Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira
St. Catherine of Siena’s Crucial Intervention in History
Drawing a Parallel Between the 15th-Century Crisis and Today’s
The Importance of Indulgences to Shorten or Avoid Purgatory
Saint of the Day, Friday, April 30, 1971
Today is the feast of Saint Catherine of Siena, Virgin and Doctor of the Church. Here is the text provided about her:
The first Christmas Catherine spent in Rome was approaching. When she was a poor girl, she had always liked to give presents to her friends on this holy feast with flowers and crosses.
But now that she had prestige, to the joy of her friends, she was obtaining indulgences and concessions from the Church for them.
She did not forget the pope, to whom she sent five oranges she had gilded, sending along with the gift these expressive lines: “Be thou a tree of love grafted onto the Tree of Life, Christ, the sweet Jesus. From this tree will spring a flower born from thy will, and the thought of virtues and their fruits will ripen for the greater honor of God and the salvation of thy flock.”
“This fruit seems bitter when first bitten by the mouth of holy desire, but it will become sweet provided the soul is resolved to suffer to death for the crucified Christ and the love of good.
“This happens with the orange, which you put in water to remove its bitterness, then add sugar and brown it on the outside. Now, where is its bitterness left? In the water and fire.
“Most Holy Father, the same happens with the soul that conceives the love of virtue. What at first seems bitter comes from its imperfection. The remedy is in the blood of Christ crucified, which provides the water of grace, purifying it of sensual and self-love, which fills the soul with sadness.
“As blood is connected with fire, since it was shed with the fire of love, we can say, in truth, that fire and water purify the soul of self-love and extract from it the bitterness that it first contained, filling it with strength through perseverance and patience, and sweetening it with the honey of a profound humility.
“The fruit is thus prepared and gilded, and this gold symbolizes the gold of purity and the shining gold of charity, which is manifested by a true patience in the service of neighbor and enables us to bear him always with huge tenderness of heart, keeping from him no grudge but the bitterness of the offense to God and the harm done to souls.”
* * *
Giving a Saint of the Day about this beautiful text is more or less like making tea from stones. The text is so flowery and complicated with ideas, inferences, analogies, etc., that, to be kind, I have the impression that at least 99% of my young listeners could not keep up with it.
While this text is lovely, I cannot remember the whole thing and recompose the scene, so I am obliged to give a Saint of the Day out of thin air.
Providence Raised Saint Catherine of Siena at a Time of Great Decadence in Christendom
As you know, Saint Catherine of Siena was a laywoman. A third-order Dominican, she was one of the greatest saints produced by the Church in 15th-century Italy.
She lived under the direction of an excellent priest, Blessed Raimondo of Capua, who wrote her very beautiful biography. Interestingly, he was her confessor, and she authorized him to recount what he heard. So we have this unique fact: the story of a saint written by another saint. Even more, the story of a penitent written by her confessor.
I read this life of Saint Catherine of Siena by Blessed Raimondo of Capua and found it a true marvel.
In the 15th century, the Church was in a really tragic situation. Even before it ended, when Europe generated the monster of Protestantism, the Middle Ages showed signs of decadence that could make us fear what was happening.
O [relatively] happy Church of that decadent time! What had entered the Church was not a heresy but abuse of all kinds of ecclesiastical assets.
The Benedictine Order, which had been the mainstay of the Church in Europe, was in decay. The abbots used their prerogatives, privileges and pomp to lead the life of great secular lords.
Rather than the tranquility and stability brought by detachment from earthly goods, the extremely wealthy monasteries provided their members with a life of luxury opposed to the rule of Saint Benedict.
The rule of Saint Benedict prescribes luxury for the liturgy and Church pomp but simplicity for the life of the friars. That was not happening.
True, in the 15th century, there was a luxurious liturgy, but human pomp and enjoyment among the friars was excessive. The secular clergy were even more decadent than the regular, and the evil went to the head of the Church, to cardinals and the pope, whence you had schisms.
At a certain point, there was a pope and two anti-popes simultaneously. The confusion was such that saints were obeying each of the anti-popes ─ evidently in good faith because they were saints. Amid that confusion, upright souls lamented the popes’ absence from Rome.
