Visions of Saint Catherine of Siena
In each century, when the Church has been in need, the Lord has raised up powerful men and women to save her. Catherine was one of those powerful women, a light in the darkness of the Fourteenth Century. She had been chosen by her Lord and Savior to be His bride. And then, when He believed she was ready, He commissioned her to save His Church. She had lived for the Church and she died for the Church, one of those "Dry Martyrs" (Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used this expression to describe those who do not shed their blood for Mother Church, but "who suffer over a period of years pain that far exceeds that of the Wet Martyrs.") we so often speak of in our books.
There is so much we could write about Saint Catherine in this chapter. But we have written about her in three of our books ("Saints and other Powerful Women in the Church, "Scandal of the Cross and Its Triumph", "This is My Body This is My Blood, Miracles of the Eucharist, Book I") and here we would like to focus our attention on her visions of Heaven and her experiences with souls from Purgatory.
Catherine and Heaven
This one August morning in 1370, (10 years before her death) Saint Catherine was not seated with her fellow Mantellate (a form of Tertiaries) at the back of the Church of Saint Dominic, as she usually was. (We visited this church many times and stood where this great Mystic went into ecstasy. She would, upon reception of Holy Communion, go into ecstasy and remain so for hours, most times levitating in mid-air. At times, she had to be carried out of the church because the sacristan had to close it for the night.) This one Sunday, the priest was preaching, when suddenly there was a commotion in the church. Her Mantellate companions were all whispering nervously. Father Bartolomeo realized no one was listening to him. It seemed, he overheard "Catherine Benincasa (Saint Catherine's full name) is dead!" He quickly finished his homily and after Mass was over, hurried into the sacristy to find a lay brother wringing his hands over the devastating news that Catherine was dead!
The priest rushed over to Catherine's house. The streets were lined with mourners. He plowed through the many people who jammed the staircase up to her home. The priest and lay brother forced their way into her room. What they saw brought tears to their eyes; it was Saint Catherine lying motionless in a coffin. Father Bartolomeo had seen Catherine many times in a trance where she appeared dead, but somehow this was not the same. He groaned, his voice shaking, barely able to pronounce the words: "When did she die?" Lapa, one of her close companions, said that she had found her like this when she went to awaken her at six in the morning.
The brother with Father Bartolomeo began to sob uncontrollably, so much so, a blood vessel broke in his chest and he began to hemorrhage profusely, blood gushing forth from his mouth. Everyone was alarmed, as it was apparent the brother was in grave danger. There was no way to stop the bleeding. Father Della Fonte, a priest who had been summoned, raised the brother's limp body up to the edge of the coffin. He took Catherine's still, lifeless hand and placed it on the brother's breast. The bleeding stopped, immediately. Color slowly returned to Catherine's pale face, which by this time had taken on the appearance of marble. Everyone excitedly came close to the coffin. Their joy and eagerness, in anticipation of once again seeing their Catherine's radiant eyes looking back at them, turned to utter dismay. She looked back at them, completely devastated, and then turned toward the wall, sobbing uncontrollably.
Her companions all filed out, to spread the good news that Catherine was alive! But their good news was her bad news. Her trance had lasted over four hours, but her grief at having returned to life lasted two days. When she did speak, all she could say was:
"I have seen the hidden things of God and now I am thrust back into the prison of the body." (St. Catherine intimates that she has had visions of Heaven)
The mystical death she experienced was different from the other ecstasies she'd had. For the next (and last) ten years of her life, she could not speak of what she had seen and felt, without bursting into tears. She would look away, her eyes far off, remembering. It was as if she were communicating with her Spouse: How long, how long before I go to You, my Lord? What glorious light had she witnessed that made her life on earth appear so dark and lonely? Not to over simplify, but to try to equate the darkness on earth for Catherine with something we possibly can understand, would be for me, like being in a room filled with people, yet feeling all alone because my spouse was not there. Although it would be a joyful party for everyone, for me it would be empty and lonely, and I would not be able to stand it till I was reunited with my love. Catherine and Jesus were mystically married. She had been instructed by Jesus on earth; she had seen Him in her room at home, when she went into ecstasy in St. Dominic's Church. How was this so different, so earth-shattering, that life on earth became such a burden? How much we have to look forward to!
