Catherine Benincasa was born in mid-14th century Tuscany, a plague-ridden, economically and politically unstable time—much like our own.
She and her twin sister were the 23rd and 24th children in a prosperous family of 25 children of Lapa and Jacopo di Benincasa, wool dealers. By the time Catherine died at the age of 33 in 1380, she had left her mark on this challenging, desperate period of ecclesial history.
Images courtesy of Sisters Kathleen Anne Tait, Maristella Dunlavy, Susan Karina Dicky, and Judine Hilbing.
Well-known for her written works, Letters and The Dialogue, in 1970 Catherine became one of only three women recognized as Doctors of the Church. Her life and writing give us insight into how she helped bring about a kind of physical, spiritual, and moral healing during a time of great tumult and uncertainty. There are many ways to approach Catherine’s gift of healing—or repair—as we are thinking about it in this issue of JUST Words. Here are five examples in this brief attempt to answer the question: What can we learn from our Dominican tradition about how to repair the world?
- Prayer was Catherine’s ground and font of action. From about the age of 15 until she was 20, she lived in near-solitude, confining herself to a cell in the family home, seeking deep communion with God through prayer. This was the foundation of all that was to come.
She reported that one day God pushed her out of her enclosure with the words “Remember that I have laid down two commandments of love: love of me and love of your neighbor… On two feet, you must walk my way. On two wings, you must fly to heaven. I shall be your guide in everything it will be your lot to do.”
Catherine’s insight was that this is not a matter of love of God spilling over into love of neighbor, but the two in fact are one single love.
While Dominicans live with the motto “To contemplate and give to others the fruits of our contemplation,” I think recently we have reclaimed the power of our contemplative lives. We justice promoters are aware that our actions for justice must be grounded in our prayer and life with God.
- Catherine responded to the immediate needs around her, focusing on what good she could do, not on that over which she had no control. She began by tending to the sick in her own family and gradually to those throughout Siena who needed her care. She learned that following Christ often requires sacrifices for the sake of neighbor and others who need our help.
When she was named Doctor of the Church, Catherine was singled out for her gift of wisdom. The Spirit/Wisdom of God is at work, “fashioning friends of God and prophets.” (Wis 7:27) Wisdom can be found in everyday life, in our relationships, our struggles, our joys, our failures, our reaching out to others.
- By the time she was in her early twenties Catherine had done an impressive job of what we might call community organizing. She gathered around her others who she enlisted in this ministry of care, calling them out of themselves to serve the needs of the time. They became known as Catherine’s familia.
Gathering others around her connected with Catherine’s insight and understanding that no one person has full access to the truth, which resides in God alone. By insisting on interdependence Catherine demonstrated the work of repair does not happen in isolation. We need one another to heal.
- Catherine was also not one to hold back. She pushed boundaries! Through personal conversations, letters, political negotiations, instructing and consoling popes, she used her gift of exhortation. Despite restrictions on women’s public roles, she embraced her call as preacher, peacemaker, and reconciler. She often began her letters with “Pardon my boldness,” then proceeded to call out the injustice or address the personal pain of others.
While she pushed boundaries, others pushed back. She was not always successful in her peacemaking and reconciling but she was faithful to the call. Catherine’s fidelity to the truth was at the heart of the authority of her written and spoken words. She exercised this fidelity with love, believing that genuine truth can only be spoken in love.
- Catherine was a healer. Though she was not often able to cure those who were ill, or ill-treated, her presence at the bedside of patients in homes and hospitals, or her accompaniment of prisoners sentenced to death was healing balm. She offered care rather than cure, recognizing the human dignity of those she served even in some of the most challenging circumstances.
While medicine in our day can cure, along with it is needed a healing presence, our healing presence. We all have been blessed by God with our unique gifts, gifts that are not for ourselves but for the good of others. How can we use them to heal, to repair the world?
We may be tempted to withdraw from the complicated, conflictive, and painful situations of our time that test our courage and hope. The memory of those who have gone before us can be a source of strength. We can lean into their wisdom, their courage and the path that they have trod. We journey together.
Sister Marcelline is promoter of justice for the Dominican Sisters of Springfield and lives in Springfield.
Interested in learning more about our social justice initiatives? Visit our justice and peace webpage for more information.