Audiences 2005-2013 22120
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
With this last Audience before the Christmas celebrations, we approach with trepidation and wonder the “place” where for us and for our salvation everything began, everything found fulfilment, where the expectations of the world and of the human heart converged with God’s presence.
We can already have a foretaste of joy now, brought by that small light which is glimpsed, which begins to shine out on the world from the Bethlehem grotto. During the Advent journey the Liturgy has invited us to live, we have been shown how to welcome with readiness and gratitude the great event of the Saviour’s birth and to contemplate full of wonder his entry into the world.
Joyful expectation, characteristic of the days that lead up to Holy Christmas, is certainly the fundamental attitude of the Christian who wishes to live fruitfully the renewed encounter with the One who comes to dwell among us: Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man. Let us rediscover and make our own the disposition of heart of those who were the first to welcome the coming of the Messiah: Zachariah and Elizabeth, the shepherds, the simple people and, especially, Mary and Joseph, who felt trepidation personally, but above all rejoiced in the mystery of this birth.
The whole of the Old Testament constitutes one great promise that was to be fulfilled with the coming of a powerful Saviour. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah in particular— testifies to the anguish of history and of the whole of creation oriented to a redemption destined to bring fresh energy and give a new orientation to the entire world.
Hence down the centuries, alongside the expectation of the figures of Sacred Scripture our expectation, which we are experiencing in these days and which keeps us alert throughout our life journey, also finds room and meaning.
Indeed, the whole of human life is enlivened by this profound sentiment, by the desire that what is the truest, the most beautiful and the greatest, which we have perceived and intuited with mind and heart, may come to meet us in order that it become real before our eyes and uplift us anew.
“Soon the Lord God will come, and you will call him Emmanuel, God-with-us” (Entrance Antiphon, Holy Mass of 21 December). We frequently repeat these words in these days. In Liturgical time, which reactualizes the Mystery, the One who comes to save us from sin and death is already at the door, the One who, after the disobedience of Adam and Eve, embraces us once again and opens wide to us the way to true life.
St Irenaeus explains it in his treatise Adversus Haereses [Against Heresies]”, when he says: “The Son of God himself descended ‘in the likeness of sinful flesh’ (Rm 8,3) to condemn sin and, having condemned it, to cast it out completely from the human race. He called man to likeness with himself, he made him imitator of God, he set him on the path indicated by the Father so that he might see God, and he gave him as a gift the Father himself” (III, 20, 2-3).
Some of St Irenaeus’ favourite ideas are presented to us, for example, that God with the Child Jesus calls us to likeness with himself. We see how God is. And thus St Irenaeus reminds us that we should be like God and must imitate him. God gave himself. God gave himself into our hands. We must imitate God. And lastly, is the thought that in this way we can see God. One central idea of St Irenaeus is that man does not see God, he cannot see him and so he is in the dark concerning the truth about himself. However man, who cannot see God, can see Jesus and so he sees God, so he begins to see the truth and so he begins to live.
The Saviour, therefore, comes to reduce to powerlessness the work of evil and all that can still keep us distant from God in order to restore to us the ancient splendour and primitive fatherhood. With his coming among us, God points out and assigns to us a task: precisely that of being like him and of striving for true life, to attain the vision of God in the Face of Christ. St. Irenaeus states further: “The Word of God dwelt in man and became the Son of man in order to accustom man to perceive God and to accustom God to dwell in man, according to the Father's pleasure. For this reason God gave us as a ‘sign’ of our salvation the One who, born of the Virgin, is the Emmanuel” (ibid.).
Here too there is a very beautiful central idea of St Irenaeus: We must get used to perceiving God. God is generally remote from our lives, from our ideas, from our actions. He has come to us and we must accustom ourselves to being with God. And Irenaeus dares boldly to say that God must also accustom himself to being with us and within us. And that God should perhaps accompany us at Christmas, should accustom us to God, just as God should accustom himself to us, to our poverty and frailty. Hence the coming of the Lord can have no other purpose than to teach us to see and love events, the world, and all that surrounds us with God’s own eyes. The Word-become-a-Child helps us to understand God’s way of acting so that we will be able to let ourselves be transformed increasingly by his goodness and his infinite mercy.
