By Dr Donna Orsuto
New initiatives offer opportunities to stretch your horizons and explore new avenues for collaboration. When The Lay Centre launched a new partnership with Immaculate Conception Seminary School of Theology - Seton Hall University (ICSST) on 1 October 2018, we realized that it was important to accompany this initiative with concrete actions in summer 2019. To this end, I taught an intensive summer course on “Women Mystics” at ICSST and, at the end of July, the rector of the seminary and dean of ICSST, Monsignor Joseph Reilly, brought a group of students to Rome for a one-week pilgrimage, under the theme, “A Journey of Faith with the Saints.”
The summer course at Seton Hall culminated in a retreat/study day on “St Catherine of Siena, Mystic, Reformer and Doctor of the Church.” I must admit that I was sceptical about the idea of organizing such an event, open to the general public, on a beautiful sunny Saturday in July, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., in South Orange, New Jersey. For this reason, I was all the more surprised when more than 100 men and women showed up. This turnout is a credit to the efforts of ICSST to publicize the event and also to the local community who genuinely wanted to learn about St Catherine and the challenging times she lived in, with the hope that she would offer inspiration for how to deal with the current crisis in the Church today.
So it was that I found myself talking about Catherine as a reformer at 1:30 p.m., on 13 July, after the short luncheon break. I started out by saying that I admired the audience for being present, assuring them that nobody would ever be listening to me or anybody else in Rome on a Saturday in July at that hour!
I explained that the 14th century was a period not only of political and social upheaval, but also a dark period in Church history where the Church was marred by moral scandals and schism. Some have suggested that the 14th century is a distant mirror of our own times. Of course, we must avoid falling into the temptation of asking what Catherine would say or do today. The times are different and the challenges that Catherine faced are not the same as ours. Our current situation with all of its complexity calls for us to have the courage to make our own personal response. Nevertheless, an advantage of reflecting on Catherine of Siena, her writings and her response to the Church crisis of her time is that she offers some sound principles that can guide us on the way today.
As Catherinian scholar Dr Karen Scott notes when asked the question, “What would Catherine say today?”: “Catherine would set the highest of standards for honesty and integrity and pastoral concern for the laity as well as the highest standards for avoiding schism and being close to the papacy.”
Dr Scott further adds: “Beyond that, I think she would advise people to take the time to pray and discern and not have knee-jerk reactions to things.”
Catherine would also encourage us to embrace our personal responsibility to do something to effect change. In one of her prayers, she complains to the Lord about corruption in the Church and in the world and suggests that he should just come again immediately to set things right. After listening to God in prayer, she realized that Jesus will come again, but only at the Last Judgment. In the meantime, we are called to take responsibility through prayer and action. In the form of a prayer, this is what Catherine heard:
your Son is not about to come again
except in majesty, to judge….
But, as I see it you are calling your servants christs,
and by means of them
you want to relieve the world of death
and restore it to life.
You want these servants of yours
to walk courageously along the Word’s way,
with concern and blazing desire,
working for your honour and the salvation of souls…
Oh best of remedy-givers!
Give us then these christs,
who will live in continual watching and tears and prayers
for the world’s salvation.
You call them your christs
because they are conformed with your only-begotten Son.