Plinio Corręa de Oliveira
Saint Catherine of Genoa and Her Visions of Purgatory
How the Joy of Being Loved By God Coexists with the Sorrow of Having Offended Him
The Need to Purify One’s Soul to Enter Heaven
Saint of the Day, Wednesday, March 27, 1971
I have a biographical note about Saint Catherine of Genoa (1447–1510) taken from Camone, The True Face of Saints.
“Catherine of Genoa, from the noble lineage of the Fieschi, was born in that Mediterranean city at the end of 1447. Her parents thwarted her wishes to enter a convent and married her to a Genoese patrician, Giuliano Adorno, for political reasons. Her husband was unfaithful, violent, and lustful. During the first five years of their marriage, the young woman suffered in silence. Later, when her husband tried to drag her into a mundane life to develop her extraordinary gifts of beauty and unique wit, her misfortune increased to the point that she lost even the consolation of religion, which had sustained her.
Ten years after her marriage, Catherine visited her sister, a young novice living in a convent, and told her of her difficulties. The novice advised her to go to confession and lead a life of penance. After making up her mind and starting on that new path, she fell into ecstasy. She discovered the greatness of her sins and felt such a great love for God that this experience became a permanent disposition in her soul, rekindling her childhood desire.
She lived during Lent and Advent almost exclusively on Holy Communion for many years. Her husband, now financially ruined, still made her suffer a lot and only went to confession on his deathbed. Catherine devoted herself entirely to caring for the sick at the Panattoni Hospital in Genoa, where she showed particular heroism during the epidemics of 1495 and 1501.
She died on September 15, 1510, and her feast is celebrated on March 22. She undoubtedly uttered the most profound words ever written about purgatory. In the blazing fire of her love for God, she recognized what souls suffer when passing through that place of purification where the divine fire’s purifying love cleanses them of every vestige of sin. When separating from the body - she said - an impure soul feels crushed, recognizing the weight oppressing it. The soul acquires the conviction that it will only be freed from that weight through purgatory and immediately takes the initiative to plunge into it.
The Divine essence contains so much purity and clarity that souls with even a slight trace of imperfection would dive into a thousand hells rather than appear in God’s presence stained by sin. While the love of God gives them unspeakable well-being, it does not diminish in the least the suffering they must suffer in purgatory. That suffering consists precisely in feeling restrained from all love—a torment that grows as that love becomes more perfect. In this way, the souls in purgatory enjoy the greatest delights while suffering the greatest pains without one hindering the other.”
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Here there are two different considerations about the life of Saint Catherine, one properly biographical and the other about her excerpts on purgatory.
We could make several considerations about her biography. She is a highly called soul who did not respond to God’s call. She married whereas she wanted to become a nun and sustained an ocean of sufferings inflicted by her mother. She succumbed to worldliness and vanity, concerned only with pleasures and ignoring the things of God for a long time.
Then she had a remarkable conversion. At that time, lots of people entered the religious state. Even the highest-ranking families always had two, three, or four children who became friars, nuns, priests, bishops, or joined the orders of chivalry. Being a man or woman religious was the most common thing. She attended her sister’s reception of the habit and told her about all her sufferings in the world. Those sufferings clashed and contradicted each other; she suffered at the hands of her terrible husband, who dilapidated his fortune and converted only on his deathbed. On the other hand – this is not expressly stated but given to understand – one sees the enormous emptiness of the pleasures in which she sought compensation for her suffering. Her sister recommends that she return to God and frequent the sacraments she had abandoned.
She does so and has an ecstasy in which she sees the full horror of her sins. She decides to lead a severe life to the end of her days. For the entire duration of her life, she retains that vision of the sins committed in her mind. She begins a penitent’s life. Once a lady of great honor who occupied a prominent place in society for her beauty, social situation, and wealth in Genoa – one of the world’s most famous cities and an aristocratic republic that dominated that part of the Mediterranean—she became a humble nurse caring for the sick from hospital to hospital, doing penance and mortification.
