Based on St. Catherine of Siena by Alice Curtayne
Papal data from the Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary, 1965, which carries an Imprimatur.

The Saint's action in speaking up to the Holy Father to return to Rome from his residency in Avignon, France, for the good of the Church, is one of the exceptions where outspoken speech to those in ecclesiastical authority is the express will of God. We need not be Saint Catherine to know that there are times in our own lives where it is imperative that we defend the doctrine and indefectibility of the Church when those in authority disparage them. However, our state in life, and personal characteristics must set the boundaries. A person who has a speech impediment, such that the public [to its shame] tends to laugh, rather than pay attention, may warrant prudence, not to spare one's own feelings, but for the sake of the dignity of the truth itself; a letter might be better. If we are living in mortal sin, it behooves us to rectify our life first, for those in mortal sin are not given the grace to speak in such a situation, again for the sake of truth itself, and so forth. There are a number of exceptions to the exception, if I may put it like that.


"I shall give thee such speech and wisdom that no one shall be able to resist. I shall bring thee before Pontiffs and the rulers of the Church." --- Words of Our Lord to St. Catherine of Siena

Saint Catherine had written to Pope Gregory XI who resided in Avignon, France rather than in Rome.

A little background is in order. Our Saint lived a short life, from 1347-1380. Before she was able to walk the plague had descended on Europe, wiping out six out of every seven people in Genoa alone, truly an epidemic so monstrous that it is hard for us today to imagine. All of Italy was savaged by the virulence of that plague, which was not content with Italy, but coursed up the Rhone, into Germany, Austria, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and even Spain. Finally London, England, Scotland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden. One of the changes effected by the scourge was the collapse of the feudal system, the decline of Latin as a common tongue among others. The Church was perhaps the worst of its victims. Before the plague the Papacy had already lost much of its shine. Philip IV of France, a non-too-benevolent ruler, was at odds with Pope Boniface VIII. The King's men invaded the papal palace at Anagni. Pope Boniface, who was quite patient, although determined to maintain his authority, waited for the band of men in full papal regalia. Boniface reigned from 1294-1303. One of the men, Colonna, struck the Pontiff. Another, who was influenced by the papal insignia stopped him from any further abuse of Boniface's person. The Pope was held prisoner for three days and then allowed to go back to Rome where he died but a month later from a high fever, certainly caused by the outrage and stress endured by Boniface. Benedict XI succeeded him, reigning for a year before he died. At last the French king succeeded in getting one of his own crowned at Lyons, Clement V, who then took up his residence at Avignon. For seventy years the papacy remained there, Avignon being the new seat and very much at the beck and call of the French, which caused the rest of the Church much frustration. Philip, known as "the Fair" was full of hatred, still employed in punishing Boniface in his grave. He pestered Clement to condemn him as a heretic and have his body exhumed for burning. As weak as Clement was personally, the Holy Ghost kept watch over the Church and in her official pronouncements and declarations imposed for belief, her Pontiffs cannot err. Clement refused the King's six-year long campaign against the dead Pontiff.

When Avignon was not yet fully established as the seat of residence for the Papacy, called the Western or Great Schism [official date set by history, is the death of Gregory and the election of Urban VI in 1378], and sometimes the "Babylonian Captivity", the plague arrived to further hasten the decline of the Church's maintenance of traditions: because of the catastrophic number of deaths, monastic and religious houses had to lower their standards for new members and many a religious was not what he ought to have been. At the same time the revenues required from the laity were maintained; the laity chaffed at the injustice. The Holy See, more dependent on France than independent as it must be, with its continuance there was just too much. St. Catherine was raised up by God to rectify this crisis. It is universally held that the only such Saint that she bore a resemblance to in her action was Saint Bridget of Sweden. St. Bridget had many visions and revelations that her spiritual director found to be authentic. She was inspired to write to Pope Clement VI at Avignon to return to Rome. She was not successful but she paved the way for Catherine's intervention with Pope Gregory XI as she, too, had urged him back to Rome. Clement reigned from 1342 to 1352.

Now Pope Gregory XI's rise in the ranks of the Church was considered brilliant, his uncle being Pope Clement VI. He was only forty when he was elected the Pontiff, having been ordained only the day before. In those days Cardinals need not be ordained; they ruled but did not administer the Sacraments. Gregory was not of good health, but he was a good man, although he was not a strong Vicar of Christ, in that he was not always as firm as he might have been.

Two days after arriving in Avignon our Saint  had an audience with the Pontiff; she had already written him six letters, the tone of which was considered strong, yet mixed with proper deference; Catherine revered the Papacy. Nevertheless, the tome was not as prudent as perhaps it could have been. Gregory was truly a good man and he received her with gentleness, and in fact, instead of rebuking her, he sought her opinion. They required an interpreter as neither spoke each other's Italian dialect. Catherine had three requests of the Holy Father: peace with Florence, the return to Rome, and the Crusade. In all, the Pope was taken with the Saint, and the meeting was successful; he decided to return the Curia to Rome that September, and  took her up on the other two points as well, although he wanted to wait on the Crusade until Christendom itself was without its own fractious quarrels. She persisted that the Crusade should commence anyway. Meanwhile the French Cardinals were against any return to Rome, so they exaggerated the problems with Florence so as to deter the Pontiff, who believed the false tales. June and July came and went and still the Pontiff resisted planning the return.

