Catherine of Siena:
Adapted by Catholic Tradition from SAINT CATHERINE OF SIENA by Mother Frances A. Forbes, a nun of the Society of the Scared Heart in Scotland who was a convert and highly regarded by Cardinal Merry de Val, a close friend of Pope St. Pius X.
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1913.
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ATHERINE was greeted by sad news when she returned to Siena. Not only had Bernabo Visconti, the Duke of Milan, one of the most violent and treacherous men of his time, stirred up the whole north of Italy to rebellion against the Pope, but the Republic of Florence had joined the League and was trying to induce the other cities of Italy to follow her example.
The Papal States had certainly had much to suffer. Gregory had appointed as his legates men without honor or humanity, who thought of nothing but their own advancement and whose cruel and unjust government had made the Pope, a stranger and a Frenchman whom the Italians had never even seen, exceedingly unpopular. To Catherine it seemed as if the powers of Hell were let loose against the Church. She realized and deplored the evils that had roused the anger of the people, but rebellion against the Pope was to her the most fearful evil of all.
Gregory determined to take strong measures. He placed Florence under an interdict. The churches were closed, priests were forbidden to administer the Sacraments and other towns and nations were forbidden to trade with the city. An army of hired soldiers under the leadership of Cardinal Robert of Geneva, a man of brilliant attainments but evil life, was sent to reconquer the Papal States.
To Catherine, whose whole desire was for peace, this was a double grief. She wrote a letter to Gregory beseeching him to overcome violence with gentleness and pointing out to him how greatly the behavior of the Legates had been to blame. Let him do away with these evil rulers and appoint good pastors and governors. "I pray you, in the name of Christ Crucified," she writes, "conquer their malice with your benignity. Do not look at the ignorance and pride of your sons; but with love and kindness, giving that gentle punishment and benign rebuke that will please your Holiness, render peace to us wretched children who have offended. I tell you, sweet Christ on earth, in the name of Christ in Heaven, that if you act thus they will all come in sorrow and lay their heads in your lap." During these days of anguish Catherine had a vision in which her Divine Lord appeared to her and, placing the Cross upon her shoulder and the olive branch in her hand, bade her make peace in His Name. She had already written to the rulers of Florence a letter of strong reproach; she now wrote again offering herself as mediator between them and the Pope. "He who rebels against the Church is a rotten member," she writes, "and what is done to His Vicar on earth, be it reverence or insult, is done to God in Heaven. Think not that God is sleeping over the injuries that have been done to His Spouse ... If through me anything can be done to unite you with Holy Church ... I am ready to give my life."
Florence was already suffering severely from the interdict. The rulers knew something of Catherine's influence with the Pope, and her offer was at once accepted. Soon after Easter, accompanied by her little band of disciples, she set out for the rebellious city. She was received with every mark of honor, and her proposals were listened to with deference. The governors assured her that they were ready to throw themselves upon the Pope's mercy and submit themselves to him with all humility; for under these conditions alone, said Catherine, would she undertake to plead their cause. Ambassadors were to follow her shortly who were to be guided in all things by her advice.
At the end of May the little party set out for Avignon, riding through the lovely country of the Riviera washed by the blue waters of the Mediterranean, flooded in the early summer sunshine and carpeted with wild flowers. On the 18th of June they reached the beautiful city of Avignon, called on account of its chiming bells la ville sonnante.
It was not many years since Petrarch had written: "There is no piety there, no faith, no reverence for God, not any fear of Him, nothing holy, nothing just, nothing worthy of man." And another writer of the time, describing the evils in the Church, says: "The gold which is the holiness of virtues has grown dim in the Church, for all covet material gold. Ordinations and Sacraments are bought and sold for gold." But the veils that covered the fearful reality were fair enough. Bright courtiers and beautiful ladies paraded the streets of the city, which was the home of every art as well as of every vice; and amusement and enjoyment seemed the only end in life.
Among the splendid retinues of the Cardinals and courtiers, the crowds of magnificent prelates, gorgeously attired servants, minstrels, court ladies, actors and singers, a slender figure in white robe and black mantle threaded its way quietly and unnoticed. Yet, at the word of that humble ambassadress, the splendor and the renown of that "Babylon of the West" were to crumble forever into the dust of the past.
The Pope had provided a fine house with a beautifully decorated chapel for the use of Catherine and her friends. Soon after her arrival she was called to the papal presence. What were the thoughts of Gregory as he found himself for the first time face to face with the Beata Popolana of Siena-----that maiden of the people whose strong mind and pure heart had such a strange power over the hearts and minds of the men of her time? We know only that before the interview was ended the Pope was so much impressed by Catherine, although she knew no French and had to make use of Fra Raimondo as interpreter, that he entrusted her with the whole management of the Florentine treaty, only bidding her "be careful of the honor of the Church."