In the night of the world let us still be surprised and illumined by this act of God which is totally unexpected: God makes himself a Child. We must let ourselves be overcome with wonder, illumined by the Star that flooded the universe with joy. May the Child Jesus, in coming to us, not find us unprepared, dedicated only to making exterior reality more beautiful. May the care we give to making our roads and homes more splendid be an even greater incentive to predispose our soul to encounter the One who will come to visit us, who is the true beauty and the true light. Let us therefore purify our consciences and our lives of what is contrary to this coming: thoughts, words, attitudes and deeds — impelling ourselves to do good and to contribute to achieving in our world peace and justice for every person, and thus to walk towards our encounter with the Lord.
A characteristic sign of this Christmas Season is the Nativity scene. In St. Peter’s Square too, in keeping with the tradition, it is almost ready and looks out in spirit over Rome and over the whole world, representing the beauty of the Mystery of God who was made man and pitched his tent among us (cf. Jn 1,14).
The crib is an expression of our expectation that God is coming close to us, that Jesus comes close to us, but it is also an expression of thanksgiving for the One who decided to share in our human condition, in poverty and simplicity.
I am glad because the tradition of preparing the crib in homes, in workplaces, in meeting places, is still alive and is even being rediscovered. Today too, may this genuine witness of Christian faith also be able to offer all men and women of good will an eloquent icon of the Father’s infinite love for us all. May the hearts of children and adults still be able to feel wonder before him.
Dear brothers and sisters, may the Virgin Mary and St Joseph help us to live the Mystery of Christmas with renewed gratitude to the Lord. In the midst of the frenetic activity of our day, may this Season give us some calm and joy and enable us to feel tangibly the goodness of our God, who became a Child to save us and to give new encouragement and light on our journey. This is my wish for a holy and happy Christmas: I address it with affection to all of you present here, to your families, in particular to the sick and the suffering, as well as to your communities and your loved ones.
* * *
I offer a warm welcome to the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience. To all of you, and especially the children, I offer my heartfelt good wishes for a serene and joy-filled Christmas!
Paul VI Hall29120
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In a recent Catechesis I spoke of St Catherine of Siena. Today I would like to present to you another less well known Saint who has the same name: St Catherine of Bologna, a very erudite yet very humble woman. She was dedicated to prayer but was always ready to serve; generous in sacrifice but full of joy in welcoming Christ with the Cross.
Catherine was born in Bologna on 8 September 1413, the eldest child of Benvenuta Mammolini and John de’ Vigri, a rich and cultured patrician of Ferrara, a doctor in law and a public lector in Padua, where he carried out diplomatic missions for Nicholas III d’Este, Marquis of Ferrara.
Not much information about Catherine’s infancy and childhood is available and not all of it is reliable. As a child she lived in her grandparents’ house in Bologna, where she was brought up by relatives, especially by her mother who was a woman of deep faith.
With her, Catherine moved to Ferrara when she was about 10 years old and entered the court of Nicholas III d’Este as lady-in-waiting to Margaret, Nicholas’ illegitimate daughter. The Marquis was transforming Ferrara into a fine city, summoning artists and scholars from various countries. He encouraged culture and, although his private life was not exemplary, took great care of the spiritual good, moral conduct and education of his subjects.
In Ferrara Catherine was unaware of the negative aspects that are often part and parcel of court life. She enjoyed Margaret’s friendship and became her confidante. She developed her culture by studying music, painting and dancing; she learned to write poetry and literary compositions and to play the viola; she became expert in the art of miniature-painting and copying; she perfected her knowledge of Latin.
In her future monastic life she was to put to good use the cultural and artistic heritage she had acquired in these years. She learned with ease, enthusiasm and tenacity. She showed great prudence, as well as an unusual modesty, grace and kindness in her behaviour.
However, one absolutely clear trait distinguished her: her spirit, constantly focused on the things of Heaven. In 1427, when she was only 14 years old and subsequent to certain family events, Catherine decided to leave the court to join a group of young noble women who lived a community life dedicating themselves to God. Her mother trustingly consented in spite of having other plans for her daughter.
