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You in me and I in thee, O Lord

The saint of month told by Enzo Bianchi

On the eve of the first Holy Year of 1300, Pope Boniface VIII granted the title of doctors of the Church to some Fathers of the Latin Church. This was in recognition of an excellence in their teaching, a teaching which is enlightening for the whole Church. In the following centuries other fathers, even of the Church of the East, were proclaimed doctors, so that after Vatican II there were thirty of these "teacher" saints, but none of them was a woman. Paul VI surprised many when he put forward for examination the possibility of reserving the same title to Catherine of Siena. The Pope recalled that it was certainly the case that in the history of the Church the words of Apostle Paul have weighed heavily: "The women must keep silence in the assembly" (1 Cor 14, 34). On the other hand he justified his choice by saying that "the woman participates in the common priesthood of the faithful, which enables her to profess the faith," and in this profession, through words and writings, she can become a light to the whole Church. So Catherine of Siena on January 8, 1970 was put forward to Catholics as a doctor and recognized as such in worship.

But who was Catherine? She was a Christian woman, a simple believer, born in Siena she lived between 1347 and 1380. A woman “on fire”, with a life marked by an extraordinary diligence and intimacy with the Lord, a life spent in the service of others and able also to “take the floor” effectively in the Church. A woman who did not feel called, as commonly happened in that time, to choose between marriage or cloistered life ( aut maritus aut murus ), but who dared to remain in the company of men, in the polis, as a simple baptized woman who "wants to become another Christ through her union with him in love", and in this, her Christian dignity, also to take on a public responsibility.

The last of twenty-five children of Jacopo Benincasa, a dyer of wool, and Lapa Piacenta, Catherine lives up to the age of 27 in a day-to-day but ascetic manner, engaged in "penance" in a room which has become like a monk's cell, where the contemplation of the Lord and the exercise of the art of recognizing his presence becomes her task. At a very young age she had joined the order of ‘cloaked ones’, a sort of Dominican third-order, dedicating herself to works of mercy such as visiting the sick in the hospitals of the city, the care of lepers. It is the life of Jesus of the Gospels which she takes as her inspiration, and in everything she seeks not only to conform herself to him, but above all to live with him an intimacy of her whole self, including her body. The extraordinary mystery of God in the most human flesh of Jesus Christ becomes for Catherine the "fire" of her contemplation, of her prayer, of her fervour, of her entire life. The body of Jesus, in the reality of his body of flesh and blood, becomes in this way her "experience", lived in her own body of a woman of fire. The body and blood of Christ contemplated is also the body and blood of the sick and the poor who Catherine serves, it is the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, it is the body and blood of Christ which is the Church.

In this aspect of Catherine’s spiritual life there is to be found all the perceptive capacity and discernment of the body typical of women, a trait of femininity that knows how to read the process of our divinization in a body to body relationship with Jesus Christ. We may even be scandalized by the words of Catherine, but her language is that of a love which is manikòs , crazy, of a passion that is a blaze of fire (cf. Song of Songs 8, 6), the love that burns everything, that purifies and consumes in the crucible of communion with the Lord. Catherine, a woman full of desire, longs for the body of Jesus, the Eucharist, she longs to be sitting at the table of the Triunity of God, a table prepared by the Father, in which the Son is the food and the Spirit is the one who serves. Catherine has an abyss of divine knowledge that we can barely sustain, and in this intimate commercium with Christ she reaches up to feel with him an interchange of hearts: the heart of Jesus in her breast and her breast in the heart of Jesus!

Certainly one cannot not make mention of the Catherine who "takes the floor" in the Church. In fact, from 1374 her public activity begins: she feels this activity of speech and of writing as a mandate from the Lord himself, and in response to this call she wants to be the servant of Jesus Christ and therefore of the whole Church, a servant of its renewal and its communion. Unthinkable, but true: a woman, a simple baptized woman sends letters addressed not only to simple Christians, but also to bishops and popes. What authority does she have? None at all, except for the prestige of one who is teodidatta, taught by God, who has been endowed by God with special gifts and puts them at the service of the Christian community. Here in this way is Catherine making a significant contribution to the reform attempted by Gregory XI, here she is an advisor to the Pope, here she is asking again and again for the Pope to return the Apostolic See from Avignon to Rome. And you may also remember her words of reconciliation within the life of the polis.

Where does this fire and this force come from? From the desire that lives within her, the desire of a burning love of Christ, her Spouse, as Catherine often calls him. From this passionate dynamic derive her extremely numerous letters, her Dialogue, the beautiful prayers. As for the sources of this teodidatta, we can mention, in addition to the Scriptures, known to her and frequented personally and with intensity, the Desert Fathers, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas. We could summarize the whole experience and the doctrine of Catherine in these words: "Thou in Me, and I in thee, O Lord" (John 17, 21).

Enzo Bianchi (1943) is the founder and prior of the monastic community of Bose. The University of Turin awarded him with an honorary doctorate in political science. A member of the Board of the Catholic Committee for Cultural Collaboration with the Orthodox and Eastern Churches of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, he has participated as an expert in the assemblies of the Synod of Bishops in 2008 and 2012. Author of books on biblical and patristic spirituality, he writes for «La Stampa», «la Repubblica», «Avvenire», «Jesus», «Famiglia cristiana».




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 21, 2020