sins and prepared himself very well. I promised to be with him and was. He received Holy Communion. His will was in accord with God’s will. … I said courage my dear brother for you shall soon reach the wedding feast. All the fear in his heart disappeared. He said ‘What is the source of such a grace for me that my soul's sweetness will wait for me at the holy place of execution?’… I placed his neck on the block and reminded him of the blood of the Lamb. His mouth said nothing apart from ‘Jesus’ and ‘Catherine’.
Then was seen the god-man as one sees the brilliance of the sun. His side was open and he received the man’s blood into his own blood. He received his soul as well into his side. He was receiving him only through grace and mercy and not for anything that he had done.
With what tenderness and love he awaited that soul. The eye of his mercy turned towards him. As for Niccolò, he made a gesture sweet enough to charm a thousand hearts. He was already tasting the divine sweetness. It was like a bride turning to those who have led her to the wedding night, and who then looks back to thank those who have brought her there.”
St Catherine gently laid his head on the block, and kept hold of it, so that as the axe fell, his head did not fall to the ground, but was received with exquisite love into her hands; but she knew that at that same moment, it would truly be the hands of Christ which would be holding Niccolò in so deep an embrace, that he would fear for nothing, ever again.
Her simple, yet beautiful mission had been nothing more than to reveal the love, and mercy of God.
For the pilgrims gathered today in Rome, and around the world, as Christian disciples, they may not be able to take away the trials and sorrows of those whom they find themselves serving; but, in the example of St Catherine, they can show those in their charge the profound, and immeasurable depths of God’s love and mercy.
This is the rationale of the Jubilee Year of Mercy.