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St. Catherine of Siena: Go Forth and ‘Set the World on Fire’
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” —St. Catherine of Siena
Today is the feast of one of the Church’s greatest saints, Catherine of Siena (1347-1380). She is one of those rare individuals who single-handedly changed the course of world history—and, unlike so many of such history-makers, she changed the world very much for the better.
“[CatholicSaints.info] Youngest of 24 children; her father was a wool-dyer. At the age of seven she had a vision in which Jesus appeared with Peter, Paul, and John; Jesus blessed her, and she consecrated herself to Him. Her parents began making arranged marriages for her when she turned 12, but she refused to co-operate [which led to abuse initially], became a Dominican tertiary at age 15, and spent her time working with the poor and sick, attracting others to work with her. Received a vision in which she was in a mystical marriage with Christ, and the Infant Christ presented her with a wedding ring. Some of her visions drove her to become more involved in public life. [Had the stigmata, the wounds of Christ’s passion.] Counselor to and correspondent with Pope Gregory XI and Pope Urban VI. Stigmatist in 1375. Lived in Avignon, France in 1376, and then in Rome, Italy from 1378 until her death [as she convinced the pope to return to his seat of Rome from a long period of papal residency in France. She ultimately offered her life to God in exchange for Church unity and the end of warring anti-popes]. Friend of Blessed Raymond of Capua who was also her confessor. Proclaimed Doctor of the Church on 4 October 1970.”
St. Catherine said, among other great quotes, “Everything comes from love, all is ordained for the salvation of man, God does nothing without this goal in mind.” Probably her most famous quote is, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” These two quotes provide a beautiful and inspiring guide to us now.
It is very hard to love other people as God loves them, to love our enemies as Jesus told us we must do (Matt. 5:44). And yet that is what Saint Catherine did, which is how she transformed the lives of so many people. She once converted a convicted criminal while he was about to go to his execution, she inspired people from the poor to the most powerful nobles in Italy, and she did what so many others tried and failed to do—she brought the papacy back to Rome. Saint Catherine’s love was not the sappy, emotional type which many seem to believe in today. She told hard truths to those who didn’t want to hear them, and she spoke truth to power, in a way that few men, let alone women, have dared to do. She never lied to make someone feel better, or refrained from a warning about serious sin to avoid offense. But her motives were always from love, from a desire to bring people to our God Who is Truth. Her love for God and her confidence in the right were so powerful that it could not but affect others. She was born a dyer’s daughter, not poor but certainly not of the ruling class, illiterate for much of her life until God miraculously gave her the ability to read and write.
When a priest asked her why she thought she of all people should go to tell the pope to return to Rome, especially when so many more famous and powerful people had tried and failed, she explained that she didn’t do it because she thought she was eminently qualified or special. She told the priest that she had spent years praying that someone would go speak to the pope, only to realize at last that she had to answer the call and allow God to work through her. She could no longer wait for somebody else to do what she knew needed to be done.
When I read that story, it had a profound effect on me. Now, most of us are not like St. Catherine of Siena, but each of us is called to greatness and holiness. Jesus says in the Gospel (Matt. 5:48), “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect.” Without God, we are nothing. With God, we can even work miracles. We have only to surrender to God’s will and let Him guide us, and be willing to take on evil that seems too powerful for us. As our world is increasingly controlled by very powerful but very evil men, we would do well to have the confidence, love, and trust in God of St. Catherine of Siena. Then we, too, might set the world on fire.
Yesterday was the feast of two other great Catholic saints, Gianna Beretta Molla and Louis-Marie Grignion de Montfort. Gianna Molla was a 20th century physician and surgeon who specialized in helping babies, their mothers, elderly, and the poor. She married Pietro Molla and had four children; while pregnant with the fourth, she had to choose between an abortion and removal of an ovarian cyst, or saving her baby and dying herself. “If you must choose between me and the baby, no hesitation; choose - and I demand it - the baby. Save the baby!” she said. She died in 1962, and the baby girl she died to save grew up to be a doctor and pro-life advocate.
Meanwhile, Louis de Montfort was a “Confessor, Marian devotee, and founder of the Sisters of Divine Wisdom He was born Louis-Marie Grignion in Montfort, France, in 1673. Educated at Rennes, he was ordained there in 1700, becoming a chaplain in a hospital in Poitiers. His congregation, also called the Daughters of Divine Wisdom, started there. As his missions and sermons raised complaints, Louis went to Rome, where Pope Clement XI appointed him as a missionary apostolic. Louis is famous for fostering devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Rosary. In 1715, he also founded the Missionaries of the Company of Mary. His True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin remains popular.”
Like Catherine of Siena, Gianna and Louis are excellent intercessors for our times. Gianna, a modern herself, chose in an age increasingly selfish, anti-Christian, and anti-life to sacrifice her own life for her baby. She demonstrated without fanfare or hesitation the heroism that each Christian is called to—the willingness to sacrifice everything, even life, to defend truth and aid those we love. Meanwhile, Louis de Montfort stood for true Christianity in the chaotic age post-Protestant Revolt. He explained beautifully how devotion to Jesus’s mother Mary only makes sense in light of devotion to Jesus; how Jesus has willed we come to Him with Mary’s help, but that she is only important because her Son chose to make her important. His True Devotion to Mary is a wonderful book. Our modern world desperately needs Mary’s intercession and example as we try to stay true to her Son in a corrupt, Christ-hating world.
From three different centuries and two different countries, Sts. Catherine of Siena, Gianna Molla, and Louis de Montfort show us that heroism is called for from every Christian, in every state of life, and that each of us is called to greatness in bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ. Now go forth and set the world on fire!
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