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Spiritual Maternity in Saint Catherine of Siena

‘Finish Your Life on the Cross’: Spiritual Motherhood in Saint Catherine of Siena’s Letters to Priests” by Sister Gabriella Yi, O.P was published in L’Osservatore Romano (August 12th-19th English edition). The author, Sister Gabriella Yi, O.P., is a member of the Congregation of St. Cecilia in Nashville, TN (also known as the Nashville Dominicans). A few times in the past I have posted some items on spiritual maternity and its necessity in the Church today, especially in the life of the priest.

At the foot of the cross, in the heart of the redemption, Our Lord Jesus Christ instituted a “new motherhood of Mary,” as he entrusted his mother to his beloved disciple and his beloved disciple to his mother. From this entrustment flows Our Lady’s spiritual motherhood of each member of Christ’s body, the Church, and especially her motherhood of his priests. Her maternal care for each priest was brought to our attention in a particular way by the Congregation for the Clergy’s teaching that, in union with Mary, all women are invited to live out their vocation to spiritual motherhood by offering their prayers and sacrifices for the salvation of souls and the holiness of Christ’s priests.

In his 1988 apostolic letter, Mulieris Dignitatem, Pope John Paul II speaks of motherhood and virginity as two important and related dimensions of a woman’s vocation. He describes how the vocation to motherhood is inscribed in the very being of a woman: she is not only physically but also psychologically endowed with the capacity to create a space within herself for another human being. John Paul speaks of this as a special “entrustment” that God has made to woman; she has the beautiful privilege of bringing forth new life into the world by the generous use of her feminine gifts.

Even those called to a life of consecrated virginity are not excluded from this vocation to motherhood. For them, John Paul says, there is the possibility of “a different kind of motherhood: a motherhood ‘according to the Spirit’. “In the life of consecrated women, this motherhood “can express itself as concern for people, especially the most needy….” John Paul is careful to point out that this concern for others on the part of consecrated women is motivated by spousal love for Christ. Just as natural motherhood is the fruit of the spousal love in marriage between husband and wife, spiritual motherhood is the fruit of the spousal love in religious life between the consecrated virgin and Christ.

What may come as a surprise to some is John Paul’s insistence that spiritual motherhood is not limited to unmarried women: “And does not physical motherhood also have to be a spiritual motherhood, in order to respond to the whole truth about the human being who is a unity of body and spirit?” John Paul II evidently sees it as an important dimension of every woman’s vocation.

The doctor of the Church who most clearly articulates this vocation to spiritual motherhood is the 14th century Dominican tertiary Saint Catherine of Siena, who is perhaps best known for the prayers, sacrifices, and counsel she offered Pope Gregory XI in his decision to return the papacy from Avignon to Rome. In looking to her as a model of spiritual motherhood for priests, we discover that Catherine teaches not only by the example of her prayers and sacrifices, but also by the counsel she offers in her letters: “See that in everything you turn to Mary as you embrace the cross,” “Make your home in the pulpit of the cross,” and “Finish your life on the cross,” encouraging her spiritual sons to identify themselves ever more closely with Christ the High Priest. Catherine’s spiritual motherhood, as seen in these letters, offers us a rich source of inspiration as we enter into this “Year for Priests.”

Catherine’s letters to priests often include words of encouragement in times of difficulty, as she writes to Blessed Raymond of Capua, referring to herself in the third person: “I’ve heard from a servant of God who constantly holds you before God in prayer, that you have been experiencing tremendous struggles and that your spirit has been overtaken by darkness because of the devil’s illusions and deceits.” With this image of holding a soul before God in prayer, as a mother holding her child out so that its Father might take it up into his arms, Catherine reveals the maternal quality of her prayer. With a mother’s intuition illumined by the Holy Spirit, she perceives the spiritual darkness he has fallen into and explains the enemy’s tactics: “He wants to make you see the crooked as straight and the straight as crooked, and he does this to make you stumble along the way so you won’t reach your goal.” In the face of such diabolical attempts to impede his priestly ministry, Catherine assures Raymond, “But take heart. God has provided and will continue to provide for you, and his providence will not fail you.” A priest’s confidence is to be placed, not in himself, where it is sure to fail, but in God’s providential care for him, especially in the form of his mother. As Our Lady’s maternal love for her son embraced him from the moment of his Incarnation to his death on the cross, so, too, does her maternal love embrace his priests in her constant intercession for them. Thus, they can entrust their priestly hearts wholly to hers, especially in times of discouragement, as Catherine advises, “See that in everything you turn to Mary as you embrace the cross.”

