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The publication of the Life of St Catherine of Genoa at this moment is, for several reasons, opportune.
The reading of it will correct the misconceptions of many who honestly fancy that the Catholic Church encourages a mechanical piety, fixes the attention of the soul almost, if not altogether, on outward observances, and inculcates nothing beyond a complete submission to her authority and discipline.
The life of our Saint is an example of the reverse of that picture. It makes clear the truth that the immediate guide of the Christian soul is the Holy Spirit, and that her uncommon fidelity to the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, made this holy woman worthy of being numbered by the Church among that class of her most cherished children, who have attained the highest degree of Divine love which it is possible for human beings to reach upon earth.
The mistake of the persons above spoken of arises from their failing to see that the indwelling Holy Spirit is the divine life of the Church, and that her sacraments have for their end to convey the Holy Spirit to the soul. It arises also from their not sufficiently appreciating the necessity of the authority and discipline of the Church, as safeguards to the soul from being led astray from the paths of the Holy Spirit.
Without doubt God could have, if He had so pleased, saved and sanctified the souls of men in spite of their ignorance, perversity, and weakness, by the immediate communication and action of the Holy Spirit in their souls, independently of an external organization like the Church. But such was not His pleasure, or His plan. For His own wise reasons, He chose to establish a Church which He authorized to teach the world whatsoever He had commanded, which He promised to be with unto the end of all time, whose ministry, sacraments, and government should serve Him, as His body had, to continue and complete, by a visible means, the work of man’s redemption.
Hence it is an entirely false view of the nature and design of the Church to suppose that it was intended to be, or is in its action, or ever was, or ever can be, a substitute for the authority of Christ, or the immediate guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Christian soul.
The authority of the Church is no other that the authority of Christ, as He Himself has declared, “He that heareth you, heareth Me.”11 S. Luke x, 16 The sacraments are nothing else than the channels, or visible means, of communicating the Holy Spirit to the soul. It is the divine action in the Church which gives to its external organization the principal reason for its existence.
And it is equally false, and at the same time absurd, to suppose for a moment that the Holy Spirit indwelling in the Church and embodied in her visible authority, and the same Holy Spirit dwelling in and inspiring the Christian souls, should ever contradict each other, or come into collision. Whenever, by supposition, this takes place, be assured it is not the work of the Holy Spirit, but the consequence of ignorance, error, or perversity on the part of the individual; for it must not be forgotten, or ever be lost sight of, that it pleased Christ our Lord to promise to His Church that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against her,”22 S . Matthew xvi, 18 and not to teach individual Christians.
The test, therefore, of the sincerity of the Christian soul in following the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, will be shown, in case of uncertainty, by its prompt obedience to the voice of the Holy Church. It is only when the soul goes astray from the paths of the Holy Spirit, it finds trammels to its feet, otherwise it is conscious of perfect liberty in the Church of God.
From the foregoing truths, the following practical rule of safe-conduct can be drawn. The immediate guide of the soul to salvation and sanctification is the Holy Spirit, and the criterion or test that the soul is guided by the Holy Spirit, is its ready obedience to the authority of the Church. With this rule there can be no danger of going astray, and the soul can walk in absolute security, in the ways of sanctity.
This is the way in which all the saints have trod to arrive at Christian perfection, but no life illustrates this truth more plainly, so far as we are aware, than the life of our saint.
There are others who think that the Church fosters a sanctity which is not concerned with this present life, rendering one useless to society, and indifferent to the great needs of humanity.
The love of God and the love of one’s neighbor as taught by Christ and His Apostles, are essentially one. If the saints of the Church were distinguished for their great love for God, they ought therefore to be equally distinguished for their great love for mankind. The one is the test of the other. If any man say, “I love God, and hateth his neighbor, he is a liar.” Such is the emphatic language of St John.33 1 Ep. S. John
Let us apply this test, with the history of the Church and the biographies of her saints, in our hands. Take, for example, the religious orders, and it is a fair one, for nearly all of them were founded by saints, whose special aim it was to teach and practice Christian perfection, as understood by the Catholic Church. What do these pages of history and biography teach us? All that we possess of the classics, and of literature in every department, pagan as well as Christian, prior to the invention of the art of printing, we owe exclusively to the industry and labor of the early monks. Not a slight service. These men were for the most part the founders and professors of the great universities and colleges in England, Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Ireland. The last were not the least, for the monks of Ireland were famous as founders of colleges and seats of learning in their own as well as in foreign countries. Monks were the pioneers in agriculture, and in many industrial and mechanical arts, while their monasteries became the centers of great cities, many of which still retain their names. They were the sowers of those seeds, which, being developed by time, men of our day claim all the honor of their results, but modestly, under the title of “modern civilization!”
“Idle monks and nuns” were they? They were, as a class, men and women who ate less, worked harder, and did more for intellectual progress, civilization, and social well-being, than any other body of men and women, whose record can be found on the pages of history, or who can be pointed out in this nineteenth century!
As for works of mercy, such is the superabundance of material, that it is difficult to know where to begin, and how to leave off.
