St. Catherine of Siena's feastday is April 29. Because if falls on a Sunday this year, we won't be celebrating her in the normal way, but it is good to reflect on her life just a bit, especially as an example of someone who responded to her vocation! Catherine was a lay woman. She's often called a nun, and is pictured in a Dominican habit because she was a Dominican tertiary, but make no mistake, she was lay. She was also a woman of deep, contemplative prayer who was also immersed in the travails of her age, which included religious schism, incredible political machinations, devastating plagues, incessant wars between nations and among Italian city-states. The clergy of her day were ill-formed and often corrupt, and the moral state of most of her contemporaries was, well, a matter of constant prayer for Catherine.
What I find fascinating about Catherine is how her powerful contemplative life compelled her into the major frays of her day. She was a prolific letter-writer, and also traveled extensively during her life - most unusual for men, unheard of for women who weren't royalty. She fearlessly addressed the corruption of her day, whether it was within the Church, or in the secular realm. Here's just a sample, from a letter to Charles V, king of France, who was supporting an anti-pope at the time.
"Be, ah! be a lover of virtue, founded in true and holy justice, and despise vice. I beg you, by love of Christ crucified, to do in your state three especial things. The first is, to despise the world and yourself and all its joys, possessing your kingdom as a thing lent to you, and not your own. ...I beg you that, as The Wise, you should act like a good steward, made His steward by God; possessing all things as merely lent to you.
The other matter is, that you maintain holy and true justice; let it not be ruined, either for self-love or for flatteries, or for any pleasing of men. And do not connive at your officials doing injustice for money, and denying right to the poor: but be to the poor a father, a distributer of what God has given you. And seek to have the faults that are found in your kingdom punished and virtue exalted. For all this appertains to the divine justice to do.
The third matter is, to observe the doctrine which that Master upon the Cross gives you; which is the thing that my soul most desires to see in you: that is, love and affection with your neighbour, with whom you have for so long a time been at war. For you know well that without this root of love, the tree of your soul would not bear fruit, but would dry up, abiding in hate and unable to draw up into itself the moisture of grace. Alas, dearest father, the Sweet Primal Truth teaches it to you, and leaves you for a commandment, to love God above everything, and one's neighbour as one's self."
Sometimes Catherine's words and presence had an effect, sometimes not. She grieved for the division within the Church, lamented the corruption in the politics of her day, and, in spite of these realities, always encouraged her followers to look for the best in others.
We need Catherines today. We need women and men who are imbued with the message and values of the Gospel. Where is the outcry over Abu Ghraib in our country? Over the perhaps lawful, yet unjust detaining of prisoners in Guantanamo? Can we have loving concern, like St. Catherine, for the souls of politicians who promote profit over justice and stewardship; private concerns over common good; personal choice (with respect to abortion) and revenge (with respect to capital punishment) over life?
Some of us have vocations that may lead us to pursue a life in politics. Others may be called to pray for changes in our country. Still others may be called by Christ to dive in to problems that we find compelling, without waiting for the government, business, or non-profits to address the issue.
All of us are called in some way, like Catherine, to apply our faith to the problems and opportunities that surround us.