St. Catherine of Siena
New York City
I. Introduction – Greetings and Thanks
Let me begin by thanking Cardinal Dolan for his presence among us tonight and for the inspired leadership he provides for the Church in the United States, in Rome, and far beyond. In particular, Your Eminence, I am grateful for your leadership on matters touching the preservation of religious liberty at home and abroad.
In greeting my brother priests and so many honored guests, I wish to express my gratitude to Father Brian Mulcahy, the Prior Provincial, and to Father Jordan Kelly, Pastor of this beautiful church named in honor of St. Catherine of Siena, for your kind invitation to celebrate this Mass and for honoring me with the St. Catherine of Siena Award for Leadership and Excellence in Catholic Heathcare.
In accepting this award, even as a poor representative of my brother bishops, I am placing myself in great peril. For Catherine of Siena remains a formidable figure in the life of the Church, as popes and princes discovered, and as we are about to be reminded.
II. Her Life
Among Dominicans and friends of the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry there is no need for me to recount the details of her life, except to observe that she was born in Siena in 1347 or so, and that she came from an exceptionally large family; that she was attracted to a life of mystical prayer at a very early age, and that she died very young, some would say at the age of 33.
Within those parameters, she led an amazing life. Catherine resisted a pre-arranged marriage, fled to a monastery where she learned the art of mystical prayer, only to emerge from it to take the lead in ministering to victims of the plague which struck the city of Sienna in 1374, a point to which we return momentarily.
Her life was unusual for many reasons but let me list just two of them that seem most on point for our purposes this evening. First, she combined the heights of mystical prayer with active involvement in the affairs of the Church and the world. She led a life of deepest consecration to the Lord and attracted others to her work, yet she did not live in community but rather as a Dominican tertiary. Truly, she did not belong to the world but she was certainly in the world (Jn. 17:4).
A second and related feature of her life as a Dominican was this: Like all Dominican saints St. Catherine greatly valued knowledge, knowledge of God and knowledge of oneself. Surely she was true to St. Thomas’ formulation, “contemplari et contemplata aliis tradere” – ‘to contemplate and to hand over the fruits of contemplation.’ Unlike other Dominican theologians and mystics, however, she did not focus so much on the inner-workings of contemplation Rather, she attained that knowledge by means of a mystical love that united her to the Crucified One and to the Father of Mercies, a love which prompted in her great love for the Church and her mission and a great love and zeal for souls . . . a costly love which brought suffering into her life, …that sort of suffering that fills up “…what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body which is the Church” (1 Cor. 1:24). Perhaps this is summed up in a letter to her spiritual director, Raymond of Capua: “O eternal Father, accept the sacrifice of my life for the mystical body of Holy Church.”
III. Implications for the Ministry of Healthcare
What light, then, does St. Catherine of Siena’s life and teaching shed on the ministry of healthcare as practiced by the Dominican friars here in New York, a ministry in which my fellow honoree, Sr. Margaret Theresa is a mainstay… a ministry that extends to places such as Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, the Hospital for Special Surgery, and the Rockefeller University Research Hospital? What does she have to say to you and to your co-workers as you minister to the sick and the dying every hour of every day of every year? …as you engage in biomedical consultations with patients, family members, and healthcare professionals? Or as your work with the Catholic Medical Association of New York?
Perhaps it is simply this. Reaching heights of mystical prayer, she led efforts to minister to the victims of the plague that afflicted Siena in 1374. Indeed, throughout her life she ministered to the poor and the sick, members of her own family and many others as well, affirming their dignity. In Catherine’s Dialogues or in her letters we would not find speculative treatises on the dignity of the human person or passages that offer clues for the dilemmas posed by contemporary healthcare. What we would find in Catherine is a keen sense of what is at stake in the life of every person to whom you minister. To put it bluntly and simply: because of her mystical visions and her communications with the Father, Catherine was not only a philosophical realist but also a biblical realist. She understood that there is a heaven and there is a hell. She understood that human life itself and how free will is exercised, matter. The decisions we make and the overall direction of our lives have eternal significance. It was holy fear of the Lord that opened her eyes to human dignity. And in the wisdom of the Cross, Catherine saw Jesus Christ as the only bridge that brought human beings over the troubled waters of sin and chaos to the joy and glory of heaven for which we were made.
When we are sick or when we are preparing for our definitive meeting with Christ, somehow these realities come to the fore. It is a moment to ponder the significance of our lives, to come to terms with the fact that we are not merely a number but a someone who is known and cherished by God who is the source of our inherent dignity. Illness is a moment to consider decisions we have made, the direction of our lives, and to contemplate our own eternal destiny. Even the best medical techniques and advances do not erase those questions. All of you who are involved in the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry bear witness to the dignity of the human person and help patients and their families open their hearts to Christ’s truth and love. No doubt St. Catherine, in her zeal for souls, urges you onward daily by her prayers.
IV. Implications for Religious Freedom
Earlier, I noted how St. Catherine’s mystical prayer led her to involvement in the affairs of the world, whether it was an ill-starred attempt to make peace between the warring city states or her rather direct appeal to Pope Gregory XI that he return from exile in Avignon to the City of Rome. Historians may debate the efficacy of Catherine’s interventions but we have no doubt about her passionate love for the Body of Christ.
That she intervened with Pope Gregory is itself a remarkable fact. She held no office but went only with her baptismal dignity and sheer force of will, humble though she was. She told Gregory that he needed to end the exile of the papacy, for to be away from Rome was to alienate the Church from its apostolic roots, from that city made crimson by the blood of St. Peter and St. Paul and all the early Roman martyrs. In effect, she said to the Pope: “the Church must be herself.” Indeed, she actually said to him, “Do not make me complain of you to the one who was crucified!”
Her interventions have something to say to us. There appears to be no immediate danger that the pope will be geographically exiled or that bishops in our country will be expelled from their cathedrals and chanceries, yet there is growing danger of another sort of exile, an inner alienation, from the scriptural, doctrinal, liturgical, and moral basis for Catholic healthcare that is being imposed on us by an aggressively secular culture. The HHS mandate which would entangle Catholic healthcare and charities in the provision of so-called services contrary to Catholic teaching, epitomizes a larger struggle the Church is undergoing in our country to defend and preserve her liberty not merely to worship without fear but to engage in healthcare, service to the poor, and education in fidelity to all that she believes and teaches. It is a struggle many conscientious healthcare professionals face in workplaces which pressure them to participate in proscribed procedures.
There can be no doubt of the necessity and goodness of these ministries, especially the immense service the Church provides to the sick and the poor. Yet we cannot afford to let ourselves become alienated from their source, namely, the Gospel as it comes to us through the Church, and thus to become a provider of services indistinct from other providers because we have forgotten what it is at stake in the lives of the people we serve. If Catherine of Siena were advising the leaders of the Church, I don’t think she would tell us that we can go along with the latest version of the HHS mandate or that we can accommodate what is evil for the sake of good we want to do. Rather, she would urge us to stand firm. Indeed, we don’t want her complaining of us to the One who was crucified!
This evening, let us ask St. Catherine of Siena to pray with us and for us. Let us ask her to intervene with God the Father for the sake of those who carry forward the Dominican Friars Health Care Ministry. Let us ask her to help us develop in our minds and hearts something of her spirit of prayer combined with her love for the Church and her love for the poor, the sick, the needy, and the troubled. Let us ask for something of her courage and persistence as we engage in the struggle to worship and serve others in accord with our God-given freedoms. May God bless us and keep us always in His love.