Saint Catherine of Siena, counselor to popes and declared doctor of the spiritual life, died in Rome in 1380. Despite having lost normal use of her legs, she was able to walk to Saint Peter’s Basilica during Lent that year.
“What, we might ask, would have prompted Catherine to make this sacrifice?” Father Romanus Cessario, O.P., asks in his new book, Compassionate Blood: Catherine of Siena on the Passion, published by Magnificat (whose chief product is a beautiful monthly devotional by that name, of which Father Cessario is senior editor). Father Cessario quotes from the saint herself for the answer:
God imposed this obedience on me, that during this entire time of Lent I should have the whole family sacrifice their desires and celebrate before him alone in this way for the holy Church. And I should attend Mass every morning at dawn — which, as you know, is impossible for me, but in obedience to God everything has been possible.
In this explanation, you get a sense of the depth of her prayer life and a window into the power of prayer and intercession — the family she is talking about are the spiritual sons and daughters for whom she is praying. Father Cessario, a Dominican priest and professor of systematic theology at Saint John’s Seminary in Brighton, Mass., talks about the Passion of Christ and how Catherine enables us to better meditate prayerfully on it, as well as the spiritual invitations present during this liturgical season.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: You quote Saint Catherine: “The sword at [Jesus’s] side is the wound of his side, revealing to us the secret of his heart; it is a sword with a point of light that ought to pierce our inmost heart with the force of love.” Does that mean that a wounded heart is most like Christ’s?
Father Romanus Cessario, O.P.: Well, I would say that a wounded heart is most like that of Saint Catherine. She prizes self-knowledge, including the frank acknowledgement of her sins. The wounded heart, as Oscar Wilde has remarked, allows the Lord Christ to enter in. Christ’s wounded heart heals wounded hearts even as it suffers the wound of the spear.
Lopez: You quote Saint Catherine referring to “the bond of love for the Father’s honor and our salvation which held him nailed firm and fast to the cross.” We can be pretty miserable people . . . why would God do such a thing for us?
Cessario: Miserable people still exist as images of the Blessed Trinity. The way out of misery lies with our growing into conformity with the Godly Image. When Saint Catherine speaks about the “Father’s honor” she refers to the dishonor that sin does to God himself. God owns the creature. God owns human existence. God owns everything we do, except when we sin. So when the creature sins, he or she dishonors God.
Lopez: How does Christ’s compassion and blood “serve as the beginning for every Christian’s autobiography,” as you write?
Cessario: Baptism brings the first expression of Christ’s compassion to everyone. Without Baptism, no one can participate fully in the compassion of Christ. So the Christian autobiography starts with Baptism.
Lopez: Is it just pious nonsense for a modern person to consider becoming a spiritual child of Saint Catherine?
Cessario: I hope not. Everyone must become a spiritual child of someone. There are no self-starters in the Christian life. Only the Eternal Father enjoys innascibility, that is, being without origin. Catherine intuits this fundamental relationship between herself and the Father. Once one has become a spiritual child, he or she can serve as a spiritual father or mother for others. Otherwise, as happens with ideologues and dictators, people subject others to themselves and not to the Heavenly Father.
Lopez: What is so important about the last words Jesus spoke on the cross – which you describe as producing “a well-constructed sermon” — and focusing on them this time of year?
Cessario: Traditionally, a man’s last words carry special weight since it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which a dying man would profit from not speaking the truth. The Evangelists obviously considered the words that Jesus spoke from the cross as worthy of special notice. The Seven Last Words offer to us a glimpse of what Gospel living entails.
Lopez: Why do you write that we should “cultivate confidence in divine mercy”?
Cessario: Because no other confidence wins us eternal life. On whose mercy would one rely? This truth appears more eminently to people on their death beds. There, the dying person recognizes that all earthly mercies, ministrations, no longer avail him or her of anything. Only God can help. Those who turn away from the divine mercy on their death beds risk losing everything.
Lopez: How can we better understand Jesus’s words on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”?
Cessario: Remember that Jesus never knew himself as forsaken, even as he may have felt that he was. There is a difference between sense experience and spiritual knowledge. It is easy to recognize this difference in one’s daily life. The distressing symptoms of a flu leave one feeling quite bad. Few persons, however, draw the conclusion that this suffering will lead to death. Medication and rest are known to provide sure cures.