The idea of atonement for sin through suffering dominates her entire life, and she sets out to suffer a veritable purgatory on Earth. She helps others to suffer and suffers with others to atone for her sins. Hence you see how logical it was for her to have had profound thoughts and probably ecstasies, visions, and revelations about purgatory. The text ends with her description of purgatory. But let us first consider her biography.
Some souls fight God, but He persecutes them obstinately. They flee from God and sometimes even struggle against Him. But at a specific moment, God, in His mercy, touches them so profoundly that they cave in. God overcomes them, and they give themselves to Him entirely. There are countless such souls in the history of the Church.
In chronological order, you have the first example of such a soul in St. Paul, to whom Our Lord said at the time of his conversion: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me? It is hard for you to counter the breeze of God’s grace” calling to a specific purpose. The same happens with Catherine. She tries to avoid the right path. God does not prevent it but puts suffering along her wayward way, and the weight of that suffering prepares her for conversion. Her horrible husband and worldly frustration prepare her soul for that blessed moment when her sister, becoming a spouse of Christ, gives her a good piece of advice. Her soul probably had been prepared for it by a thousand sufferings.
She was more or less like the prodigal son who returned to his father’s house. She comes back and is overcome by God, Who obtains a magnificent victory. Instead of simply inspiring her with pious considerations about sin or asking for a simple act of contrition, God gives her much more: a vision and a clear notion of her sin. After having sinned, she can say, perhaps with greater truthfulness than David’s, that stupendous sentence from his Psalms that has always impressed me: “I have sinned only against Thee, O my God; my sin stands before me all the time” like an accuser telling me what I have done.
One might wonder if God was merciful or harsh with her, a father full of kindness or severity. I understand some may find it extremely hard to face one’s sin, which must produce an impression of such hopelessness that a person might faint. Anyone who thinks this way does not have an entirely clear notion of contrition, nor does he understand how encouraging and magnificent contrition is amid a person’s groans and tears. They are perhaps dismal but beautiful and magnificent joys of true repentance. She describes the beauty of contrition when explaining purgatory.
Purgatory, the place of contrition par excellence, is the destination of souls needing to purify themselves before seeing God’s essence. In this passage, she describes purgatory in a very elevated and concise way, showing that after dying, a faithful soul has an immediate notion of the infinite purity of God’s essence and sees the stark contrast between that purity and its sin. The soul knows it will possess God for all eternity and has a more precise notion of the unfathomable happiness of possessing Him. Yet, at the same time that it feels attracted to God, it sees its inadequacy to present itself to God.
So, simultaneously, the soul has two movements: one full of joy and another full of regret. The joyful movement leads it to want to unite with God. The grief-filled move comes from the contrast between the stain it sees in itself and God’s infinite purity. In the soul, this gives rise to a desire for union with God, and thus for purification, which Saint Catherine says so enraptures the soul in God that it would endure a thousand hells to unite with God. The soul plunges into the flames of purgatory, keenly eager to purify itself and unite with God. There it suffers the delicious torment—or the tormenting delight—of seeing the space separating it from God gradually diminish throughout purification. It draws closer to God, desiring to get ever closer. So the soul has fundamental joy and true sadness that purifies it and brings it closer to God.
Something like this exists in the peace of soul that contrition brings. In the Penitential Psalms, inspired by the Holy Ghost, David expresses his sorrow for sinning. Each of his words is a drop of fire from heaven to the human soul. He makes some magnificent comparisons. At one point, he says, he felt so isolated, rejected, and repudiated because of his sin (happy were the times when people rejected sinners!) that he felt like a solitary sparrow on a rooftop. This comparison could not be more picturesque. People live together at home under the same roof. There they sleep or socialize in the warmth around a fireplace. Outside, one is alone, exposed to the elements, with no one to talk to, crouching on some roof like a lonely sparrow. He is far from the society of virtuous people who love one another, care about each other, and have a warm convivium. This image of a sinner’s solitude could not be more poetic or beautiful. He describes his sorrow in a thousand beautiful ways.