We know nothing of Catherine’s spiritual path prior to this decision. Speaking in the third person, she states that she entered God’s service, “illumined by divine grace... with an upright conscience and great fervour”, attentive to holy prayer by night and by day, striving to acquire all the virtues she saw in others, “not out of envy but the better to please God in whom she had placed all her love” (Le sette armi necessarie alla battaglia spirituali, [The seven spiritual weapons], VII, 8, Bologna 1998, p. 12).
She made considerable spiritual progress in this new phase of her life but her trials, her inner suffering and especially the temptations of the devil were great and terrible. She passed through a profound spiritual crisis and came to the brink of despair (cf. ibid., VII, 2, pp. 12-29). She lived in the night of the spirit, and was also deeply shaken by the temptation of disbelief in the Eucharist.
After so much suffering, the Lord comforted her: he gave her, in a vision, a clear awareness of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, an awareness so dazzling that Catherine was unable to express it in words (cf. ibid., VIII, 2. pp. 42-46).
In this same period a sorrowful trial afflicted the community: tension arose between those who wished to follow the Augustinian spirituality and those who had more of an inclination for Franciscan spirituality.
Between 1429 and 1430, Lucia Mascheroni, in charge of the group, decided to found an Augustinian monastery. Catherine, on the other hand chose with others to bind herself to the Rule of St Clare of Assisi. It was a gift of Providence, because the community dwelled in the vicinity of the Church of the Holy Spirit, annexed to the convent of the Friars Minor who had adhered to the movement of the Observance.
Thus Catherine and her companions could take part regularly in liturgical celebrations and receive adequate spiritual assistance. They also had the joy of listening to the preaching of St Bernardine of Siena (cf. ibid., VII, 62, p. 26). Catherine recounts that in 1429 — the third year since her conversion — she went to make her confession to one of the Friars Minor whom she esteemed, she made a good Confession and prayed the Lord intensely to grant her forgiveness for all her sins and the suffering connected with them.
In a vision God revealed to her that he had forgiven her everything. It was a very strong experience of divine mercy which left an indelible mark upon her, giving her a fresh impetus to respond generously to God’s immense love (cf. ibid. IX, 2, pp. 46-48).
In 1431 she had a vision of the Last Judgement. The terrifying spectacle of the damned impelled her to redouble her prayers and penance for the salvation of sinners. The devil continued to assail her and she entrusted herself ever more totally to the Lord and to the Virgin Mary (cf. ibid., X, 3, pp. 53-54).
In her writings, Catherine has left us a few essential notes concerning this mysterious battle from which, with God’s grace, she emerged victorious. She did so in order to instruct her sisters and those who intend to set out on the path of perfection: she wanted to put them on their guard against the temptations of the devil who often conceals himself behind deceptive guises, later to sow doubts about faith, vocational uncertainty and sensuality.
In her autobiographical and didactic treatise, The Seven Spiritual Weapons, Catherine offers in this regard teaching of deep wisdom and profound discernment. She speaks in the third person in reporting the extraordinary graces which the Lord gives to her and in the first person in confessing her sins. From her writing transpires the purity of her faith in God, her profound humility, the simplicity of her heart, her missionary zeal, her passion for the salvation of souls. She identifies seven weapons in the fight against evil, against the devil:
1. always to be careful and diligently strive to do good; 2. to believe that alone we will never be able to do something truly good; 3. to trust in God and, for love of him, never to fear in the battle against evil, either in the world or within ourselves; 4. to meditate often on the events and words of the life of Jesus, and especially on his Passion and his death; 5. to remember that we must die; 6. to focus our minds firmly on memory of the goods of Heaven; 7. to be familiar with Sacred Scripture, always cherishing it in our hearts so that it may give direction to all our thoughts and all our actions. A splendid programme of spiritual life, today too, for each one of us!
In the convent Catherine, in spite of being accustomed to the court in Ferrara, served in the offices of laundress, dressmaker and breadmaker and even looked after the animals. She did everything, even the lowliest tasks, with love and ready obedience, offering her sisters a luminous witness. Indeed she saw disobedience as that spiritual pride which destroys every other virtue. Out of obedience she accepted the office of novice mistress, although she considered herself unfit for this office, and God continued to inspire her with his presence and his gifts: in fact she proved to be a wise and appreciated mistress.
