I met my friend Theresa for coffee the other day. She was upset. "My brother is leaving the Church," she said miserably. "He says it's not doing what it was called to do. He says homeless people are dying on the streets. He says he can't trust the clergy anymore. He says he's too discouraged to continue defending the Church to other people."
Theresa's brother's concerns aren't new, or even unique to the twenty-first century. In fact, they're among the same concerns confronted by Catherine of Siena in the latter half of the fourteenth century! We're dealing with difficult and real issues, but we're not the first ones to walk this particular path ... and perhaps we can look at how Catherine coped, and see what we can learn from her.
Catherine was fortunate in having a father who supported her when she decided to live the Dominican Third Order vocation—a layperson dedicated to a life of sanctity and active ministry while living at home. After three years of seclusion reading the Church Fathers, scripture, and other spiritual works, she took to the streets, where she began an active ministry to the poor, the homeless, the imprisoned, and the sick—coinciding with a wave of the plague hitting Siena. While others fled to safety outside the city, she stayed to nurse the dying and bury the dead. She saw what was wrong, and she did something about it. It would have been easy to think, they’re dying anyway. I should live so I can help many more people who have a chance of living. Catherine didn’t. It must have felt like such a puny effort to her, but she did what she could.
And when the plague finally abated, she entered into another phase of her life, one that would eventually earn her the title of Doctor of the Church.
Back in 1309, pressured by the king of France, the new (French) pope had moved the Papal See from Rome to Avignon, where it would stay for nearly a century of exile, inhabited by French popes and French cardinals. It was a scandal (imagine if something like that happened today!) with both political and spiritual ramifications. Catherine began writing to Pope Gregory XI, urging him to return the Church to its home and rid the hierarchy of political appointees. She traveled to Avignon to meet with the pope, and when after three months she was unable to persuade him to act, she returned home and spent the next year continuing to write letters, urging the pope to reconsider. After a year of Catherine's insistent correspondence, Gregory relented and returned the See to Rome.
What made a solitary woman believe she could change a situation so entrenched and so corrupted—simply by writing letters? We see the work of the Holy Spirit in Gregory’s response to Catherine, of course; but we also have to consider her thoughts at the time. Just as she had during the plague years, she saw something wrong, and she did something about it. She wrote letters. It would have been easy to think, this was the work of a king, and I’m an insignificant layperson. The pope would never listen to me. I can’t change the course of history.
She stayed in Siena to give comfort to the dying. She wrote letters to the pope. They seem to be small gestures, drops in an ocean of pain, don't they? But she did something, no matter how small, and God worked through her.
We have a saying in France: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Here we are in 2019 feeling overwhelmed by inequities in the world, by poverty and illness, by problems in the Church, by our own sense of helplessness.
But we're not helpless. Here’s what Catherine says to us: you can’t do everything, but you can do something. As the Church celebrates Catherine's feast day this year, why not take stock of the world around you and your own talents and time? You can’t change everything, but you can change something.
Why not start today?
Did you know... that Catherine also wrote poetry? You can find some of her work here.