Ass he describes his sorrow, one sees that peace of soul enters him, the peace of soul of a sinner who recognized his sin, knows he is not lying to himself or to God, and dares to face his sin in peace. The Psalms usually end with a song of hope: “But Thou art, O God, my Saviour, Thou wilt have mercy on me,” etc. – words indicating a soul’s yearning to be redeemed and saved. Here one understands the stream of peace, hope, and triumphal joy behind penance. So we must imagine Saint Catherine of Genoa.
Imagine a hospital in Genoa then: a beautiful building as Italian hospitals often used to be. A little bell rings at five o’clock in the morning, and mass is about to start. It is dawn, but the first faithful women enter wearing a veil. Saint Catherine of Genoa also enters, perhaps remembering other nights when she was returning home rather than leaving and did not expect to have a whole day of sacrifice before her. She had the bitter memory of a night of pleasure followed by inevitable frustration. She enters with a light step, asks forgiveness for her sins once again, kneels, begins to pray in the recollection of the Church, and attends a genuine Mass with authentic faithful who pray with a real priest.
Little by little, sunlight enters the Church, and candlelight becomes useless. Nature begins to wake up. She feels an everyday life is beginning and prepares to resume her huge and endless penance tending to the sick. She prepares to hear their groans, watch their agony, and comfort their pain. Beyond all that, she sees a rising light becoming ever more evident. Forgiveness is on its way; heaven is being born, and peace of soul enters as it happens inside that chapel. In her soul, light is also dawning and ascending as in a chapel, from dawn to daylight in which images take on color. At a particular moment, she dies and enters heaven. Hers is the peace of repentance, the tranquility of a contrite soul, a perfume extant in Catholic sadness and resignation, which pagan souls do not know and are worth incomparably more than all pagan joys.
People shiver when you speak of spiritual life, mortification, contrition, etc. They do not understand all the joy and happiness I am trying to describe but cannot do it adequately. There are some things that human words do not express fully, which is precisely that mixture of bitterness and hope, sadness and peace that makes hope worth much more than bitterness, and peace worth much more than sadness. It lives amid grief in which joy is much greater. It has something that reminds me of an expression I believe is from St. Paul: “I have superabundant joy amid my tribulations.”
The world does not know that being a member of the true Church means going through a kind of purgatory on this Earth—a vale of tears to atone for our sins. Now, if we really carry our cross with resignation, we will have torrents of peace, tranquility, stability, normality, order, and fruition no one can imagine in this completely misguided world. This good coexists with true sorrow and contrition. If I only had words to make you feel how true joy can coexist with genuine sorrow, how it makes sorrow bearable without it ceasing to exist, and how carrying the Cross of Our Lord Jesus Christ is worthy of enthusiasm, I am sure it would do good to many souls here. While this is somewhat inexpressible, one finds a profound example of it in the life of Saint Catherine of Genoa. From the heights of heaven, may she intercede for us to obtain grace and enlighten us and make us feel what I am only able to indicate vaguely. May Our Lady give us the peace and joy of true contrition, making us strong to see our defects completely. That is the opposite of our oblique, sideways look at our consciences, ‘taking the French leave,’ unwilling to see or correct our defects, and perpetually avoiding facing them head-on. That gives rise to continual malaise, agitation, and nervousness.
Conversely, if we looked at our faults head-on and said: Yes, this is my fault. That is how it is; I see it in its entirety and full extent. But I look at it in peace, gazing at Our Lady. I do not make the mistake of not looking at it; I look at it, sad that I may not yet correct it effectively, but there will be a moment when Our Lady takes pity on me.
That is a first and worthy step to correcting ourselves, but we must have an inner loyalty whereby we can look at our defects in the face and not close our eyes to them. Let us eliminate from our souls the chaos, confusion, and discomfort from defects that arise from time to time, which we are complicit with, which cause horror and disappear but still cling to us, and we neither know how to catch or want to. The mere fact of sweeping them from our souls and looking at things head-on as they are is an ocean of peace in a genuinely Catholic soul. It already gives us a glimpse of purgatory’s bitter delights, which are the harbingers of heaven.
Through the prayers of Saint Catherine of Genoa, May Our Lady make us understand this.
Saint Catherine's Mauselo in Genoa - Di Sailko - Opera propria, CC BY 3.0 (Wikipedia)