Later the service of the parlour was entrusted to her. She found it trying to have to interrupt her prayers frequently in order to respond to those who came to the monastery grill, but this time too the Lord did not fail to visit her and to be close to her.
With her the monastery became an increasingly prayerful place of self-giving, of silence, of endeavour and of joy.
Upon the death of the abbess, the superiors thought immediately of her, but Catherine urged them to turn to the Poor Clares of Mantua who were better instructed in the Constitutions and in religious observance.
Nevertheless, a few years later, in 1456, she was asked at her monastery to open a new foundation in Bologna. Catherine would have preferred to end her days in Ferrara, but the Lord appeared to her and exhorted her to do God’s will by going to Bologna as abbess. She prepared herself for the new commitment with fasting, scourging and penance.
She went to Bologna with 18 sisters. As superior she set the example in prayer and in service; she lived in deep humility and poverty. At the end of her three-year term as abbess she was glad to be replaced but after a year she was obliged to resume her office because the newly elected abbess became blind. Although she was suffering and and was afflicted with serious ailments that tormented her, she carried out her service with generosity and dedication.
For another year she urged her sisters to an evangelical life, to patience and constancy in trial, to fraternal love, to union with the divine Bridegroom, Jesus, so as to prepare her dowry for the eternal nuptials.
It was a dowry that Catherine saw as knowing how to share the sufferings of Christ, serenely facing hardship, apprehension, contempt and misunderstanding (cf. Le sette armi spirituali, X, 20, pp. 57-58).
At the beginning of 1463 her health deteriorated. For the last time she gathered the sisters in Chapter, to announce her death to them and to recommend the observance of the Rule. Towards the end of February she was harrowed by terrible suffering that was never to leave her, yet despite her pain it was she who comforted her sisters, assuring them that she would also help them from Heaven.
After receiving the last Sacraments, she give her confessor the text she had written: The Seven Spiritual Weapons, and entered her agony; her face grew beautiful and translucent; she still looked lovingly at those who surrounded her and died gently, repeating three times the name of Jesus. It was 9 March 1463 (cf. I. Bembo, Specchio di illuminazione, Vita di S. Caterina a Bologna, Florence 2001, chap. III). Catherine was to be canonized by Pope Clement XI on 22 May 1712. Her incorrupt body is preserved in the city of Bologna, in the chapel of the monastery of Corpus Domini.
Dear friends, with her words and with her life, St Catherine of Bologna is a pressing invitation to let ourselves always be guided by God, to do his will daily, even if it often does not correspond with our plans, to trust in his Providence which never leaves us on our own. In this perspective, St Catherine speaks to us; from the distance of so many centuries she is still very modern and speaks to our lives.
She, like us, suffered temptations, she suffered the temptations of disbelief, of sensuality, of a difficult spiritual struggle. She felt forsaken by God, she found herself in the darkness of faith. Yet in all these situations she was always holding the Lord’s hand, she did not leave him, she did not abandon him. And walking hand in hand with the Lord, she walked on the right path and found the way of light.
So it is that she also tells us: take heart, even in the night of faith, even amidst our many doubts, do not let go of the Lord’s hand, walk hand in hand with him, believe in God’s goodness. This is how to follow the right path!
And I would like to stress another aspect: her great humility. She was a person who did not want to be someone or something; she did not care for appearances, she did not want to govern. She wanted to serve, to do God’s will, to be at the service of others. And for this very reason Catherine was credible in her authority, because she was able to see that for her authority meant, precisely, serving others.
Let us ask God, through the intercession of Our Saint, for the gift to achieve courageously and generously the project he has for us, so that he alone may be the firm rock on which our lives are built. Thank you.
* * *
I greet the seminarians of the American College of Louvain and I offer prayerful good wishes for your studies. May this pilgrimage to Rome be a source of spiritual enrichment as you prepare for priestly ministry in the United States. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience I cordially invoke the joy and peace of Christ our newborn Saviour.
