Sunday, December 22, 2013

St Catherine of Genoa and Advent

In Advent the Church gives us saints and prophets to point the way to Jesus: Isaiah, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, Joseph, and of course Mary, the Mother of God. But for me, this Advent St Catherine of Genoa popped up. I started to wonder, "What does she have to do with Advent?"

It goes back to her profound conversion experience. God let her see her sins for what they really are--and she recoiled in horror. But at the same time he completely overpowered her with the most intense realization of his love for her. She could only keep repeating, "Oh Love! No more sin, no more sin!" She saw sin as the evil it is because it drives us away from God, who is Pure Love.

And really, isn't this experience what Advent is all about? God comes to us--as a baby. Babies normally evoke love. Jesus came to love us, not just with an ordinary love, but with the amazing and infinite love of God. In light of that, standing before the Christmas creche, can't we only throw ourselves into the arms of God, receive his love, and leave sin behind?

St Leo the Great put it like this: "Today our Savior is born; let us rejoice.... No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no one free from sin, came to free us all. Let the saint rejoice as he sees the palm of victory at hand. Let the sinner be glad as he receives the offer of forgiveness.. . .
"Christian, remember your dignity! Now that you share in God's own nature, do not return by sin to your former base condition... Through the sacrament of baptism you have become a temple of the Holy Spirit. Do not drive away so great a guest by evil conduct and become again a slave to the devil, for your liberty was bought by the blood of Christ."
(Sermon 1 for the Nativity of the Lord)

Friday, December 20, 2013

Catherine of Genoa is an intriguing saint

I've been intrigued by what I've been reading about St Catherine of Genoa. She was quite an interesting saint. From a wealthy Italian family, she was married at the age of 16 to Giuliano Adorno. He was an unfaithful wastrel who gambled away the family fortune.

For ten years she suffered in this miserable marriage. For relief Catherine turned to worldly pursuits, but these left her depressed and unhappy. In March 1473 she had the conversion experience I described in my previous post. 

Her profound interior life led her to the heights of mysticism. All the while, she was the director of the large Pammatone Hospital in Genoa, where her husband, who had also converted, joined her. Together they cared for the poor and the sick. Her teachings on the spiritual life were collected by her followers and published after her death (in 1510).

Catherine is best known for her teachings on purgatory, which she sees not as an exterior fire but an inner one. The soul’s ardent love for God burns like a fire, until all the remnants of sin are removed. She reminds us, who live in an age that takes sin lightly, of the pressing need to repent of our sins and do penance for them.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

St Catherine of Genoa and the Illumination of Conscience

Recently I read the account of St. Catherine of Genoa's conversion experience.
Up to then she was not a great sinner, but an ordinary Catholic probably like a lot of us.
One day she went to confession and suddenly she was struck by a tremendous awareness of two things: her own sinfulness, and God's overpowering love for her. She was so greatly shaken that she couldn't continue the confession and excused herself.

It took her a few days to get over what she felt from this experience. On the one hand, she had an incredible awareness of her sins. She could only say after this, "No more world, no more sin!" She saw her interior state with a special divine light, a light that God gave her. As a poor comparison, think of a room you normally go in that seems clean. Then a ray of light comes in and you can see the dust floating around in the air and the streaks on the windows, things you didn't notice before.

On the other hand, she had an absolutely overpowering experience of God's love. I think it would not be possible for us to truly grasp our sins unless God also gives us that experience of his love. Only when we know that God loves us totally can we face our own reality. Catherine said, "Oh Love! no more sin, no more sin!"

After a few days she went back to confession. We can imagine that this confession was completely different from any other one she had made until then. It marked the turning point of her life.

Her experience could be called an illumination of conscience. It's a special grace God sometimes gives to those he especially wants to call to conversion. St. Paul also experienced something like that on his way to Damascus. It shook him up too and he also spent three days recovering from it. But the root of this illumination is always love. We can't bear the sight of our sins unless God's love sustains us.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Daily routines of the saints: Thomas Aquinas

I've been working on a project related to St. Thomas and one thing that amazes me about him is his tremendous productivity. He died when he was only 49, and allowing him time to grow up, he crammed into 30 years what most of us couldn't do in 100.

The Summa Theologiae is huge but it's only one of his works. Besides that, he wrote the Summa Contra Gentiles, the Compendium of Theology, many commentaries on Aristotle, on books of Scripture, besides many other smaller works (treatises, letters, liturgical work, etc.) That's only his writing. He also taught full time courses at the university of Paris and in Naples, he instructed the young Dominicans, attended the Dominicans general chapters, preached, consulted with people, etc. So how did he do it?

