by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
This past year, during which we observed the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Jerome K. Williams of the Augustine Institute authored a book entitled “True Reformers — Saints of the Catholic Reformation.” The book features 10 saints who helped to renew the church during a very difficult and tumultuous time.
Not surprisingly, the author recounts the contributions of St. Ignatius Loyola — the founder of the Jesuits; St. Charles Borromeo — a reforming bishop who was the architect of the Council of Trent; St. Pius V — who with courage and humility implemented the reforms of the council; St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross — who renewed the Carmelite Order which became the catalyst for the essential spiritual reform of the entire church; and St. Thomas More — who suffered imprisonment and eventually execution rather than perjure himself by taking an oath proclaiming Henry VIII to be the head of the Church in England.
I was surprised, however, that St. Catherine of Genoa was featured first among these great reforming saints. Of the 10, St. Catherine was the one with whom I was the least familiar.
Catherine was the youngest of five children from a very influential family in Genoa. She was a pious child who was attracted to religious life. Acquiescing to the wishes of her parents, Catherine was married at 16 to Giuliano Adorno, who came from another prominent Genoese family.
In the early years of their marriage, Giuliano is described as “disorderly, occasionally violent, financially irresponsible and sexually promiscuous.” Ten years into what was a very unhappy marriage, while receiving the sacrament of penance, Catherine had a profound spiritual experience of God’s love and mercy.
For several years after this experience, Catherine spent six hours a day in prayer and lived a very ascetical life. She developed a deep sorrow for sin, coupled with an ardent desire to unite herself to the suffering of Jesus for the salvation of others.
Catherine regularly sought out the sick and those in need of help. Initially, Catherine devoted herself to caring for the sick in their homes. She washed their clothes, cleaned their homes and brought the joy of the Gospel to those who previously were on the brink of despair.
Eventually, Catherine began to spend most of her time caring for the sick in the largest hospital in Genoa. Hospitals, then, were very different from the health care centers of today. There was minimal medical staff.
Essentially, the hospitalized were cared for by their families. Catherine directed her energies and attention to those patients who had no one to care for them.
Eventually, Catherine was given the responsibility for the administration of the hospital. During a serious epidemic when most of the healthy fled Genoa in fear, Catherine remained cheerfully caring for those who had been abandoned by their families.
Both miraculous healings and religious conversions were attributed to her indomitable faith and persevering love. Catherine’s husband, because of her example, eventually underwent a profound conversion and spent his last years assisting her with the care of sick.
Catherine developed a profound love for the Eucharist and was a daily communicant. She asked God not to give her visions or any special consolations in her prayer. Nevertheless, Catherine spent hours in contemplation, overcome by the sweetness of God’s love and oblivious to the world around her.
Catherine died in 1510 at the age of 63. She was not widely known during her lifetime, except by those who received her tender care. She neither founded nor reformed a religious order. She was not influential with either secular or religious leaders during her lifetime. In many ways, she seems completely out of place in comparison to the other Catholic reformers.
However, during her lifetime, a small group of laity came under her spiritual influence. They attempted to imitate her prayer life and her humble care for the sick and the poor.
One of these spiritual disciples founded what he named the Oratory of Divine Love. The members of the oratory adopted a rule of prayer that was designed for busy laypeople. In addition to their fidelity to prayer, they attempted to imitate Catherine’s humility by not drawing attention to themselves or their work.
In short time, additional Oratories of Divine Love were founded in Rome and other Italian cities. Popes, cardinals and religious orders were profoundly influenced by the beauty of the faith of the members of these oratories.
The oratories impacted some of the great saints of the time: Ignatius Loyola, Angela Merici, Philip Neri, Charles Borromeo, Robert Bellarmine, Gaetano of Thiene, St. Jerome Emiliani, St. Anthony Zaccaria and St. Francis de Sales.
Jerome Williams sums up St. Catherine of Genoa’s impact in this way: “If we take hold of many of the important church reformers of the 16th century and trace back the lines of influence and the spiritual principles that animated them, we will find that a strong current of the century’s reforming energy sprang from the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of this hidden laywoman, whose gift to the church was that she loved Christ and gave herself to his will, heroically in hiddenness, with rare depth and abandonment.
“We confront an important lesson about reform in the life of Catherine of Genoa. In the counsels of God, it seems that the fortunes of the church are often changed by individuals who respond to his call with love and obedience in hidden and seemingly insignificant ways.”
We can learn a great deal from St. Catherine of Genoa as we seek to renew the church in our time.
God was able to accomplish something truly beautiful and remarkable through an unassuming woman in a very difficult marriage, who allowed her heart to be pierced by the amazing love of Jesus and surrendered herself to his will.
There is no limit to what God can do through us if we entrust ourselves to his divine will.