For some decades now the age-old habit of writing letters has been disappearing. Since ancient times, written on papyrus or parchment and even on clay or stone tablets, these means of communication have always reflected the customs, education and mentality of the peoples. The millennia-old stone stelae, tablets on which messages were written in ancient Egypt, would raise no small number of practical concerns today… How thick would each sheet be? Where to store them? How to collect them? And the postman? Would he take only one at a time? Would there be a special vehicle to carry his mail?
Never would these dedicated messengers imagine that one day their honourable task would be replaced by efficient but humdrum fibre optic cables or satellite signals. Is it not true that human life, in this 21st century, is losing its charm? Where are the monogrammed stationery, the seals, the satiny and scented paper or that of a more serious style, with barely visible lines, in which beautiful handwriting would register the vicissitudes of life, the longing for an absent person, business to be accomplished, the news that fills our existence with joy – or sadness? They are gone. The typhoon of cybernetics has swept them away. And with them, how much of the history of these dreary days of ours is vanishing.
This explains the special attraction that epistolary literature holds for us, especially when its content reveals the holiness of the writer and his specific mission on this earth, and something of the people with whom he corresponded in order to fulfil it for the greater glory of God, while at the same time calling upon others to represent their vital part in the great mosaic of the history of souls.
Such is the case with the letters of St. Catherine of Siena. This singular lady, the twenty-fourth of the twenty-five children of James di Benincasa and Lapa dei Piagenti, was born in 1347, in the city of Siena, Italy, her eponym. Her mystical life began at the age of six, with a vision of Our Lord Jesus Christ flanked by the Apostles Peter, Paul and John. At the age of seven, she secretly made a vow of virginity, which she later upheld when her parents wanted her to marry. On this occasion, faced with her family’s insistence in presenting her with suitors despite her evasions, Catherine cut off her long hair and took the veil of consecrated life. As punishment, her mother left her with all the household chores, which the Saint saw as yet another opportunity to practise the ascetic life she had chosen. To this end, she regarded her father as Our Lord Jesus Christ and her mother as Our Lady.
In the end, her father received a miraculous sign and gave his daughter permission to lead the life of penance she desired. Later – around the age of fifteen or sixteen – she joined the Third Order of St. Dominic, or the Militia of Jesus Christ, as its founder called it. The mantellate, so called because they wore a black cloak over white robes, was made up of widows or laywomen like herself, who lived in their own homes and dedicated themselves to works of charity.
During this period, Catherine’s time was divided between austere physical and spiritual sacrifices and great mystical graces, among them the espousal with Our Lord Jesus Christ: “I, your Creator and Saviour, betroth you to Me in faith. You shall keep this faith spotless until you celebrate the eternal wedding feast with Me in Heaven.”1 As a pledge of this promise, she also received the grace of being physically sustained by only the Eucharist for a certain period. In addition, she underwent a “mystical death”, from which she returned to life to carry out a new mission for the salvation of mankind.
For some years St. Catherine had been attending the Confraternity of the Disciples of the Virgin Mary, made up of devotees who gathered at the Santa Maria della Scalla Hospital, where she was serving the sick. The Confraternity was open to all who wished to take part, and everyone had a voice.
Before long, Catherine’s charisms were revealed in these meetings, making her something of a spiritual director of the confreres. Her reputation for holiness gradually grew and she came to be held as an authority by some of the participants, who, moved by grace, became her disciples. This lofty and entirely spiritual friendship was clothed in such a degree of charity that they came to call her mamma, although she was only twenty-four years old at the time.
After her “mystical resurrection”, Catherine, on fire with divine love, undertook the new task received from Our Lord, through an abundant and fruitful epistolary activity. Her letters – more than three hundred and eighty have come down to us! – revolve around three themes: the return of the Papacy to Rome; the encouragement of a crusade for the recovery of the Holy Sites; and finally, a necessary reform of the Church.