While she waited and waited upon the Pontiff's final decision. she had to endure another plague, one of human origin --- the notoriously scandalous women there, usually related to one of the Cardinals in the Curia or worse, a mistress. Such were the times. She might have borne their extravagances and their curiosity in her, except for one thing: they wanted to talk about the soul as she seemed to be an authority. But their idea of a discussion was in reality a sharp affliction upon Catherine. One of her replies was sharp. Another time she turned her back on one of the women, refusing to say another word. She was punished by some of them who had a vindictive nature. They would bother her while she was receiving Holy Communion in ecstasy. It was awful: one of them pretended piety, bent over Catherine's feet as if to kiss them, then stabbed savagely with a sharp instrument through Catherine's sandals. The Saint did not move a muscle and the woman left in disgust. The pain was strong and Catherine passed out. The wounds in her feet were so severe she could not walk for some time.

The worst of the whole stay at Avignon was when the Florentine ambassadors arrived who shunned her; she was also jeered. Her response? Silence. She did nothing, which stunned them because they did not expect such a determined woman of action to do nothing to their goading. And Pope Gregory? He kept maintaining that he intended to return to Rome and the French Cardinals became alarmed, especially when the Pope sent officials to pave the wave for his arrival at some port near Rome on the 20th of September. The brother of the King, Charles V came to dissuade the Pope, but he met Catherine and was impressed, so much so that he invited her to his castle to meet his wife at Villaneuve. The Saint accepted and stayed for three days conversing with them about the political wars in Europe and the Crusade. The duke proclaimed that he himself would raise and army and lead it; of course, this was a short-lived enthusiasm.

Meanwhile only one member of the Sacred College favored Gregory's transfer to Rome. In fact, Pope Gregory's own father and brothers who resided in Avignon did not like the idea of Rome. All of August and most of September, Gregory was indeterminate while the situation in Italy grew more perilous: The Cardinal of Geneva and his Bretons advanced to Bologna, killing and burning as they marched. Catherine persisted, impelling him forward, the ideal of a perfect Father of Christendom persisting still. Every moment he delayed, it would be more difficult. He must go, immediately.

Gregory remained irresolute and the clash of wills surrounding the Pontiff intensified, causing bitterness, some of the worst in history. The Saint wrote almost daily to the Pope, he replying in short notes. In Catherine's seventh note she wrote: I implore you on the part of Christ Crucified to make haste ... If God is with you, therefore He is with you ... Pardon my presumption. I humbly ask my blessing." The Papal fleet awaited at Marseilles. Then the Cardinals feared a plot to kill Gregory, and Catherine had to begin all over again. She realized that the talk of a plot was to instill fear into the Pontiff. She told him that she had "prayed, before Holy Communion and after and saw neither death nor any danger."

Those opposed to Gregory's move to Rome would not give up. Now it was an anonymous letter to him from a purported holy man informing him that he would be imprisoned. Our Saint dismissed the letter as a fraud, for no Saint would write such a letter she insisted. At last she won an audience and he relented, he would depart for Rome with as little as notice as possible. He descended the staircase od the Avignon Palace on September 13, 1376; as he did so, the Pope's elderly father, Count William de Beaufort came running, beseeching his son to remain. It was quite a scene to have the poor man removed so the Pope could continue to Marseilles. Catherine and her company went by overland via another route, her hopes soaring.

The Pontiff and his retinue were slower, not departing for Rome until October 2nd. The moment they left port a storm assailed them all along the French coastline. The party did not arrive in the port of Genoa until the 18th. Meanwhile, throughout the sail Pope Gregory was pestered by the Cardinals who had devised new reasons for him to go back to France. In Genoa, Catherine was also there at the same time and he visited with her once. He decided to keep his interview with her a secret from his Curia. Immediately afterwards the fleet sailed once more. It was October 29. She and her party left a few days later, and they, too met with bad seas and just barely escaped being shipwrecked. At the same time Gregory's last leg of the journey was depressing, more storms and bad news from Rome in tumult at every turn. He reached the Papal states on December 5th at last, at Corneto, where he remained a month to negotiate with his subjects awaiting in Rome. Catherine sent him a Christmas letter while he was in Corneto, encouraging him to be strong and patient, exhorting him to go as quickly as possible to "his place, that of the glorious Apostles Peter and Paul." Rome submitted to the Pontiff just before Christmas. But it was not until January 13th that his battered ships sailed for Rome, arriving up the Tiber 3 days later, to St. Paul Outside the Walls. The next day the Governors of the city laid their banners at his feet. All of Rome turned out to welcome his return.

Still anxious and fearful, his one consolation was Catherine's assurance: "Go manfully; it is God Who moves you."

  The Latin text on the border is from Psalm 72: Verse 22. I will let you read in in your Douay-Rheims bible yourself. This refers to the annihilation of self which brings perfect silence and learning to acquire the virtue of silence prepares us for self annihilation. When we are brought to such nothingness that we know not, this means our awareness of self, as ego is obliterated essentially.

Forward takes you next sequential page of this series.