Paul VI Audience Hall50111
Dear Brothers and Sisters
I am glad to welcome you at this first General Audience of the New Year and I cordially offer you and your families my fervent good wishes. May the Lord of time and history guide our steps on the path of goodness and grant to each one an abundance of grace and prosperity.
Still surrounded by the light of Holy Christmas that invites us to rejoice at the coming of the Saviour, today on the eve of the Epiphany, we celebrate the manifestation of the Lord to all peoples. The Feast of Christmas fascinates us today — just as it once did — more than the Church’s other great feastdays. It fascinates us because everyone in some way feels that the Birth of Jesus has to do with the deepest aspirations and hopes of man. Consumerism can distance us from this inner longing, but if in our hearts there is the desire to welcome that Child who brings God’s newness, who came to give us life in its fullness, the lights of the Christmas decorations can indeed become a reflection of the Light that came into being with the Incarnation of God.
In the liturgical celebrations of these holy days we have lived in a mysterious but real way the entry into the world of the Son of God and we have been illumined once again by the light of his radiance. Every celebration is an actual presence of Christ’s mystery and in it the history of salvation is prolonged.
Pope St Leo the Great said of Christmas: “Even if the succession of bodily actions has now passed, as was preordained in the eternal plan… nevertheless we continuously adore the Virgin’s giving birth that brings about our salvation (Sermon on the Nativity of the Lord 29, 2). And St Leo explains: “because that day has not passed away in such a way that the power of the work, which was then revealed, has passed away with it” (Sermon on the Epiphany, 36, 1).
Celebrating the events of the Incarnation of the Son of God is not merely remembering past events, but it is making present those mysteries that bring salvation. Today in the Liturgy, in the celebration of the sacraments, those mysteries become present and effective for us.
St Leo the Great said further: “All therefore that the Son of God did and taught for the world’s reconciliation, we not only know as a matter of past history, but appreciate in the power of their present effect” (Sermon 52, 1).
In the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy the Second Vatican Council emphasized that the work of salvation brought about by Christ continues in the Church through the celebration of the holy mysteries, thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit. We already have in the Old Testament, in the journey towards the fullness of faith, testimonies of how God’s presence and action were mediated through signs, for example, that of fire (cf. Ex 3,2 ff; Ex 19,18).
However, from the Incarnation something overwhelming happens: the regime of salvific contact with God is radically transformed and flesh becomes the instrument of salvation: “Verbum caro factum est”, “the Word was made flesh”, the Evangelist John writes, and Tertullian, a third-century Christian author affirms: “Caro salutis est cardo”, “the flesh is the pivot of salvation” (De resurrectione carnis, 8, 3: PL 2, 806).
Christmas is already the first fruit of the “sacramentum-mysterium paschale”, that is, it is the beginning of the central mystery of salvation that culminates in the Passion, death and Resurrection, because Jesus begins the offering of himself through love from the very first moment of his human existence in the Virgin Mary’s womb. Christmas Night is thus deeply linked to the great nocturnal vigil of Easter, when the redemption is brought about in the glorious sacrifice of the dead and Risen Lord. The crib itself, as an image of the Incarnation of the Word, in the light of the Gospel narrative already alludes to Easter; and it is interesting to see, as in certain icons of the Nativity in the Eastern tradition, that the Child Jesus is portrayed wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger in the form of a tomb, an allusion to the moment when he will be deposed from the Cross, wrapped in a winding-sheet and laid in a tomb hollowed out in the rock (cf. Lc 2,7 Lc 2,23 Lc 2,53).
The Incarnation and Easter are not one beside other but they are the two inseparable key points of the one faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of God Incarnate and Redeemer. The Cross and the Resurrection presuppose the Incarnation. Only because the Son and, in him, God himself truly “came down”, and “was made flesh”, are the death and Resurrection of Jesus events that prove to be contemporary to us and concern us, they snatch us from death and open to us a future in which this “flesh”, the earthly and transitory existence will enter God’s eternity. In this unitive perspective of the Mystery of Christ, the visit to the crib orients us to the visit to the Eucharist, where we encounter present in a real way the Crucified and Risen Christ, the living Christ.