It thrills one to see the prophetic role of this woman, whose views and concerns were fixed on a panorama so much higher than that common to people of her sex at the time. She loved the Church so passionately that she was not afraid to address princes, governors and clerics of every rank, including Cardinals and Popes. At the end of her life she would say: “I gave my life for the Holy Church, and this, I believe, I did by an exceptional grace that the Lord granted me.”2
To two Popes, an abbot and two clerics…
When beginning a missive, the Saint always presents her credentials and declares the objective she has in mind, as in this one she addresses to Pope Gregory XI, then in exile: “In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and of the amiable Virgin Mary, most reverend and dear father, to you, in the Precious Blood of Christ, writes your unworthy, wretched and miserable daughter Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, desirous of seeing you as a fruitful tree, laden with sweet and flavourful fruit, and planted in fertile soil, that is, in the soil of self-knowledge, without which it would be fruitless.”3
The messages in her letters are almost always extremely severe and reveal thoughtful and thorough prior reflection. When appropriate, her arguments are full of compassion, but they never hide the countenance of sound doctrine. Using it as a sharp spear with which to put anyone who reads it against the wall, she offers, at the same time, her affection and respect to the recipient, should he heed her advice.
“In the egoist who loves himself lives perverse pride, the principle and source of all evil in any situation [in which] he finds himself, whether prelate or subject. Such a person acts like the woman who gives birth to dead children. Precisely so, because, not possessing the life that comes from charity, he seeks only his own praise, not God’s.”4 She continues in the same missive to Gregory XI, reproaching the pastor or doctor who, when confronted with the error of his flock, simply uses ointment, because in this way he does not commit himself, does not make the sick suffer and is not inconvenienced. And she warns: “Such people would even like to do something, but in peace. In fact, if a wound needs to be burned with fire and cut with a knife, but only ointment is used on it, the wound not only fails to heal, but becomes entirely putrid and the person often dies.”5
This reproach directed to a Pope could well sum up the Sienese Saint’s vocation of prophetic denunciation. “My venerable father, by the goodness of God I hope that you will extinguish this evil in yourself; that you will not love your person, your neighbour and God for your own sake, but for the sake of God, who is the Supreme and Eternal Goodness, and worthy of being loved. […] My father, sweet Christ on earth, imitate the good Gregory (the Great), for it is possible for you, as it was for him.”6
St. Catherine expresses herself with complete assurance, as if imposing her will, in such a way as to evince that the words flowing from her pen are of the Holy Spirit: “This is what I want to see in you. If perhaps up until now you have not been firm enough, I want and ask you to make use of the remaining time with fortitude, as a determined man, in imitation of Christ, of whom you are the representative […]. Go ahead. Carry out with a diligent and holy commitment the project you have begun, that of the Holy Crusade. […] Lift up the standard of the Holy Cross, for in its fragrance you will find peace.”7
In a letter to Guerard de Puy, Abbot of Marmoutier, written on the eve of the Great Schism of the West – from 1377 to 1417 – we read: “Woe, woe! It is for lack of correction that the members of the Church rot. Christ looks especially at the depraved vices of impurity, avarice and pride, which reign in the Bride of Christ. I speak of the prelates, who are concerned only with pleasure, social status and wealth. These prelates are aware that the demons are snatching the souls of their subjects, but are not concerned about this. They have become wolves and merchants of grace. A strong justice would be needed to correct them. Excessive leniency is an enormous cruelty. It is necessary to correct with justice and mercy.”8
No less strong is her language when addressing Urban VI: “If I say things that seem exaggerated and show presumption, may sorrow and love forgive me before God and Your Holiness! Wherever I turn, I cannot find a place to rest my head. […] But especially in our city. God’s temple, which is a place of prayer, has been used as a den of thieves. It is astonishing that the earth has not swallowed them up. All this was due to the fault of the pastors, who did not correct the vices by word and example of life.”9
In an opening of her soul, she tells the same Pope of a mystical ecstasy she had experienced: “The tongue does not suffice to narrate such mysteries, nor what intellect saw and affection conceived. […] I paid heed only to what should be done, that I should make a sacrifice of myself to God for Holy Church and for the sake of removing ignorance and negligence from those whom God had put into my hands. […] [The demons] beat upon the shell of the body; but desire became the more kindled, crying, ‘O Eternal God, receive the sacrifice of my life in this mystical body of Holy Church! I have naught to give save what Thou hast given to me. Take then my heart, and may Thy Bride lean her face upon it!’”10
