“Preach the truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.” - St. Catherine of Siena
August 8th is St. Dominic de Guzman’s Saint Day It is the day that we lift up and celebrate little 12th Century Spanish priest who preached Christ’s truth with fire and was one with Him in prayer and action on behalf of the poor. He had a heart for the lost, the confused and the alienated. His heart would have broken to witness American politics in the 21st Century. He inspired a movement, which grew into an order of preachers known to the world today as the Dominicans.
Last summer, I lived, prayed, and worshiped in Dominic’s home in Calaruega, Spain. Inspired by this experience and years of living and learning from Dominicans, I committed myself to study, pray, and seek God’s guidance to become a Dominican Associate with the Dominican Sisters of Peace. On August 5, I made my two-year commitment. As a Protestant pastor, I feel that the divisions in the church hurt Christians everywhere. Moreover, our divisions have hurt the human community. Becoming a Dominican Associate of Peace is one small step to healing the divide.
I am most inspired in my Dominican walk by St. Catherine of Siena. At one of the entrances of Siena stands a life-size sculpture of Catherine. Her arms are fully extended to the right and left. In one hand, she holds a cross. In the other hand, she holds an olive branch. Perhaps we could learn a thing or two on peacemaking and faith-making from the first woman named a doctor of the church.
Catherine Benincasa was born in 1347, the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children of Lapa di Puccio Piagenti and Jacopo Benincasa. Today, we know her as Catherine of Siena - doctor and saint of the Roman Catholic Church. I believe Catherine was baptized into Christian faith to be a peacemaker. I also believe she was the very first true Dominican Sister of Peace.
Sister Mary O’Driscoll, O.P., has written a short piece on Catherine entitled, Catherine of Siena Emissary of Peace. Sr. Mary lifts up six guidelines for peace that Catherine embodied in her life and teachings as a doctor of the Church. These guidelines can be used on Capitol Hill, in resolving international conflicts and in settling family squabbles. I dare say they may be used in Parish Council meetings, within the Church, and between all Christians and religions when dissensions and disagreements ensue.
1. Come out of your woods.
When called upon to become a peacemaker in struggles of church and society, Catherine responded: “I am only a woman…feeble and of no account.” However, God had the last word. God replied to Catherine, “Was it not I that created the human race? With me, there is neither male nor female, lower class or upper class, for all stand equal in my sight, and all things are equally in my power to do…You must obey without objection when it is my will to send you out into the world” (O’Driscoll, quoting C. Kearns, LIFE, II, I, 121-2). Catherine would say in challenging times and circumstances: Do not hide behind your gender, your level of education or anything else….God is calling you to step up to the challenge. Like Queen Esther, “God has chosen you for such a time as this!” What can you do? How can you help? Come out of your woods and make a difference.
2. Build Bridges.
Mindful of Ephesians 2:12-22, Catherine saw the world awash in sin and the earth separated from heaven by a river overflowing. In this divide, humans stood on one side and there seemed to be no way to reach God across the troubled waters. Jesus was our bridge over troubled waters. Like Jesus, we are to be like bridges stretching across the divisions of humanity. The ones in the meditating and reconciling role become “another Christ crucified.”
When our national leaders put partisan politics and personal agendas ahead of the common good of all Americans and global citizens - especially when they are baptized and faithfully practicing Christians - they would be wise to see themselves “as yet another Christ crucified,” a bridge-builder across troubled waters.
3. Be Open to Both Sides.
To be “open to both sides” reminds me of the singing Russian Jewish peasant, Tevya, in “Fiddler on the Roof.” During one scene, there is an argument between Tevya’s neighbors. When one presents his case, the milkman declares, “You are right.” Then listening to the other side, he responds, and “You are also right.” Then a third neighbor questions how they could both be right, Tevya says, “And you are right also!”
Catherine was “open to both sides.” Because of her tremendous empathy and Godly presence of love, she was able to be open to both sides in a conflict. While this might see like a contradiction, Jesus makes a distinction between the peace the world wants vs. the peace that God demands - a peace that - after all - passes human understanding!However, God seeks a peace based on truth, justice, and love. Catherine used this trinity to mediate struggles between and among people.
When injustice and oppression afflicted people, Catherine found her way to truth, love and justice knowing that to stay on the side of injustice and oppression would destroy life. We would be wise to walk in this way. Be open to both sides, but stay grounded in your conviction that God’s peace always incorporates truth, justice and love.
4. Speak the Truth in Love.
Although Catherine sought to listen to both sides, there were times when she simply had to “speak the truth in love.” For example, she accused Pope Gregory XI of doing wrong. She said, “You seek the advice of self-serving and evil clerics…Do not listen to them. They are incarnate devils.” She called out the Queen of Naples and civil rulers of Bologna. She was courageous and bold. She believed the world of her day was “being destroyed through silence.” She upbraided some cardinals for being “ungrateful, cowardly, mercenary and fearful of their own shadows.”
This first and true Dominican Sister of Peace brought together the Holy Spirit-given gifts of “passion for truth and compassion for humanity.” Father Timothy Radcliffe, O.P. has written, “We all need, like Catherine, the wisdom and courage to speak truthfully and openly with words that unite rather than divide, illuminate rather than obscure and heal rather than wound.”
5. Act Peacefully.
War and violence are so overwhelming that we often cannot find words or actions that seem large enough and meaningful enough for peace. Sr. Mary O’Driscoll tells the story that changed Bishop Desmond Tutu from a feeling of hopelessness to one of hope. It was a small peaceful gesture taken by an Anglican priest, Father Trevor Huddlestone. When Father Huddlestone met Bishop Tutu’s mother he took off his hat to honor her, a lowly black servant. This act of humble love and respect changed Tutu.
Catherine of Siena could not change the whole world - or even the church’s schisms - during her time. However, she prayed constantly and wrote letters to everyone she knew. God told her, “Never relax your desire to ask for my help. Never lower your voice in crying out to me to be merciful to the world.” Live your life as an act of peace. That is what Catherine did.
6. Go down the ladder of your humanity.
Catherine once befriended a man named Nicholas, a prisoner sentenced to death. He had been hostile to God, to the church and especially to Siena. By all counts, he was Catherine’s enemy. While in prison waiting his beheading, Catherine sought “compassionate solidarity” with him. She helped him move from an attitude of hate and hostility to a place of deep peace with Catherine and with God. She attended his execution and brought peace to him. She had a vision that he was welcomed to heaven and eternal peace with God.
We all need to grow in “self knowledge” and peace with God, going down the ladder of humanity and meeting people exactly where they are and helping them with what they need. Catherine of Siena will always be in my mind’s eye a saint, with arms outstretched for the whole world. In one hand, she will always hold a cross. In the other hand, she will always hold an olive branch.
On this, Saint Dominic’s Day, preach and practice your faith with a new fire. Remember Saint Catherine with her cross and olive branch and live into the six principles for peacemaking that she gave to the world.