The true popes were based in Avignon, a city-fief the Church owned in France. They lived there under the rule of the French kings. Rome became so abandoned those cattle grazed inside churches, where the grass grew tall; such was the state of degradation that had befallen Christendom. At that time, Providence raised this semi-religious laywoman – a semi-hermit if you will -– who belonged to a third-order but lived as a nun in her father’s home.
Some Peculiarities of St. Catherine’s Life
She formed around herself a group and, later, a movement. One of her peculiarities was that she stayed talking with friends until very late. She would comment on the most notable events of the day and give them religious instruction. Her friends, which we could call the St. Catherine of Siena’s group, were really enthusiastic about her.
Saint Catherine, a very intelligent person, was very fond of talking. At the same time, she knew very well how to deal with individuals to whom she was sent as an envoy. And she kept correspondence with several popes because she received visions and revelations and foretold the future.
After returning to Rome, as one of those popes wanted to go back to Avignon, she predicted: “If you go back to Avignon, you will soon die.” He died on his way.
You understand that such events gave her great prestige with the popes, and she thus influenced all Christendom at that time.
She worked very hard to reunify the Church and have the pope return to Rome. She somehow succeeded because a pope then settled in Rome. By then, the schism was over, and things ran normally.
Although she was such a mortified penitent, the fact that Saint Catherine liked to make Christmas gifts to her friends shows her friendly and joyful mindset in the good sense of the word.
The gifts she offered were symbolic. When she was poor, she offered flowers-- which are plentiful in Italy, and crosses—which are also abundant in the life of a Catholic.
This idea of giving flowers and crosses at Christmas is very balanced because it is a time of joy, and it is good to offer flowers at Christmas. However, for a true Catholic, there are no flowers without crosses, and it is always good when giving flowers to remind souls they have to prepare for crosses. There is no joy without suffering, and it is always good to remember that one must be prepared for suffering at a time of joy.
Nor are there crosses without flowers. A true Catholic accepts suffering as something indispensable for sanctification, uniting us to Our Lady. Because of this, he receives the cross with joy. This soul's joy is the flowers with which a Catholic adorns the crosses that God sends him.
When an unpleasant thing comes his way, the Catholic receives it with flowers as did as Our Lord Jesus Christ. Catherine Emmerich recounts that when He picked up His cross to carry it to the top of Calvary, He embraced it and kissed it affectionately. He then placed it on his shoulders as the instrument to accomplish the redemption of the human race, for which He had come to earth.
Other gifts Saint Catherine offered at Christmas: Indulgences and healthy warnings for the spiritual life
When she became more important and endowed with prestige with the popes, she gave much higher presents: indulgences and spiritual gifts.
To understand the value of indulgences, you have to keep in mind that almost everyone who dies passes through Purgatory.
In Purgatory, the soul is purified from its stains on this earth. A psalm of David says, “Se iniqüitatis observaveris, Domine, Domine, qui sustinebit?” If You, O Lord, will observe iniquities, who will stand before Thee? (Ps 129:3). Theologians say that many saints pass through Purgatory, so it is very difficult for anyone to escape it.
Indulgences are graces that shorten Purgatory or even save a person from it. So you understand how, in an age of faith, people are eager to receive indulgences because it is a guarantee against the very harsh—though not eternal—flames of Purgatory.
Medieval men were greedy for indulgences and made tremendous pilgrimages by walking from northern Sweden to Santiago of Compostela in Spain to receive the pilgrimage’s indulgences. They pilgrimaged on foot to the Holy Land to profit from the attached indulgences. They went down through the Balkans, crossed the small Bosphorus strait, and went to the Holy Land. On those trips, they exposed themselves to accidents, robbery, beatings, death, sickness without adequate treatment, etc. to obtain indulgences.
As Christmas Eve arrived, souls greedy for indulgences would find a papal brief sent by Saint Catherine of Siena with such and such indulgences. What they would pick up by going all the way to Compostela, they would receive on Christmas Eve as a gift from their great spiritual benefactress. You can imagine the joy that gift caused.
But Saint Catherine was always a great truth-teller, and those gifts conveyed an underlying message as the gift of indulgences reminded recipients: “Do not forget that you have to pay. Think of your accounts. They might be in the red. Open your eyes, remember death.”