To two clerics who had quarrelled, Catherine asks them to reconcile in these terms: “Be yourselves the intermediaries between yourselves and God, between sensuality and reason, expelling hatred (for your neighbour) with hatred (for yourself) and love (for yourself) with love (for your neighbour). […] Hate hatred of your neighbour. […] On this earth, man can savour eternal life, living with God in a dialogue of love. Is it not perchance great blindness to be worthy of hell, living with the devils in hatred and resentment? It seems that such persons do not even want to wait for the sentence of the Supreme Judge to go to the company of the devils. They themselves have already pronounced the sentence. Before the soul leaves the body, during this life, they run like the wind towards eternal damnation. They go carefree, like delirious madmen…”11
The ending of the letters
“My, daughter, beware of the praises of men. Never seek to be praised for any good deed you do. The door to eternity would not be opened to you. And because I consider that road (of consecrated life) excellent, I said before that I wished to see you a faithful spouse of Christ crucified. I ask and beg you to strive to be so. I add nothing more. Remain in the holy and sweet love of God. Sweet Jesus, loving Jesus.”12
To her niece Nanna, St. Catherine addresses the above words, full of affection, closing a beautiful commentary on the parable of the ten virgins from St. Matthew’s Gospel. Many years after her death, the Church chose for the entrance antiphon of the Mass in her memorial these very words: “Here is a wise virgin, from among the number of the prudent, who went forth with lighted lamp to meet Christ,”13 perhaps referring to the inspired letter she sent to Nanna.
The endings of the letters of this great mystic are always the same: “Remain in the holy and sweet love of God. Sweet Jesus, loving Jesus!”
On reading the exceptional epistolary correspondence of St. Catherine of Siena, we wonder whether this privileged soul might not have been imprudent. And then we recall the qualification of the virtue of prudence given by Dr. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira:
“[Prudence] contains four aspects. The first is extrinsic to it, but is its raison d’être: well-defined goals. The other three component elements are, first of all, the meticulous, minute and attentive observation of reality, in its least aspects, in order to then study the tactics to be adopted; the second is great caution – which does not mean fear, but savvy and, at times, ingenuity – and the third is deftness. I understood that prudence was the path to every victory, for it is the adornment of courage, just as courage is the embellishment of prudence. Boldness sings while prudence whispers! […]
“It pronounces words of friendship and caution, which fly like arrows. The gaze of prudence traverses space and makes an inventory of dangers and enemies. […] How can we discover the points at which conscience allows us to retreat and those at which prudence allows us to advance? ‘Advance, retreat and contemporise! Enter the scene when you should, leave the scene when necessary! Measure your words well, so that each of them may be a sure footbridge over which the bold are to pass, guided by the Angel of prudence!’ Woe betide prudence without daring! It is frustration. Woe betide daring without prudence! It is catastrophe. Daring tempered with prudence and prudence tempered with daring make the perfect ensemble, whose ultimate laurel is victory.”14
In the contemplation of St. Catherine’s letters, which are as bold as they are prudent, is it not true that the preceding comments fit like a glove?
And we close this reflection by asking ourselves: what would this great Saint write to the eminent ecclesiastical and civil figures of our times, but also to each of you who are reading this article?
It is not difficult to imagine! ◊
1 BLESSED RAYMOND OF CAPUA. Santa Caterina da Siena. Legenda maior. 5.ed. Siena: Cantagalli, 2005, p.116-117.
2 Idem, p.319.
3 ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA. Carta 185, n.1. All the literal quotations taken from the letters transcribed in this article are from the work: Cartas completas. São Paulo: Paulus, 2016.
4 Idem, n.2.
5 Idem, ibidem.
6 Idem, n.4.
7 Idem, n.6.
8 ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA. Carta 109, n.5.
9 ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA. Carta 305, n.5; 7.
10 ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA. Carta 371, n.8.
11 ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA. Carta 3, n.2; 4.
12 ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA. Carta 23, n.5.
13 MEMORIAL OF ST. CATHERINE OF SIENA. Entrance antiphon. In: THE ROMAN MISSAL. English translation according to the Third Typical Edition approved by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and confirmed by the Apostolic See. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 2011, p.852.
14 CORRÊA DE OLIVEIRA, Plinio. Notas Autobiográficas. São Paulo: Retornarei, 2012, v.III, p.90-91.