Sometimes we get pretty cozy as Catholics. We sort of expect things to be easy. We seem surprised when there is push back or persecution for our counter-cultural beliefs. Many of us don’t expect our most trusted leaders to fall and many times, we hold them to impossible standards. When we see our priests and bishops falling from the pedestals we’ve put them on, we feel helpless and angry. How do we respond? What can we do about this most recent Church scandals? How do we, as the faithful, care for the victims of this scandal? In what ways can we hold our leaders to high (but not impossible) standards? How do we help reform the Church and bring people back to Christ? St. Catherine of Siena’s life and witness can give us some tips on how to respond.
I recently heard Sister Mary Madeleine Todd give an amazing talk for the Thomistic Institute about St. Catherine in regards to this topic. She reminded listeners that this isn’t the first time (or the last) the Church has faced scandal, and the Church is still standing! Jesus said, “The gates of hell will not prevail” (Matthew 16:18) and even when things are looking bleak, we’ve got to keep that in front of us. The Church has withstood some pretty rough times. The faithful who went before us faced their own hosts of challenges. Corruption, political factions, bad leadership, bad popes, popes with children, religious wars, anti-Church teaching, persecutions, and other Church scandals are all part of our history (like it or not).
St. Catherine’s Time of Scandals
St Catherine of Siena lived in a time of great turmoil in the Church. Before her time, the King of France and the Pope fought over territory, taxes, and authority. The King hatched a plan to kidnap the Pope who had threatened to excommunicate the king. The Pope was kidnapped, eventually returned, but died about a month later. After his death, a trail of Papal and Royal drama, that would make the Real Housewives of Atlanta look like child’s play, ensued.
The King tried to get a Pope elected who would be submissive to him. However, the Cardinals elected a holy Pope who tried to repair the situation. Sounds like they were heading in a good direction, right? Well, turns out he died not long after the election (I smell foul play!). This time, they elected a new Pope who was French (Le roi etait joyeux!). The King requested he move the papacy to France, along with putting that first dead Pope on trial (that’s just weird). So, long story short, the Pope did move to France, committing absenteeism (when the bishop doesn’t reside in his own diocese), and the Popes continued to live there for 70 years as political puppets of the French kings.
St. Catherine had lived her whole life with the papacy in France. She was a Third Order Dominican, wholly devoted to serving the poor, loving Christ, and helping the sick (Read our blog post about her life here!) But in 1376, Catherine wrote a letter to Pope Gregory XI, trying to convince him to come back to Rome. In her letter, she addressed him with respect and acknowledged his hurt. She encouraged and exhorted him to rise up and correct the wrong that was being done, and urged him to come back to Rome. She also visited him several times and after her persistence, he finally yielded (the squeaky wheel gets the grease! Or in this case, the persistent Catherine gets the Pope!).
An Example for Us
There are several things to note in Catherine’s approach and demeanor in helping revive the Church and right the wrongs that the Church scandals of her day had done. We can see in her letter (you can read the whole thing here) a great example for us that can help us shape our response to the scandals:
- She never pointed her fingers at anyone.
- She encouraged and exhorted others to be holy.
- Catherine practiced what she preached!
- Catherine’s immense respect for Pope Gregory XI because he was the Holy Father was evident. This was clear in the respectful way she addressed him. She even said, “forgive my presumption”, to yield to his authority if he thought she was wrong (definitely a humble lady)
- Catherine wrote to him respectfully and acknowledged the hurt he must have felt. She also expressed to him that she wasn’t pointing fingers at him as much as she was grieving what was happening. She said, “Let my love and grief for God’s honor and the advancement of holy Church be my excuse in the presence of your kindness.”
- Catherine called him higher. She encouraged him with scripture and truth, and encouraged him to rise up into the role in which he had been placed. Many times she called him “shepherd” and encouraged him to remember the example of Christ as the leader and shepherd.
- She prayed for the Church and the Pope constantly.
What Can We Do to Respond to Church Scandals?
I know we’re angry. I know we are helpless and so mortified that the leaders we trusted most would be caught up in the current scandals. But, we can take cues from Catherine. We can minister in our own neighborhoods, churches, workplaces, and homes to be Christ’s hands and feet, to be His Church with boots on the ground, like Catherine.
Maybe we could refrain from baseless gossip and try to speak well of those who have gravely sinned because of the office in the Church they hold (or held). We can call our leaders higher and encourage them with love and support, as I can only imagine they are facing great ridicule and strife. And we can pray unceasingly for all victims and all those who have hurt the Body of Christ. How often are we praying for our leaders by name and office?
Because of Catherine’s witness, example, and exhortation of the Holy Father, he returned to Rome and the scandals ended. We should take her holy and righteous example and follow in St. Catherine’s footsteps as we face this scandal as a community.
Here’s just a little more about Catherine’s exhortation of the Pope.
“As for whatever I can do, I would gladly give my life if necessary for God’s honor and the salvation of souls.”St. Catherine of Siena
Check out our St. Catherine of Siena collection here.