But it is not enough to embrace the cross-it must be mounted, as Catherine explains in her letter to Frate Bartolomeo Dominici: “After the fire of the Holy Spirit had descended on [the disciples], they mounted the pulpit of the blazing cross, where they felt and tasted the hunger of God’s Son, his love for humankind.” With this striking image, Catherine expresses the complete identification of Christ and his priests on the cross, blazing with the fire of divine charity, where they feel what he felt and taste what he tasted in his all-consuming love for us. Only from such a pulpit of divine charity do the words of priests wield supernatural power: “Then their words came forth as does a red-hot knife from a furnace, and with its heat they pierced their listeners to the heart and cast out the devils.” Indeed, many of Catherine’s own listeners were pierced to the heart, not only by her words, but also by those of the priests to whom she sent them in the pulpit of the confessional. Whether he is casting out devils in the confessional or at the altar, the pulpit of the cross is where the priest of Christ belongs, as Catherine implores, “So, my dearest son, I beg you-it is my will in Christ Jesus-make your home in the pulpit of the cross.”

From this pulpit, a priest of Jesus Christ engages in a battle for souls, beginning with his own, which is why in her letter to Frate Ranieri Catherine urges, “I long to see you a real knight, fighting against every vice and temptation for Christ crucified with a true holy perseverance.” With such chivalric imagery, she appeals to his masculine instincts for battle and adventure, as she continues, “For it is perseverance that is crowned. You know that victory is achieved by fighting and perseverance. In this life we are set as on a battlefield and we must fight courageously, not dodging the blows or retreating, but keeping our eyes on our captain, Christ crucified, who always persevered.” Just as no soldier goes into battle at his own initiative, but solely at that of his captain, so too must a priest take his commands from Christ, who:

. . . didn’t give up when the Jews said, ‘Come down from the cross!’ Nor did the devil or our ingratitude make him give up fulfilling the Father’s command and our salvation. No, he persevered right up to the end, when he returned to the eternal Father with the victory he had achieved, the victory of having rescued humankind from darkness and given us the light of grace once again by conquering the devil and the world with all its pleasures. And it killed him: this Lamb took death for himself in order to give us life; by his dying he destroyed our death.

Finally, as no soldier dies for an abstraction he holds, but for a beauty he loves, so too must Christ’s priests live and die for love of the beauty of his bride, the Church. Hence, Catherine concludes her letter to this priest simply with, “Finish your life on the cross.”

In these letters to Blessed Raymond of Capua and other priests, the voice of Saint Catherine of Siena as a spiritual mother is unmistakable. The authority with which she speaks is that of one whose spousal love for Christ united her so closely to him that his desire for the salvation of souls and the holiness of his priests has become her very own. As Catherine joins “that gentle mother Mary” in interceding for Christ’s priests, she invites us to do the same. In light of the Congregation for the Clergy’s document calling for spiritual mothers for priests and Pope Benedict XVI’s dedication of the current year as a “Year for Priests,” a rediscovery of this spiritual mother’s letters to priests could not be more timely.

Unity among ourselves only lasts because of the Eucharist

Be united with one another, and God will bless
you.  But let it be by the charity of Jesus Christ, for any union which is
not sealed by the blood of Our Savior cannot perdure.  It is therefore in
Jesus Christ, by Jesus Christ, and for Jesus Christ that you ought to be united
with one another.  The Spirit of Jesus Christ is a spirit of union and of
peace.  How can you attract people to Christ if you are not united with
one another and with him?

Saint Vincent de Paul

Weak but love by You, O God

We are weak, O God, and capable of giving in at the
first assault. By your pure loving kindness you have called us; may your
infinite goodness, please, now help us persevere.  For our part, with your
holy grace, we will try with all our strength to summon up all the service and
all the faithfulness that you ask of us. So give us, O God, give us the
grace to persevere until death. This is what I ask of you through the
merits of Our Lord Jesus Christ with confidence that you will remember me.