Lopez: What does the wisdom of the saints tell us “about Christ’s cry from the cross”?
Cessario: The saints live as though nothing can separate them from the love of God. They identify with Christ’s cry inasmuch as they subordinate their sense responses and feelings to what they hold in faith to embody divine providence. The saints know that God’s providence never fails.
Lopez: You write that “Catherine deeply understood the relationship of the hierarchical structure of the Church to the communication of the divine benefits that Christ’s death inaugurates. In other words, she knew that the divine graces that Christ obtains by His Death on the cross reach us, the intended beneficiaries, through the Church’s pastors and her sacraments. So she warns those who distance themselves from the pope.” Would you offer an added word for those who are skeptical — or offended — on this point in a particular way?
Cessario: The Church discovered long ago that she must distinguish between the objective efficacy of her ministers and their personal state of holiness or of learning. Otherwise, the Christian people would conclude that the benefits they receive from priests come from the priests and not from God. In other words, people would forget that priests are instruments. Of course, for a man to be an instrument of divine things requires that he himself aspire to a holy life. When the priest fails, even in serious and embarrassing ways, he still remains an instrument of divine grace. Even the priest whose official permissions justly have been withdrawn retains this capacity. The Church moreover requires that he use his consecrated powers when someone in danger of death requires his sacramental services.
Lopez: Why do you write that ignorance is “the greatest harm that can befall the human creature”? Can’t there be an innocence about it?
Cessario: Even when the ignorance remains involuntary, it still deprives a person of what is required to lead a happy life. A cultural polytheist may appear “innocent,” though the state of adhering to many gods does not constitute human happiness. The polytheist in fact suffers harm. He or she ignores the true God.
Lopez: How does one have an “active union with Christ”?
Cessario: The easiest way for a believer to carry on an active relationship with Christ lies in the practice of saying prayerfully the Holy Name of Jesus. Active union with Christ means loving Christ. When what we do or say flows from the Name of Jesus, then everything becomes a way of maintaining an active union with the Lord.
Lopez: “No one can completely detach himself from the reality of the created order,” you write. But how we do try! What does it say about our culture today that we have strayed a bit from this, and how do we turn back?
Cessario: May I refer your readers to my Introduction to Moral Theology? The key word is “completely.” Sin turns us against the wise and loving patterns that God has established for the created order. Were a creature to detach himself or herself completely from the created order, such a creature would cease to exist. Think of Adam and Eve. They sinned against the highest commandment. They tried to put themselves on par with God. They did not cease to exist. They did, however, begin to exist very differently than they had in the Garden of Eden. All sin weakens our hold on reality. Think of the prevalent use of pornography . . .
Lopez: What’s your advice to someone who hasn’t had a particularly prayerful or fruitful Lent so far but desires to?
Cessario: Go to confession. Celebrate Easter. Love God anew.
Lopez: For the non-believer who thinks this all sounds overly pious but who remains intrigued, what’s the invitation of Holy Week? Good Friday? Easter?
Cessario: The intrigued non-believer should talk to a priest or to someone who works at a Catholic church. Then he should follow the instructions that, preferably, the priest gives. These instructions will lead to Baptism. Then everything will make a great deal of sense.
Lopez: How can Jesus’s passion and death help increase or deepen a Christian’s faith? How can Saint Catherine help?
Cessario: When we behold the cross, we see the love that Christ has shown for us. We also are moved to love him in return. Love begets hope. We trust that Christ will bring us to the rewards that the Christian faith promises. Hope deepens love so that we love more the God who gives the rewards than we do the rewards themselves.
Lopez: I tend to see Magnificat (of which you are a senior editor) in churches around the country, more than a few times at Penn Station, on Amtrak trains. I see people reading and praying with it when they can. I know you also give away copies for trial and for events. Why is Magnificat a “miracle”? And why has it become a “standard feature of Catholic daily life and worship”?
Cessario: Magnificat comes as a miracle each month. No one could imagine the compact team that ensures safe delivery of this worship aid each month. Soon the journal will mark 20 years of flourishing in the United States. With over 300,000 subscribers, Magnificat also serves two or three times that many U.S. Catholics.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here.