The liturgical celebration of Christmas, then, is not only a memory but is above all a mystery; it is not only commemoration but also presence. In order to grasp the meaning of these two inseparable aspects it is necessary to live intensely the whole of the Christmas Season as the Church presents it. If we consider it in a broad sense, it lasts for 40 days, from 25 December to 2 February, from the celebration of Christmas Night to Mary, Mother of God, to the Epiphany, to the Baptism of Jesus, to the Wedding at Cana, to the Presentation in the Temple, which forms a unit of 50 days, until Pentecost. The manifestation of God in the flesh is the event that revealed the Truth in history. In fact, the date of 25 December, linked to the idea of the solar manifestation — God who appears as a light that never sets on the horizon of history — reminds us that it is not only an idea, that God is the fullness of light, but a reality for us men and women that has already been brought about and is ever timely: today, as then, God reveals himself in the flesh, that is, in the “living body” of the Church, a pilgrim in time, and in the sacraments that give us salvation today.
The symbols of the Christmas celebrations, recalled by the Readings and by the prayers, give to the Liturgy of this Season a profound sense of the “epiphany” of God in his Christ-Word Incarnate, namely his “manifestation”, which also possesses an eschatological meaning, in other words which orients us to the last times.
Already in Advent the two comings, the historical coming and the coming at the end of history were directly connected, but it is in particular in the Epiphany and in the Baptism of Jesus that the messianic manifestation is celebrated in the perspective of the eschatological expectations: the messianic consecration of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in a visible form, leads to the fulfilment of the time of the promises and ushers in the last times.
It is necessary to recover the meaning of this Christmas Season, divesting it of excessive moralistic sentimentality. What the celebration of Christmas proposes to us, besides examples to imitate, such as the Lord’s humility and poverty or his benevolence and love for human beings, is to let ourselves be totally transformed by the One who took on our flesh.
St Leo the Great exclaimed: “the Son of God… so united himself with us and us with him that the descent of God to man’s estate became the exaltation of man to God’s” (Sermon on the Nativity of the Lord, 27, 2).
The manifestation of God aims at our participation in the divine life, in the realization within us of the mystery of his Incarnation. This mystery is the fulfilment of the human vocation. St Leo the Great explains further the practical and ever timely importance of the mystery of Christmas for Christian life: “The words of the Gospel and of the Prophets… inflame our spirit and teach us to understand the Lord’s Nativity, this mystery of the Word made flesh, not so much as the memory of a past event, as rather an event that takes place before our eyes… as though the words: ‘I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord’” (ibid. 29,1), were still being proclaimed to us at today’s Solemnity.
And, St Leo added: “Christian, acknowledge your dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct” (Sermon 1 on the Nativity of the Lord, 3).
Dear friends, let us live this Christmas Season deeply: after having adored the Son of God made man and laid in the manger, we are called to move on to the altar of the Sacrifice, where Christ, the living Bread come down from Heaven, offers himself to us as true nourishment for eternal life. And let us proclaim joyfully to the world, what we have seen with our own eyes at the table of the Word and of the Bread of Life, what we have contemplated, in other words what our hands have touched, namely, the Word made flesh, and witness to him generously with our whole life.
I warmly renew to all of you and to your loved ones my warmest good wishes for the New Year and I wish you a good celebration of Epiphany.
To special groups:
I am pleased to greet the students and professors from the University of Helsinki. My warm greetings also go to the seminarians of the Pontifical College Josephinum. Upon all the English-speaking visitors present at today’s Audience I invoke God’s Blessings of joy and peace today and throughout the coming year!
Lastly, I greet the young people, the sick and the newlyweds. Tomorrow, the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, we shall remember the Magi’s journey toward Christ, guided by the light of the star. May their example, dear young people, nourish within you the desire to encounter Jesus and to pass on to all the joy of his Gospel; may it lead you, dear sick people, to offer your pain and suffering, made precious by faith, to the Child of Bethlehem; may it constitute for you, dear newlyweds, a constant incentive to make your families “domestic churches”, that welcome the mysterious signs of God and the gift of life.