Vincent de Paul

The reason for prayer

Prayer is an exercise of love and it would be incorrect to think that if there is no time for solitude, there is no prayer at all. For the very reason that prayer is based especially on love and springs from it, it is possible to prolong it beyond the time devoted exclusively to it.

Though it is not possible to be always thinking of God, partly because our mind gets tired, or because our many occupations demand full attention, still it is always possible for the heart to love and to desire God, and this can, and must, exist even in the performance of duties which absorb our intellect; in fact, such an orientation can be intensified by the desire to accomplish every action for the love of God, to please him, and give him glory.

“The reason for prayer” according to St. Thomas Aquinas, “is a desire moved by charity. . . And this desire with us must be continuous, either in act, or at least potentially. . . We can say that one prays continuously by reason of the continuity of his desire”.

Divine Intimacy
Father Gabriel of Saint Mary Magdalen, OCD

Knowing & praying God’s name is blessed in us

In the opening collect for today’s Mass, the priest asked God the Father: “Increase Your Spirit within us and bring us to our promised inheritance.” Here the promised inheritance is none other than communion with the Trinity. It is heaven! Our promised inheritance is the pledge of future glory: Christ received in the Bread of Life. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!

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How much time in the past year have you given thought about your “promised inheritance”? When was the last time you considered your own worthiness to receive the divine gift of the promised inheritance? What criteria exists for someone to receive such a gift? With sin in the world and in our own lives, experience tells me that we want the gift but we don’t really know what it is, why we are receiving a promised inheritance from God and too often we don’t see how sin would prevent us from heaven. BUT do we have sin on our souls? If we didn’t we’d be dead or merely presumptuous.

At last I knew, my conscience, my self-awareness, my religious sense, my own experience of who I am as a person says, I am a sinner. Sin is the falling away from God; it is a radical break in my relationship with God. More precisely, “Sin is an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. it has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law'” (CCC 1849). I fall from grace by word and action, by thought and disordered affections. Don’t you? The psalmist says that man and woman speak with a divided heart, a forked-tongue. Do you confess the truth of Jesus Christ all the time?

Does a divided heart make me a hypocrite? By definition, NO. But it doesn’t if I don’t pretend –at least I don’t think I do– to be anything more than what I am: a loved sinner. A man who sins, falls away from God and yet is loved unconditionally by God, redeemed by Christ. It is Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross and his promise of salvation through Him as the Bread of Life that I am able to be justified. In a word, awareness of one’s sin indicates that you can’t fall off the floor. Were this the awareness of all Catholics who make the claim to know Jesus and receive Him in the Eucharist today!

So, why talk about sin on a Sunday in which we pray that God would bring us to our promised inheritance? For starters in our to accept this wonderful promise we have to be worthy of the gift. Stepping into heaven, being a part of God’s inner, transcendent life we have to be as pure, as holy as we can possibly be give our freedom to say “yes” to God and to cooperate with grace. Accepting the promised gift means that we have to deal truthfully with reality as it is presented to us. And we know from experience, reality has never failed us but we may have failed reality. The Bread of Life offered by Jesus in today’s gospel is not make believe, it is not what we want it to be, it is Himself: body and blood, soul and divinity. The Bread of Life is His real, authentic self. In order to have Christ present in our life and for our prayer to be as effective as possible, we have to consider the frequent prayer, may Your name be held holy.

Saint Cyprian of Carthage says so clearly:

We pray, ‘Hallowed be Thy name,’ not that we wish that
God may be made holy
by our prayers but that His name may be hallowed in us…It
is because He commands us, ‘Be holy, even as I am holy,’ that we ask and
entreat that we who were sanctified in baptism may continue in that which we
have begun to be
. And this we pray for daily, for we have need of daily
, that we who daily fall away may wash our sins by continual

We have work to do.

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT, follows the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, and is an Oblate of Saint Benedict, works as a monastery farmer and a keeper of honey bees. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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