Each day a retired priest of the diocese offers Mass for the elderly sisters and senior residents of Mount Saint Rita Health Center in Cumberland. As the celebrant sits for the reading of Scripture and the psalm response, his chair faces a stained glass window dedicated to St. Catherine of Genoa, one of two dozen windows dedicated to a great variety of saints. Readers might be aware of St. Catherine of Siena, the third order Dominican who successfully prodded the medieval popes to abandon Avignon and return to Rome. And a few readers might even recall St. Catherine of Alexandria, an early martyr spitefully put to death stretched out on a wheel that now bears her name. But St. Catherine of Genoa might be as obscure to most readers as she was to the present writer.
A recent book on women mystics could not help but list such famous female contemplatives as St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux, as well St. Claire of Assisi and Julianna of Norwich. But happily included was also a chapter on the mystic Catherine of Genoa. Unlike the women religious who were rightfully highlighted, St. Catherine of Genoa was a wife and mother. She and her husband were both from noble families who had more of a hand in their marriage than the couple themselves. The young Catherine was quite religious; her young spouse was quite irresponsible. St. Catherine balanced a rather vexing home life with a vibrant community life, using her family’s noble resources to feed, clothe and generally comfort the poor of Genoa. In midlife, Catherine’s husband contracted – but was cured of a dreaded disease ? after which he joined his life in her works of charity and generosity. St. Catherine combined profound personal prayer with practical social concern ? ideals worthy of any Christian.
Although St. Catherine was favored by God with intense personal piety, much of her life was plagued by the infidelity and inconsistency of her errant husband. Happily, Catherine employed these episodes of marital testing to rely more closely on God and his grace rather be disheartened by two decades of disappointment. While considering the many trials that God allowed her to endure as a young wife and mother, Catherine offered these wise words to those who would reflect on her life: “If mankind ever were to achieve peace on earth, no one would be saved.” Reflect on those words for a moment: “If mankind ever were to achieve peace on earth, no one would be saved.”
Clearly, St. Catherine is suggesting that, given human nature, good times inevitably lead to the neglect of God. Fervent prayers are probably offered more frequently in the emergency rooms and intensive care units of Rhode Island’s several hospitals than in all the church buildings of this diocese. While never quite forgotten, God is easily ignored even by church-goers when life is smoothly progressing. But let illness, unemployment, marital discord, generational conflicts, career obstacles, educational difficulties, natural or national disasters occur and God is quickly brought front and center once again to resolve and lay to rest mankind’s concerns. And God plays along with mankind’s fickleness. God characteristically and providentially uses lack of peace in this world to induce mankind to seek the inner peace of the next world. He evens allows man’s sins to become an occasion for man’s conversion. Thus, God mysteriously but inexorably brings good out of evil, light out of darkness and life out of death.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, St. Peter, from his wind-tossed boat boldly requests that Jesus allow him to walk across the churning water toward the Master. At first filled with confidence that he is equal to the task, St. Peter sets out to join hands with Jesus in the midst of the stormy sea. But then, when St. Peter “saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” St. Peter, typical of human nature, panics when he is reminded by the wind and waves that his bodily resources are not up to the task. When his self-confidence falters, his latent faith surfaces and he calls out to Jesus as his unique source of rescue.
Forgotten in favorable times, the Divine Master is readily invoked in challenging times. But prayer is not merely Christianity’s version of 911. God is an ever-present help and not only a support in emergency situations. For the Christian, prayer must be a daily spiritual occupation, not just a random religious experience.