He didn't waste a minute. His biographers tell us this was his daily schedule:

1. He celebrated Mass early in the morning.
2. He stayed in chapel to attend a second Mass celebrated by another priest.
3. Then he went to teach.
4. After that, he began to write and would dictate to his secretaries, sometimes to three or even four at the same time. (Though it sounds incredible to us, it is well verified historically that Thomas had the ability to dictate on several topics at once. His mind was amazing.)
5. Only then did he go to eat.
6. Then he went back to his room where he "attended to divine things until rest time. After rest, he began again to write, and it was thus that he ordered his whole life to God." (From Bartholomew of Capua's life of St. Thomas, quoted on p. 244 of Saint Thomas Aquinas, vol. 1, The Person and His Work by Jean-Pierre Torrell, OP).

What a schedule! While he may have varied it from time to time, what's certain is that he always worked hard. I'd just like to note a few things.

1. He gave prayer pride of place. He started his day with prayer and no doubt prayer was woven throughout his day as well.

2. He was focused on his goals. As a Dominican friar, his goal first of all was to serve and glorify God. Then his goal was to contemplate so that he could share with others the fruit of his contemplation. As a religious, he lived out the charism of his founder, Saint Dominic.

3. No doubt he also followed the schedule of the friary he lived in, when times of common prayer were called for, community meetings, etc. He knew what he was about. He seems like a man in a hurry. In fact, his handwriting bears that out. It looks like scribbling, (the littera inintelligibilis) done by a man who was in a hurry to finish his earthly work so that he could meet his God.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Saint John of Damascus

Feast day: December 4

Saint John of Damascus (c. 645-c. 749)

Born in Syria to Christian parents, John was an outstanding theologian who wrote many important works. He received a good education, became a monk, and was ordained a priest. When a major controversy broke out over the veneration of sacred images, John wrote in vigorous defense of them against the iconoclasts. The emperor, Leo III, was a principal opponent of sacred images. In other areas of theology, John carefully studied previous Church writers and gathered a treasury of their teachings. He is also an important writer in the field of Marian theology.  His sermons on the Assumption of Mary testify to the development of this doctrine. Besides all this, his masterful work An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith became an important source for later writers. The great medieval theologians, including Thomas Aquinas, often relied on it in developing their own teachings.
John was not only a theologian but a poet who wrote many beautiful hymns. After a very fruitful life of teaching and pastoral work, John died in his monastery, Mar Saba, near Jerusalem. He was popularly acknowledged as a saint. In 1883 Pope Leo XIII declared him a Doctor of the Church.


By his hymns and his eloquent defense of icons, Saint John testifies to the role of beauty in our faith and worship. Christian art and music not only enrich our understanding and practice of our faith, but they also enrich our culture. What are some ways I can incorporate more beauty in my life?


Saint John of Damascus, intercede for us that we may always cherish the gift of faith. Help us to know how to express our faith in works of art and beauty.

© 2013 Daughters of Saint Paul

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

The difference between "credere in Deum" and "credere Deum"

In The Joy of the Gospel, Pope Francis mentions a distinction between two types of faith. In no. 124 he talks about popular piety:

"Nor is it [popular piety] devoid of content; rather it discovers and expresses that content more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning, and in the act of faith greater accent is placed on credere in Deum than on credere Deum." 

What is the difference between them? A note here references St. Thomas on faith.

Briefly, "credere in Deum" is a living faith (what Thomas would call a formed faith). It's a faith  that works through love, a faith that is not a dead letter for the person who has it, but one that urges them ever closer to God. It means to believe in God not just in an abstract intellectual way, but with love, with our whole will.

"Credere Deum" instead refers to the content of faith. It's the "what" we believe. That's very important too, and we need to know the content of our faith. But it needs to be completed by the "credere in Deum" that moves us to love God and show our faith in the way we live.

For example, Catholics who believe in what the Church teaches about the Mass and the sacraments, but never go to Mass, have credere Deum but not credere in Deum. In terms of our own spiritual life, the more we can move from credere Deum to credere in Deum, the holier we will become.

So in the context of this part of the letter, I think Francis is saying that authentic popular piety is linked with a real living out of faith. It leads to a loving, dynamic faith, one that doesn't stop at only marking out the limits of what we believe, but leads to a faith that changes our lives.

The reference is to the Summa, II-II, q. 2, article 2.