Paul VI Audience Hall12011
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
After Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Bologna, today I would like to speak to you about another Saint: Catherine of Genoa, known above all for her vision of purgatory. The text that describes her life and thought was published in this Ligurian city in 1551. It is in three sections: her Vita [Life], properly speaking, the Dimostratione et dechiaratione del purgatorio — better known as Treatise on purgatory — and her Dialogo tra l’anima e il corpo (cf. Libro de la Vita mirabile et dottrina santa, de la beata Caterinetta da Genoa. Nel quale si contiene una utile et catholica dimostratione et dechiaratione del purgatorio, Genoa 1551). The final version was written by Catherine’s confessor, Fr Cattaneo Marabotto.
Catherine was born in Genoa in 1447. She was the youngest of five. Her father, Giacomo Fieschi, died when she was very young. Her mother, Francesca di Negro provided such an effective Christian education that the elder of her two daughters became a religious.
When Catherine was 16, she was given in marriage to Giuliano Adorno, a man who after various trading and military experiences in the Middle East had returned to Genoa in order to marry.
Married life was far from easy for Catherine, partly because of the character of her husband who was given to gambling. Catherine herself was at first induced to lead a worldly sort of life in which, however, she failed to find serenity. After 10 years, her heart was heavy with a deep sense of emptiness and bitterness.
A unique experience on 20 March 1473 sparked her conversion. She had gone to the Church of San Benedetto in the monastery of Nostra Signora delle Grazie [Our Lady of Grace], to make her confession and, kneeling before the priest, “received”, as she herself wrote, “a wound in my heart from God’s immense love”. It came with such a clear vision of her own wretchedness and shortcomings and at the same time of God’s goodness, that she almost fainted.
Her heart was moved by this knowledge of herself — knowledge of the empty life she was leading and of the goodness of God. This experience prompted the decision that gave direction to her whole life. She expressed it in the words: “no longer the world, no longer sin” (cf. Vita Mirabile, 3rv). Catherine did not stay to make her Confession.
On arriving home she entered the remotest room and spent a long time weeping. At that moment she received an inner instruction on prayer and became aware of God’s immense love for her, a sinner. It was a spiritual experience she had no words to describe ( cf. Vita Mirabile, 4r).
It was on this occasion that the suffering Jesus appeared to her, bent beneath the Cross, as he is often portrayed in the Saint’s iconography. A few days later she returned to the priest to make a good confession at last. It was here that began the “life of purification” which for many years caused her to feel constant sorrow for the sins she had committed and which spurred her to impose forms of penance and sacrifice upon herself, in order to show her love to God.
On this journey Catherine became ever closer to the Lord until she attained what is called “unitive life”, namely, a relationship of profound union with God.
In her Vita it is written that her soul was guided and instructed from within solely by the sweet love of God which gave her all she needed. Catherine surrendered herself so totally into the hands of the Lord that she lived, for about 25 years, as she wrote, “without the assistance of any creature, taught and governed by God alone” (Vita, 117r-118r), nourished above all by constant prayer and by Holy Communion which she received every day, an unusual practice in her time. Only many years later did the Lord give her a priest who cared for her soul.
Catherine was always reluctant to confide and reveal her experience of mystical communion with God, especially because of the deep humility she felt before the Lord’s graces. The prospect of glorifying him and of being able to contribute to the spiritual journey of others alone spurred her to recount what had taken place within her, from the moment of her conversion, which is her original and fundamental experience.
The place of her ascent to mystical peaks was Pammatone Hospital, the largest hospital complex in Genoa, of which she was director and animator. Hence Catherine lived a totally active existence despite the depth of her inner life. In Pammatone a group of followers, disciples and collaborators formed around her, fascinated by her life of faith and her charity.
Indeed her husband, Giuliano Adorno, was so so won over that he gave up his dissipated life, became a Third Order Franciscan and moved into the hospital to help his wife.
Catherine’s dedication to caring for the sick continued until the end of her earthly life on 15 September 1510. From her conversion until her death there were no extraordinary events but two elements characterize her entire life: on the one hand her mystical experience, that is, the profound union with God, which she felt as spousal union, and on the other, assistance to the sick, the organization of the hospital and service to her neighbour, especially the neediest and the most forsaken. These two poles, God and neighbour, totally filled her life, virtually all of which she spent within the hospital walls.
