Monday, April 29, 2013

At April's End, The Doctors Are In

As it has for some six centuries, this 29 April again marks the feast of one of the great saints of ecclesiastical renewal: Catherine of Siena (1347-80) – by turns as a nurse, mystic and Dominican tertiary... but a figure who remains most famous for her pen, with which she corresponded as adviser (and often scourge) of her day's hierarchs:

Even at a young age, Catherine sensed the troubled society around her and wanted to help. She dreamed of dressing up like a man to become a Dominican friar; more than once she ran into the street to kiss the ground where Dominicans walked.

Catherine's parents tried hard to discourage her from becoming religious, but eventually, when she was about sixteen-years-old, Catherine, with the help of the Holy Spirit, was permitted to enter the sisters of Penance of St Dominic, the Mantellate.

During her life as a religious, St. Catherine had numerous visions and long ecstasies, but she is most remembered for her writings...

Her bold letters, even today, have a way of shocking the reader into reality. The style of her letters was lean and direct. She sometimes broke with polite convention. For example, during the Great Western Schism, in defense of Pope Urban VI, she rebuked three Italian cardinals who were supporting the anti-pope, writing to them, "what made you do this? You are flowers who shed no perfume, but stench that makes the whole world reek."

These words are strong, and it is not recommended that we imitate them. St. Catherine had a unique call from God, which Pope Paul VI referred to as her "charism of exhortation." It was her great love and fidelity to the Pope and college of bishops that prompted her to respond to God's urgings that she be forthright with those who were against the Vicar of Christ.

Wanting Pope Gregory XI to leave his residency in Avignon and return to Rome, and knowing the Supreme Pontiff was afraid of being poisoned, Catherine wrote to him, "Be not a timorous child, but manly . . ." She spoke to him as a loving daughter would. In other parts of her letters to the Popes she used an affectionate pet name for them: Babbo, which means Daddy.

To Giovanna, the Queen of Naples, who supported the anti-pope and was accused of murdering her husband, St. Catherine wrote, "You know that you do ill, but like a sick and passionate woman, you let yourself be guided by your passions."

Catherine risked death by sending such words to the authorities of her time. But she was not afraid. "I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, not in myself" was one of her favorite prayers.
In 1970, Paul VI broke precedent by making Catherine the first woman given the ancient accolade of "Doctor of the Church," along with the Carmelite foundress Teresa of Avila. In 1997, John Paul II added the Little Flower Therese of Lisieux to the roster of the faith's greatest teachers... and last year, B16 made it four with the elevation of St Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century "Teutonic prophetess" and preacher Papa Ratzinger termed "a true master of theology."

Back to today's patroness, "What did she understand by renewal and reform of the church?" Papa Montini asked in conferring the title on Catherine. "Certainly not the subversion of its essential structures, rebellion against pastors, a way of liberty and personal charism, arbitrary innovations in worship and discipline-as some would wish in our day.

"To the contrary," Paul noted, "she repeatedly affirms [the desire] that the church retain the beauty of the Bride of Christ and that renewal could only come 'not with war, but peace and serenity, with humility and the ongoing prayer, sweat and tears of the servants of God.'"

Especially in these trigger-happy days, the role of women in the church ever on the front-pages, the lesson is particularly worth recalling.

* * *
St Catherine's Day follows the memorial of one of the most popular "modern saints" added to the roll of the canonized in the pontificate of John Paul II, one whose poignancy is only enhanced this time around.

For just the ninth time, yesterday marked the feast of St Gianna Beretta Molla, a Milanese pediatrician who died at 40 to save the life of her fourth child....
She diligently dedicated herself to studies during the years of her secondary and university education, while, at the same time, applying her faith through generous apostolic service among the youth of Catholic Action and charitable work among the elderly and needy as a member of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. After earning degrees in Medicine and Surgery from the University of Pavia in 1949, she opened a medical clinic in Mesero (near Magenta) in 1950. She specialized in Pediatrics at the University of Milan in 1952 and there after gave special attention to mothers, babies, the elderly and poor.

While working in the field of medicine-which she considered a “mission” and practiced as such-she increased her generous service to Catholic Action, especially among the “very young” and, at the same time, expressed her joie de vivre and love of creation through skiing and mountaineering. Through her prayers and those of others, she reflected upon her vocation, which she also considered a gift from God. Having chosen the vocation of marriage, she embraced it with complete enthusiasm and wholly dedicated herself “to forming a truly Christian family”.

She became engaged to Pietro Molla and was radiant with joy and happiness during the time of their engagement, for which she thanked and praised the Lord. They were married on September 24, 1955, in the Basilica of St. Martin in Magenta, and she became a happy wife. In November 1956, to her great joy, she became the mother of Pierluigi, in December 1957 of Mariolina; in July 1959 of Laura. With simplicity and balance she harmonized the demands of mother, wife, doctor and her passion for life.

In September 1961 towards the end of the second month of pregnancy, she was touched by suffering and the mystery of pain; she had developed a fibroma in her uterus. Before the required surgical operation, and conscious of the risk that her continued pregnancy brought, she pleaded with the surgeon to save the life of the child she was carrying, and entrusted herself to prayer and Providence. The life was saved, for which she thanked the Lord. She spent the seven months remaining until the birth of the child in incomparable strength of spirit and unrelenting dedication to her tasks as mother and doctor. She worried that the baby in her womb might be born in pain, and she asked God to prevent that.

A few days before the child was due, although trusting as always in Providence, she was ready to give her life in order to save that of her child: “If you must decided between me and the child, do not hesitate: choose the child - I insist on it. Save him”. On the morning of April 21, 1962, Gianna Emanuela was born. Despite all efforts and treatments to save both of them, on the morning of April 28, amid unspeakable pain and after repeated exclamations of “Jesus, I love you. Jesus, I love you», the mother died. She was 39 years old. Her funeral was an occasion of profound grief, faith and prayer. The Servant of God lies in the cemetery of Mesero (4 km from Magenta).

“Conscious immolation," was the phrase used by Pope Paul VI to define the act of Blessed Gianna, remembering her at the Sunday Angelus of September 23, 1973, as: “A young mother from the diocese of Milan, who, to give life to her daughter, sacrificed her own, with conscious immolation”. The Holy Father in these words clearly refers to Christ on Calvary and in the Eucharist.
While speculation has circulated over recent days that John Paul could be canonized as early as October, at Gianna's canonization in May 2004, the great saint-maker -- presiding over the last of his pontificate's 51 altar-raising ceremonies (which, between them, doubled the rolls of the formally-recognized heavenly host) -- said that the mom-doctor "was a simple, but more than ever, significant messenger of divine love.
In a letter to her future husband a few days before their marriage, she wrote: "Love is the most beautiful sentiment the Lord has put into the soul of men and women".

Following the example of Christ, who "having loved his own... loved them to the end" (Jn 13: 1), this holy mother of a family remained heroically faithful to the commitment she made on the day of her marriage. The extreme sacrifice she sealed with her life testifies that only those who have the courage to give of themselves totally to God and to others are able to fulfil themselves.
Having never remarried and raised their four kids alone, the saint's husband, Pietro, died at 97 in 2010.

While Gianna enjoys considerable popularity in the trenches on this side of the Pond, her feast hasn't made it to the local calendars in North America... at least, not yet.