The brotherhoods and sisterhoods in the Church, devoted to the care and relief of the sick, the orphan, the aged, the poor, the captive, the prisoner, the insane, and to the thousand and one ills that human nature is heir to, as well as those which are self-inflicted, who can count them?
True, there were some religious orders which were given almost exclusively to contemplation, but these were exceptional vocations, and were so considered by the Church. These had also a most important social bearing and practical value, which, however, this is not the place to demonstrate. But the great majority of her saints were men and women whose hearts were overflowing with warm and active sympathy for their race, consecrating their energies to its improvement spiritually, intellectually, morally, and bodily, and not seldom laying down their lives for its sake.
That the Church did not compel all her children, seeking Christian perfection, into one uniform type, is true. Governed by that divine wisdom which made man differ from man in his talents and aptitudes, she did not attempt to mar and wrong their nature, but sought to elevate and sanctify each in his own peculiar individuality.
Read the life of Saint Catherine, and in imagination fancy her in the city hospital of Genoa, charged, not only with the supervision and responsibility of its finances, but also overseeing the care of its sick inmates, taking an active, personal part in its duties, as one of its nurses, and the whole establishment conducted with strict economy, perfect order, and the tenderest care and love! Fancy this for a moment in the city hospital of Genoa in the sixteenth century, and seek for her compeer in the city of New York, or in any other city in the world, in our day, and if you find one, and outside of the Catholic Church, then, but not till then, you may repeat to your heart’s content, that she fosters a sanctity which turns one’s attention altogether away from this world, and makes one indifferent to the wants of humanity.
Saint Catherine’s life teaches another lesson to those whose mental eyes are not closed to facts as plain as the sun when shining at noonday.
We hear much said, and not a little is written, in the United States and in England, about the exclusion of woman from spheres of action for which her natural aptitudes fit her equally, and in many cases render her superior to men; of her partial education, and in many cases, the inferior position which she is forced to accept in society.
Strange that we hear no such complaints in Catholic society, or from Catholic women! Is it because they have been taught to hug the chains which make them slaves? or that they are denied the liberty of speech? or that their lips are closed by arbitrary authority? Not at all. The reason is plain. Women, no less than men, are free to occupy any position whose duties and functions they have the intelligence or aptitude to fulfill. They have the opportunities and are free to obtain the highest education their capacities are capable of. This, every Catholic woman knows and feels, and hence the absence of all consciousness, in the Church, of being deprived of her rights, of oppression, and injustice.
One has but to open his eyes and read the pages of ecclesiastical history to be convinced that in the Catholic Church there has been no lack of freedom of action for women. Look for a moment at the countless number of sisterhoods in the Church, some counting their members by thousands, all under the government of one head, a woman, and elected by themselves for life. Others again, each house forming a separate organization, with a superior of its own, elected for a limited period. In fact, there is no form of organization and government, of which they do not give us an example, and carried on successfully, showing a practical ability in this field of action, which no one can call in question. Then, there is no kind of labor, literary, scientific, mechanical, as well as charitable, in which they may not engage, according to their abilities and strength. Who shall enumerate the different kinds of literary institutions, schools, and academies under their direction, and confessedly superior in their kind? Who shall count the hospitals, the orphanages, the reformatories, the insane asylums, and other similar institutions, where they have proved their capacity to be above that of men? All roads are open to woman’s energies and capacities in the Church, and she knows and is conscious of this freedom; and what is more, she is equally aware that whatever she has ability to do, will receive from the Church encouragement, sanction, and that honor which is due to her labor, her devotion, and her genius.
Few great undertakings in the Church have been conceived and carried on to success, without the cooperation, in some shape, of women. The great majority of her saints are of their sex, and they are honored and placed on her altars equally with men. It is not an unheard of event, that women, by their scientific and literary attainments, have won from Catholic Universities the title of Doctor. Saint Teresa is represented as an authorized teacher, with a pen in hand, and with a doctor’s cap. It would carry us altogether too far beyond the limits of this preface to show how largely the writings of women in the Church, have contributed to the body and perfection of the science of theology.
In this respect also, our saint was distinguished. Her spiritual dialogues and her treatise on purgatory have been recognized by those competent to judge in such matters, as masterpieces in spiritual literature. Saint Francis of Sales, that great master in spiritual life, in whose city we have the consolation of writing this preface, was accustomed to read the latter twice a year. Frederic Schlegel, who was the first to translate Saint Catherine’s dialogues into German, regarded them as seldom if ever equaled in beauty of style; and such has been the effect of the example of Christian perfection in our saint, that even the “American Tract Society” could not resist its attraction, and published a short sketch of her life among its tracts, with the title of her name by marriage, Catherine Adorno.
It was fitting that the life of Saint Catherine of Genoa should be translated for the first time into English, by one who is now no more, but who was while living, distinguished, like our saint, for her intellectual gifts, for her charity toward the poor and abandoned, and in consecrating her pen to the cause and glory of God’s Church.
L. T. Hecker
Annecy, Oct. 7, 1873
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