Although her grief was inconsolable at times, she never was a burden to anyone. She never shirked from the task the Lord had assigned her. It was during this sorrowful period in her life that she brought Pope Gregory XI back from Avignon to Rome, and upon his death, supported his successor. When a new Pope, Pope Urban VI was elected, she was horrified that anyone would turn against him. She loved her Pope and had a few words for those who might think themselves autonomous of the Pope and criticize him:
"Even if he were the devil incarnate, we should not raise our heads against him because he is sweet Christ on earth."
Although she had seen the Lord in Heaven and had received countless gifts, she did not put herself above the Church and its traditions. She was a formidable fighter who would wage battle with the devil himself to save Mother Church.
Catherine chooses Purgatory on earth
Catherine loved her father Giacomo very much. When life with the family became very difficult, (not being able to accept her way of life), he believed in her, remembering the time he had seen a dove hovering over Catherine's head. It was her father Giacomo who ordered his family not to interfere with Catherine's vow to the Lord.
The time came when Giacomo became so ill, the end was near. Catherine, as was her custom, began to pray to her Spouse to cure her father, if it be His Will. The Lord responded that it would not be for Giacomo's best interest for him to remain on earth, any longer. When Catherine knelt beside her father's bedside, she saw how ready he was to leave this world, and she knew peace. But that did not stop her from praying for her Spouse's Mercy. She asked the Lord, not only to pardon her father's sins, but at the moment of death to grant that he enter Heaven, without going through the purifying fires of Purgatory. Jesus could do nothing but deny her petition, explaining that God's Justice had to be satisfied; the soul of her father had to be pure, without blemish, to enter Paradise. He said that although he had led an exemplary life as a husband and father (the Lord particularly pleased with his treatment of Catherine), he had stains on his soul that had to be removed by the purifying flames of Purgatory.
Then Catherine pleaded with the Lord: "Please Lord, do not allow my father to die before his soul has been purified on earth, so that he might not suffer torment passing through the raging flames of Purgatory." (Cf. Blessed Raymond of Capua) Giacomo lingered, his strength ebbing away, unable to die because of the battle between the Lord's demand for Justice and Catherine's plea for mercy. Realizing the Lord would not grant her father that special Grace without exacting full payment, Catherine countered with: "If my father cannot go directly to Heaven without satisfying God's Justice, then please allow me to bear my father's pain in his stead." (Cf. Blessed Raymond of Capua) Jesus accepted her selfless act of love toward her father, because of her faithful love for Him and assured her she would suffer as long as she lived, the pain destined for him. Catherine cried out joyfully: "Thank You, Lord for Your Compassion on my father; Thy Will be done." (Cf. Blessed Raymond of Capua) As Giacomo's soul was leaving his body, Catherine's body was being filled with the most excruciating pain, which lasted the rest of her life.
While everyone was grieving, Catherine was glowing, offering consolation to her mother and all the members of her family; for you see, she had seen her father's beloved soul leave his body and soar like a beautiful bird to eternal happiness in Heaven. The Lord, prior to her father's death and ascent to Heaven, had mercifully given Catherine a glimpse of Paradise. (Cf. Blessed Raymond of Capua) As He had done with Peter, James and John when He brought them onto Mount Tabor, and showed them His transfigured Self, prior to His Crucifixion, so now Jesus brought His bride to Heaven that she might keep this Image in her mind and heart through her days of suffering.
Blessed Raymond further writes that Catherine shared that her father visited her many times and thanked her for the happiness she had purchased for him, with her suffering. He revealed many hidden things and warned her of the traps the devil sets for those who relax their guard.