Catherine lost no time in writing the good news to Florence. The ambassadors were daily expected; but days and weeks went by, and still they did not come. Catherine saw the Pope frequently, and she told him that she could not understand the delay. "Believe me, Catherine," he said, "they are deceiving you; they will not send, and if they do, it will come to nothing." He was not far wrong. The Florentines were preparing to continue the war, although to save appearances they at last dispatched three ambassadors to Avignon. Catherine sent them a message to come to her, as the Pope had given her charge of their business. They replied rudely that they had received no instructions to confer with her; they had come to treat with the Pope. In spite of the contemptuous way in which she had been treated, Catherine continued to urge Gregory to indulgence, but as the Florentines had no intention of submitting, the embassy came to nothing, and the three returned to Italy.
But Catherine had a greater mission than that of making peace for Florence. She had never ceased since her arrival in Avignon to impress upon Gregory the necessity for his return to Rome. She reproached him greatly with the vices that reigned in the papal court, and besought him to choose his Cardinals and prelates more for their holiness of life than for their birth and rank.
People began to suspect what might be the result of her long conferences with the Pope and the influence that she was gaining over him. The French Cardinals dreaded above all things a return to Rome. It was greatly in the interests of France to keep the Pope in the country, and the great ladies of Avignon were by no means pleased at the idea of losing the splendor and the gaiety of the papal court. Some of these ladies came to visit Catherine, hoping to bring her round to their way of thinking.
For this purpose they pretended to be holy and pious, and they talked so eloquently about God that even Fra Raimondo was sometimes taken in. Not so Catherine, who read their very souls. She, always full of compassion and tenderness for the greatest of sinners, knew that she could do nothing here and would sit silent in their presence with her veil drawn over her face, or if she spoke at all, would say sadly: "First let us purify ourselves from our sins and escape from the bondage of Satan, and then we can talk about God."
The Countess of Valentinois, the Pope's sister, was a good woman and a true friend to Catherine. Desiring greatly to see her in ecstasy, she asked Fra Raimondo to let her come to the chapel one morning for Mass. She brought with her Elys de Turenne, the selfish and worldly young wife of the Pope's nephew, who was quite sure that the ecstasies were only a pretense and was determined to expose the fraud. She had armed herself with a long pin or sharp instrument of some kind and, bending down as if to kiss the border of Catherine's white robe, drove it several times with all her strength into her foot. Catherine felt nothing at the time; but later, when she came to herself, she was in great pain from the wounds, and could not walk for several days afterward.
The pleasure-loving, worldly-minded citizens of Avignon had reason for their fears. The inspiring influence of Catherine was calling out all that was best in Gregory, notwithstanding the efforts of the French Cardinals. He believed, in spite of his great love for his country and his own people, that it was his duty to return to Rome, and he had even in the early days of his pontificate made a vow to do so. When Catherine one day reminded him of this vow, of which no living creature knew but himself, he recognized more strongly than ever that the inspiration of God was directing His servant.
It was a hard fight. Italy was to him a strange country, torn with warfare, beset with dangers; and Gregory, though well meaning, was timid and too sensitive to the opinion of others. The Cardinals and the rest of his advisers did their best to paint the blackest possible picture of the probable results if he left France.
In order to escape their solicitations and those of his own family, which she knew Gregory was not strong enough to resist, Catherine bade him make his preparations in secret and announce his intention only when all was ready for the departure. At his request she put off her return to Italy so that she might remain near him to the end, and it was well that she did so.
A letter, supposed to have been written by a holy friar in Italy who was reported to have a gift of prophecy, was placed in Gregory's hands. In it he was warned that a plot had been made to poison him if he returned to Rome and that he would do better, if he had any such idea, to remain, at least for the time, at Avignon. The Pope took alarm at once and sent the letter to Catherine, who made short work of it.
"It seems to me a forgery," she writes, "and the hand that forged it is not a very skillful one; he ought to be sent back to school, for he writes like a child ... I admire the words of this poisonous person who begins by advising good and holy actions and then desires you to give them up out of a fear for your bodily safety ... That is not the language of the servants of God ... He is administering the worst of all poisons, he is trying to prevent you from doing that which God demands of you ... I pray you on behalf of Christ Crucified that you be no longer a timorous child, but manly. Open your mouth and swallow down the bitter for the sake of the sweet. Pardon me, Father, my over-presumptuous speech. Humbly I ask you to pardon me and give me your benediction." The work was done. On September 15, 1376, Gregory left forever the papal palace at Avignon amid the tears and lamentations of the people. His old father, Count Guillaume de Beaufort, threw himself down on the threshold declaring that his son would leave the place only over his body. But it was the hour of Gregory's strength; his duty lay clear before him, and he passed steadfastly on his way-----a way beset with difficulties.
Through many storms the papal fleet made its way to Genoa where Catherine was waiting, having gone by another road. The Cardinals had declared that all the mishaps that had befallen them on the way were meant by God to turn the Pope from his purpose, and Gregory was wavering again.
In the evening he went to the house where Catherine was staying to draw fresh strength and courage for the task that lay before him. He set sail soon after for Rome, where he was received by the citizens with every demonstration of enthusiasm and joy.
After a long stay at Genoa occasioned by the serious illness of Neri and Stefano, Catherine went back to Siena, where Lapa was impatiently awaiting her return. Catherine had fulfilled her mission, but the clouds were gathering more thickly than ever about the Church of Christ.