Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. One of the obstacles that the Church faces in the proclamation of the Gospel in Ireland today is the perception that to be a person of faith is to embrace a dull, boring and joyless life. This perception is at least partly the legacy of a very moralistic Catholicism of the past where conformity and obedience to authority were paramount. We priests and bishops also have to take a certain amount of responsibility for the quality of our preaching and teaching that often lacks conviction, passion and zeal. In order to challenge that perception, a new evangelical Catholicism is needed – one that can recover its energy and passion that are meant to be the hallmarks of a Church full of hope and conviction. Only then can our faith become more prophetic and attractive to people who sense that passionate desire is the friend and not the enemy of a healthy Christian spirituality.
Today, 29th April, the Church celebrates the feast day of a saint who can help us recover that mystical dimension of our faith and lead us to a first-hand experience of our passionate God. This mystical experience is not the privilege of a select few but the gift to all the baptised. God’s passionate love is accessible to everyone.
The writings of St Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) are unique in that many of her sentences often end in exclamation marks. This is because the words she uses to express what she wants to say about her experience of God are barely adequate to contain the experience she wants to share. Her writings reveal a soul that is bursting with fervour and a passion that consumes her as she communicates to her audience. Such is the energy and intensity of her union with God that the image of fire is the only one that comes close to describe the passionate love she feels.
And so for example, she praises God as the “inestimable and sweetest fire of love”. Yet, God’s fire was not like a distant star observed from a distance without an effect on the observer. For Catherine, we human beings can only understand ourselves in relation to this fire of God’s passionate charity. For in this fire of God’s charity, we are transformed but not consumed: “If you want to be relieved of your burdens and infirmities, keep your eyes on the slain, consumed lamb, so that the fire of his charity may warm your heart and soul to love for patience and consume all the cold and damp of selfish sensual love and passion and self-pity”. With these words, Catherine reminds us that the closer we come to God’s love, the more we are changed by its heat – the cold, damp and selfish parts of our nature are changed when exposed to the heat and warmth of God’s presence and love. Similarly, she explains beautifully: "You are a fire always burning but never consuming; you are a fire consuming in your heat all the soul's selfish love; you are a fire lifting all chill and giving light" (Dialogue 167).
For Catherine, we are not only invited to come close to the fire but to be immersed in it: "I long to see you so totally ablaze with loving fire that you become one with gentle First truth. Truly the soul's being united with and transformed into him is like fire consuming the dampness in logs. Once the logs are heated through and through, the fire burns and changes them into itself, giving them its own color and warmth and power" (Letter T137). For the mystic from Siena, humility is the door through which we enter into the flame of God’s passion and love: “In humbling ourselves we enter that flaming, consumed heart opened up like a window without shutters never to be closed”.
Another feature of Catherine’s spirituality is a cherishing of the holy desire within us as human beings. Rather than denying this desire or suppressing it, we ought to acknowledge it and allow it to lead us to knowledge of God and ourselves: “Let the fire of holy desire grow in true knowledge and humility”. Elsewhere she asks: “What is my nature. It is fire!” Here Catherine makes a close connection between God’s nature and our nature that was made by Him to resemble it. Since we have been made in God’s image and likeness, we have become partakers of the divine nature through grace (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). And so, if God’s nature is a flame of love, then our nature has similar qualities: "In your nature, eternal Godhead, I shall come to know my nature. And what is my nature, boundless Love? It is fire, because you are nothing but a fire of love. And you have given humankind a share in this nature for by the fire of love, you created us" (Prayer 12).
In contrast to other religions and spiritualities that deny or seek to suppress human desire, Catherine, following on from people like St Augustine, argues that this burning flame of desire within our human nature is from God himself and is given to us to lead us back to Him. There is a flame of God’s fire within us that comes from the fire of God himself. And so Catherine can say: “Recognise within yourself the extravagant fire of God’s charity. It is there that the dampness of self-love will be dried up once and for all”.
Despite Catherine’s insights into the spiritual life being profound and mystical, it would be wrong to conclude that she had no interest in practical matters or that her passionate love for God in heaven distracted her from concern for earth.
She was acutely aware of the difficulties of the Church at the time and courageously decided to intervene. She wrote letters and had meetings with kings, cardinals, political and Church leaders to try and solve disputes and negotiate peace. She is best remembered for her successful attempts to persuade Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon in France and return to Rome in 1376. She did this in the conviction that as the successor of St Peter, the pope needed to reside beside the tomb of Peter and the place of his martyrdom in order to stay faithful to the Apostolic mandate given to him by Christ. Because of this historical development and Catherine’s role in it, she is honoured by the city of Rome with a monument between St Peters Square and Castel Sant’Angelo. Part of her mortal remains are under the high altar in the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, near the Pantheon. In her we find someone who was both deeply spiritual and yet courageous, practical and not afraid to take responsibility.
Friends, these are just some reflections on the insights of a wonderful saint whose feast day we celebrate on 29th April. St Catherine of Siena is someone who can help the Church catch the fire of the Holy Spirit that we energise her members to witness and speak with conviction about God’s presence and power. Catherine was passionate about her faith in God because she believed Him to be a passionate God who touches and changes us who draw close to his fire and enter into his flames through the door of humility.
St Catherine of Siena, pray for us!