(On this commemoration of All Souls, beginning this month dedicated to all the faithful departed, here is a meditation on the great Saint Catherine of Genoa, who spread the devotion of praying for and with the Holy Souls in Purgatory, all the while as one of the true reformers of Christ’s Holy Church.)
Whilst great figures often take the historical stage, it is easy to forget that individual choices truly make history. St. Catherine of Genoa is a saint who helped to shape the Catholic reformation through a hidden life of prayer and abandonment to God. Her sufferings as a young bride influenced her later life of prayer and work, and she is best known for her writings on the love of God and Purgatory. In relation to the modern Church, her trustful surrender provides a compelling contrast to Luther’s scrupulosity, and her far-reaching influence shows the fruitfulness of little things done well.
Catherine was born in 1447 in Genoa, Italy, to the wealthy and influential Fieschi family (Williams, 17). She died in 1510, at the cusp of the protestant revolt. While quite young, she was drawn to penitential practices. Her biography describes her as, “very delicate and beautiful in person” (Life and Doctrine 8), and sensitive to Christ’s sufferings. She had a picture of the Pieta, and upon looking at it, experienced a violent sorrow and love for Christ (Life and Doctrine 8). At the age of thirteen she requested to join a convent, but was refused. Her parents arranged a marriage for her to benefit the family, and thus, at the age of sixteen, she married Giuliano Adorno (Williams 17).
Unfortunately, her husband was a worldly man, “occasionally violent” (Williams 17) and a gambler. He was hardly at home. Meanwhile, Catherine was “of a reserved and sensitive disposition” (Williams 18). She spent the first five years of her marriage hiding at home, and the next five trying to fit into the fashionable upper-class life of her husband’s world. She finally reached her breaking point, and prayed to St. Benedict for help (Williams 18). During confession, she received such an intense awareness of her sinfulness and God’s love for her, that it was like a wound piercing her heart (Life and Doctrine 10). This was the great turning point in her life, as well as beginning of her profound interior life.
Catherine is a mystic, most known for her writings on the love of God and on purgatory. She wrote the Spiritual Dialogue of the Soul and Body, which tells the story of her battle to replace self-love with Christ’s love. Her keen awareness of her sinfulness comes out strongly in her writings. “Without the help of God” she says, “I should never do any good thing. So sure am I of this, that if all the angels of heaven were to tell me I have something good in me, I should not believe them” (Life and Doctrine 22). Yet, as it says in her biography, her awareness of sin’s gravity only caused her to place more confidence in God: “Hence, knowing herself, all the confidence of this great soul was in God… and having placed all her trust in God, and given him full control of her, she covered herself under the mantle of his providential care” (Life and Doctrine 37).
Catherine experienced God’s love as a purging fire, consuming her self-love. Pope Benedict XVI says she experienced purgatory in her soul, as an “inner fire” (General Audience, 12 January 2011). Her Treatise on Purgatory details her devotion and private revelations regarding the Church Suffering. She says: “There is no peace to be compared with that of the souls in purgatory, save that of the saints in paradise, and this peace is ever augmented by the inflowing of God into these souls, which increases in proportion as the impediments to it are removed (Treatise on Purgatory 173). Catherine thus beautifully shows that the suffering of purgatory, while intense, is not to be feared; for it is the outpouring of the love of God.
Because Catherine suffered a lot, she was aware of the suffering of others. She was drawn to the poor and sick in Genoa, especially those who were lonely. She cleaned their houses, washed their wounds, and scrubbed out the filth; with her big heart, she brought joy into “dark places” (Williams 21). She served the sick at the Pammatone hospital in Genoa, and eventually managed it. Amidst all this, she was still a housewife looking after her home — a busy woman indeed! Eventually, her husband also converted, and “passed away in holy peace” (Life and Doctrine 71).
Having considered Catherine’s life-story, one may rightly ask: what has Catherine to do with modern Church history? Returning to the principle of individual choices as basis of history, consider that Catherine is a great example of what Luther did not do. Luther, deeply scrupulous about his sins, believed God could not forgive him. He viewed his soul, redeemed by Christ, as yet a pile of dung covered with snow. Contrast this with Catherine’s perspective:
Truly, it appears to me that if I could fear anything it would be my own self—which is utterly evil; yet when I saw it in the hands of God I abandoned it to him with confidence, and never since then have I felt any fear concerning it (Life and Doctrine 39).
Catherine had trustful surrender. Where Luther took things into his own hands, Catherine allowed God to love her; thus, her sensitivity became her strength.
Catherine is also an example of how God ‘draws straight with crooked lines.’ She was thwarted in her vocation to religious life, and ended up in a miserable marriage to an unfaithful man. From the outside, her vocation could have looked like a failure. However, God used her suffering to draw her close to him, and the Church finds in her a profound understanding of how man’s utter sinfulness can come face to face with God’s infinite love. This came immediately before Luther began the great confusion between faith and works. So, through this hidden person, God provided an answer even before Luther raised his problems.
While Catherine did not seem to influence a wide circle, the fruits of her hidden life of prayer spread far and wide. A group of people gathered around her, guided by her spiritual charism, and started the Oratory of Divine Love (Williams 30). These were mostly lay people, devoted to growing closer to God through humility and hidden service to God and neighbour. The oratory eventually spread to Rome, and then to various other cities in Italy, with priests, cardinals, and even a pope (Paul IV) among its members (Williams 30). One Cardinal, Gasparo Contarine, helped bring about the council of Trent, and assisted St. Ignatius of Loyola in starting the Jesuits (Williams 30).
A significant member of this oratory was St. Gaetano of Thiene, who founded the Theatines (Williams 30). These were priests dedicated to reforming the scandals in the clergy, and who had a large impact in the so-called ‘counter reformation.’ They lived lives of prayer, self denial and service to the poor. About 200 bishops came from that order, and many were instrumental in instituting the reforms of Trent (Williams 31). One Theatine priest, Lorenzo Scupoli, wrote the Spiritual Combat, a spiritual work that was of great influence in the reform of the Church (Williams 31).
St. Philip Neri and St. Angela Merici were also members of the Oratory for a time. St. Francis de Sales (who read the Spiritual Combat regularly) was also greatly influenced by St. Catherine: he read her Treatise on Purgatory twice a year, and his own writings echo Catherine’s writings on the love of God (Williams 31).
The chain-effect of Catherine’s holiness is evident in the life of the Church, through her writings and the influence she had on future saints and reformers. Her life work flowed from her interior life — her devotion to divine love — which had a greater influence than she could have imagined. Her life shows God’s providence in using small beginnings — little seeds — to bring about true reform in His Church.
St. Catherine, ora pro nobis!
Williams, Jerome K. True Reformers: Saints of the Catholic Reformation, Augustine Institute, 2017.
The Life and Doctrine of St. Catherine of Genoa, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, https://www.ccel.org/ccel/catherine_g/life
Benedict XVI, Pope, General Audience 12 January 2011, https://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2011/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20110112.html