Dear friends, we must never forget that the more we love God and the more constantly we pray, the better we will succeed in truly loving those who surround us, who are close to us, so that we can see in every person the Face of the Lord whose love knows no bounds and makes no distinctions. The mystic does not create distance from others or an abstract life, but rather approaches other people so that they may begin to see and act with God’s eyes and heart.
Catherine’s thought on purgatory, for which she is particularly well known, is summed up in the last two parts of the book mentioned above: The Treatise on purgatory and the Dialogues between the body and the soul. It is important to note that Catherine, in her mystical experience, never received specific revelations on purgatory or on the souls being purified there. Yet, in the writings inspired by our Saint, purgatory is a central element and the description of it has characteristics that were original in her time.
The first original passage concerns the “place” of the purification of souls. In her day it was depicted mainly using images linked to space: a certain space was conceived of in which purgatory was supposed to be located.
Catherine, however, did not see purgatory as a scene in the bowels of the earth: for her it is not an exterior but rather an interior fire. This is purgatory: an inner fire.
The Saint speaks of the Soul’s journey of purification on the way to full communion with God, starting from her own experience of profound sorrow for the sins committed, in comparison with God’s infinite love (cf. Vita Mirabile, 171v).
We heard of the moment of conversion when Catherine suddenly became aware of God’s goodness, of the infinite distance of her own life from this goodness and of a burning fire within her. And this is the fire that purifies, the interior fire of purgatory. Here too is an original feature in comparison with the thought of her time.
In fact, she does not start with the afterlife in order to recount the torments of purgatory — as was the custom in her time and perhaps still is today — and then to point out the way to purification or conversion. Rather our Saint begins with the inner experience of her own life on the way to Eternity.
“The soul”, Catherine says, “presents itself to God still bound to the desires and suffering that derive from sin and this makes it impossible for it to enjoy the beatific vision of God”. Catherine asserts that God is so pure and holy that a soul stained by sin cannot be in the presence of the divine majesty (cf. Vita Mirabile, 177r).
We too feel how distant we are, how full we are of so many things that we cannot see God. The soul is aware of the immense love and perfect justice of God and consequently suffers for having failed to respond in a correct and perfect way to this love; and love for God itself becomes a flame, love itself cleanses it from the residue of sin.
In Catherine we can make out the presence of theological and mystical sources on which it was normal to draw in her time. In particular, we find an image typical of Dionysius the Areopagite: the thread of gold that links the human heart to God himself. When God purified man, he bound him with the finest golden thread, that is, his love, and draws him toward himself with such strong affection that man is as it were “overcome and won over and completely beside himself”.
Thus man’s heart is pervaded by God’s love that becomes the one guide, the one driving force of his life (cf. Vita Mirabile, 246rv). This situation of being uplifted towards God and of surrender to his will, expressed in the image of the thread, is used by Catherine to express the action of divine light on the souls in purgatory, a light that purifies and raises them to the splendour of the shining radiance of God (cf. Vita Mirabile, 179r).
Dear friends, in their experience of union with God, Saints attain such a profound knowledge of the divine mysteries in which love and knowledge interpenetrate, that they are of help to theologians themselves in their commitment to study, to intelligentia fidei, to an intelligentia of the mysteries of faith, to attain a really deeper knowledge of the mysteries of faith, for example, of what purgatory is.
With her life St Catherine teaches us that the more we love God and enter into intimacy with him in prayer the more he makes himself known to us, setting our hearts on fire with his love.
In writing about purgatory, the Saint reminds us of a fundamental truth of faith that becomes for us an invitation to pray for the deceased so that they may attain the beatific vision of God in the Communion of Saints (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church CEC 1032).
Moreover the humble, faithful and generous service in Pammatone Hospital that the Saint rendered throughout her life is a shining example of charity for all and an encouragement, especially for women who, with their precious work enriched by their sensitivity and attention to the poorest and neediest, make a fundamental contribution to society and to the Church. Many thanks.
* * *
I am pleased to greet the many university students present at today’s Audience. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors, especially those from Finland, Malta, China, Indonesia and the United States of America, I cordially invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.
Paul VI Audience Hall
Audiences 2005-2013 22120