This message came in the beautiful form of a pardon as bells rang on Christmas Eve. There cannot be a more attractive way [to deliver a present]. But that pardon posed a question mark: “Are these indulgences enough? Or will there be more to pay? Open your eyes because the potential plenary indulgence covering everything will not cover for the future. Will you have enough time to receive other indulgences by next Christmas?” Therefore, it was a very gracious, low-key, affectionate and salutary warning for people to mind their spiritual life.
The Meaning of Presenting the Pope with Five Oranges
Fifteenth-century Europeans had an idea of tropical countries, more or less a child’s idea of the moon.
They thought that (to the disgrace of the human race, Brazil or South America were not yet known) in regions with a hot climate, nature was much more splendid, birds were brilliant, flowers were huge and exhaled astonishing perfumes, and fruits tasted terrific. Oranges were some of the most prestigious fruits, and sometimes arrived from the south of Italy or Spain, Africa or Asia.
While the word's etymology is not well known, some etymologists think it comes from gold and is “auranja,” that is, a fruit made of gold.
In what St Catherine of Siena writes, one finds slight support for this etymology. She sends the pope five oranges, which at the time were very rare. It would be like sending five moon fruits. Unfortunately for the pope, they were painted and not authentic oranges. To encourage the pope to virtue, St. Catherine--who knew what oranges looked like and ate them--writes a whole letter that I would not be able to repeat here.
Here is the meaning of her graceful letter accompanying the five gold-painted balls: the orange is beautiful and delicious but has bitterness and also produces disappointment. Overall, it encourages the mind to do penance, love suffering, and not seek only the pleasures of this life.
Drawing a Parallel between that Crisis and Today’s
What would a high-, mid-, or low-ranking prelate say today if given those oranges? Their first reaction would be indignation: “What a silly and naive nun who sent me five painted cardboard balls. She had to be a nun...” They would find it utterly dull as they have lost their freshness and naivety. They would be able to accept plastic balls perfectly imitating oranges and would find them “funny.” But they would not know to appreciate the beauty of a slightly imperfect cardboard orange made by a nun, which translates the naivety of a charming soul.
Would they read to the end a letter such as St. Catherine’s? I doubt it. Would they understand it? Perhaps the older would. The younger ones, I doubt it. If they understood, would they like it? Almost all of them would not because they would not want to be called to penance. They think they are so above any warning or reproach that they absolutely do not accept a layperson telling them anything.
I did not read the Second Vatican Council in its entirety. But as far as I have read it and heard of it, it has this curious side: unlike almost all other councils, it has not a word about the dire state of the Church even as that bad state begins to show all its wounds.
Today’s priests do not accept being told that they have faults, even though those faults show from all sides. And if anyone comes to give them advice, they will take it as an insult.
Here you understand the difference between the two crises. Church historians today write about the 15th-century crisis in the darkest of inks. They are right. It was a very sad crisis. Now, comparing the 15th-century crisis with today’s would be more or less like comparing firearms in the pioneers’ time with the atomic bomb.
Scientifically speaking, that crisis is already deadly, if you will, but how naive and insufficient when compared to the atomic bomb! And how small and inadequate the 15th-century crisis would be to cause the terrible evils of our day.
Why is that? The spirit of the Revolution has penetrated the clergy, and one of its characteristics is their pride. They do not want to recognize their faults. Unwilling wanting to recognize their faults, they plunge deeper and deeper and end up in the present situation.
Let us take St. Catherine as Patroness and ask Her Help to Achieve Great Victories for the Church
Having worked so hard to rebuild the Church in her time, Saint Catherine of Siena is naturally considered our patron saint. Thus, we who work for the Catholic cause amid this general collapse should ask her help from heaven to obtain great victories for the Church as she did.
Had St Catherine of Siena not existed, Protestantism would have come much faster and would have been much more devastating, and the magnificent reaction of the Council of Trent would not have happened.
We are so much smaller than she and yet must desire something so much greater! We must not wish to half-dam this crisis but to make it cease entirely.
We must hope the Revolution is reduced to rubble and the magnificent fortress of the Reign of Mary is built upon it. From the heights of heaven, this is what Saint Catherine of Siena desires with all her soul from the heights of heaven. Therefore, let's ask her to obtain this grace for us.