Today, the Church celebrates the Memorial of Saint Catherine of Siena, who was declared a Doctor of the Church. She is 1 of only 4 women to be given this title. The other 3 are: Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, Theresa of Lisieux. She was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
In this context, “Doctor” has nothing to do with medical expertise. “Doctor” means “exemplar and teacher”. A doctor is a person who has made a significant contribution to Christian teaching. Writings, preaching and teachings are so profound and insightful that they are considered relevant to Christians of any age in the Church. St. Catherine was born in 1347 and died in 1380. Catherine’s teachings were true in 1360, are true today, and will be true in 3020. The obvious question is: “What could a 33-year-old woman who lived over 600 years ago possibly teach us?”
I would like to focus on 1 of her most important teachings. The teaching I would like to highlight is related to today’s Gospel passage: “I am the Bread of Life”. The “bread of life” is a direct reference to the Eucharist.
Cynthia Trainque, a modern spiritual writer, has referred to Catherine of Siena as the “Saint of the Eucharist”. Catherine taught that the Eucharist is basically an action of divine love. Through the Eucharist, Jesus says to each of us: “I love so much. I am holding nothing back. I am giving you my very life. Literally, physically, I want to live inside you. That’s how close and intimate I want to become with you. I can’t do anything more for you than offer myself as food and drink for your life.”
Through the Eucharist, Jesus gives his total, complete, entire self to us. He gives himself away fully! No matter how much we are loved by another, no human person is capable of offering himself /herself as physical sustenance for our very life. God’s love for us is so extravagant, so excessive, so over the top that it seems irrational. That’s the reason for which Catherine of Siena referred to God as “crazy in love with us”.
Catherine was crystal clear about 1 thing. The Eucharist is not a symbol of Jesus. The bread and wine do not represent Jesus; they do not stand for Jesus. They truly and really are Jesus. During each Mass, we witness and participate in an extraordinary miracle that takes place on the altar. The bread and wine are transformed into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
To receive Holy Communion is to receive the Risen Lord himself – no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts” about it. Through the Eucharist, we are able to share in God’s own divine life on this earth. Julian of Norwich put it this way: “Greatly ought we to rejoice that God dwells in our soul; Our soul is created to be God’s dwelling place.” What powerful words these are!
But Catherine’s teaching does not stop here. It goes 1 step further. She explained that we are to become that which we eat. To use Bishop Robert Barron’s vocabulary, the goal of the Eucharist is to “Christify” us. In eating the Body of Christ, we are to be transformed into the Body of Christ. We are to bring Christ’s love, mercy and compassion to others.
Fr. Raymond of Capua, who was Catherine’s spiritual director, provides the following testimonial in the biography of her life that he wrote: “For the seven year period prior to her death, Saint Catherine of Siena took no food into her body other than the Eucharist. Her fasting did not affect her energy, however. She maintained a very active life during those seven years. As a matter of fact, most of her great accomplishments occurred during that period. Not only did her fasting not cause her to lose energy, but became a source of extraordinary strength, she becoming stronger in the afternoon, after having received our Lord in His Eucharist.”
(Per Ms. Trainque’s article) It was Catherine’s tremendous love of Jesus in the Eucharist that allowed her to reach out to the poor, to prisoners and to the sick. When the plague called the Black Death was decimating the population, she would go into homes and very primitive hospitals and care for others that no-one else would. When they died, Catherine would bury them with her own hands. Likewise, with us: if we do not bring Christ to Sudbury in 2020 during this pandemic, who else will?
As our Mass continues, let us ask for St. Catherine’s intercession in 2 areas of our lives. First, let us ask her help in recognizing the gift, the privilege and the blessing that we have in the Eucharist. Then, may we thank God, the Crazy Lover, for this priceless treasure.
Second, let us ask her help in being faithful to the responsibility that comes with receiving the Lord in the Eucharist. We are called to make Christ present in our world. We are called to be “Christified” people – to become Christ’s lips, hands and feet in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
Deacon Roland Muzzatti
April 29, 2020