Plagues and Strife, Six Centuries Ago

Catherine Benincasa lived through two outbreaks of the bubonic plague in Siena (in what we now call Italy). Her mother gave birth to Catherine during the devastating first outbreak of the disease. Then the Black Death came back, 26 years later. Catherine lost three of her siblings.

St. Catherine of Siena

In those days, the pope lived in France. Odd. Since the pope is, by definition, bishop of Rome.

Catherine wrote to Gregory XI. She reasoned with him: If you prefer French living to doing your pastoral duty in Rome, then you ought to resign.

The pope actually did as the young nun asked. Not resign, but come to Rome.

Problem solved? Not exactly. Gregory then died. The Cardinals elected a successor, who insisted on remaining in Rome, rather than return to France (home of most of the Cardinals, at that time.) So the Cardinals asked him to resign. When he wouldn’t, they elected a different pope.

Catherine called the Cardinals “incarnate demons” for causing a schism.

The “Western Schism,” as we call it, lasted for the next forty years. Pope Martin V finally succeeded in both a. returning the papacy to Rome and b. achieving universal recognition as pope, during the 1420’s.

Today at Holy Mass, we read the passage from John 6 where Lord Jesus says: I will not lose anything that the Father gives Me. Everyone who sees the Son, and believes in Him, will have eternal life.

St. Catherine of Siena died in Rome, 640 years ago today. She breathed her last surrounded by ecclesiastical turmoil, but totally united with Jesus, even in His wounds. (She received the stigmata.)

St Catherine of Siena tomb Sopra Minerva

In 2005, I had the privilege of celebrating Mass on the altar that holds St. Catherine’s mortal remains.

Also, last year I got to visit the relics that they keep in Venice. May St. Catherine intercede for us with the Son of God.

foot of St Catharine of Sienna, Saints John and Paul Venice

Greetings from My Patron’s Home

Rialto Bridge view
View from the Rialto Bridge on a moonlit might

Now, what news on the Rialto? (Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, Act III, scene 1)

I accidentally got on a water-bus going in the wrong direction. Wound up on the finger of land that separates the Venetian lagoon from the Adriatic sea. And I saw something I hadn’t seen in days. An automobile.

…Today I had the opportunity to go to confession and celebrate Mass at the tomb of my baptismal patron. (Photography strictly prohibited inside.)

Saint Mark's Venice

They keep some magnificent paintings in the old palace of the doge, right next door.

Palazzo ducale deposition Christ cross

Palazzo ducale penitent Magdalen
penitent Magdalen
Venice and Pope Alexander VII offering isle of Lefkada to St. Peter
Venice and Pope Alexander VII offering the Greek isle of Lefkada to St. Peter, after a victory over the Turks

I visited the ancient church which held the cathedra of the Patriarch of Venice until just a couple centuries ago. (St. Mark’s basilica had served simply as the doge’s chapel for a millennia, before becoming the cathedral.) Found this inspiring sculpture of the triumph of the cross.

Triumph of the Cross San Pietro di Castello Venice

In the church of Saints John and Paul, martyrs, this stunning sculpture of St. Jerome.

St Jerome Venice

And the foot of St. Catherine of Siena.

foot of St Catharine of Sienna, Saints John and Paul Venice

I had mentioned that Fra Paolo Sarpi, and the Venetian controversy with Pope Paul V, preoccupied me. I found the memorial of Father Sarpi.

Paolo Sarpi

Paolo Sarpi statue close

And his grave, on the isle of the Cimeterio.

Cimiterio Paolo Sarpi Venice

I have a million more things to tell you, dear reader, about this most-perplexing of places–where they developed a government like ours, a thousand years before we Americans even amounted to glimmers in our daddy’s eyes. Where, at 2am, all you hear is the light lapping of water in the canals. Visiting Venice makes me feel like I have not understood the world anywhere near as well as I thought I did.

The smell of the sea air has done me a lot of good. Say a prayer for my safe flight home tomorrow, if you please.

Not Owning It

Barnabas…sold a piece of property that he owned, then brought the money and put it at the feet of the apostles. (Acts 4:36-37)

Re-birth from above involves letting go of worldly possessions and putting them entirely into the hands of their true owner, which is God.

Martyrdom of St. Barnabas
Martyrdom of St. Barnabas
Barnabas had a large estate. People in those days, just like us, thought of a large country estate as the ultimate possession. You could go there and control everything–have peace and quiet, escape the noisy demands of all the rabble in the city. A man with a large estate enjoyed true “independence,” or so everyone thought in the days of the Roman empire.

But Barnabas discovered something. He did not want independence. He didn’t want to be a powerful man who controlled everything in his life and could keep the dirty people away from him.

He wanted just the opposite. He wanted to live in a tent with St. Paul. He wanted to eat simple meals with the poor and teach them about Jesus Christ.

Barnabas knew he could never be satisfied with a comfortable life, because even his great riches seemed paltry compared to the joy of living as one of the brothers who followed in the footsteps of Jesus. Even a vast estate on a Mediterranean island seemed lame compared to heaven. Barnabas chose Christian friendship over wealth. True friendship is worth more than all the money in the world.

St. Catherine of Siena* followed in these same footsteps. She gave up the marriage to a wealthy man which her parents had planned for her. She, too, did not want a “comfortable” life on earth. She preferred to live like Barnabas. She found happiness with the bare minimum of food, clothing, and shelter, so that she could focus on helping other people turn to God.

However it is that the Lord has planned for us to serve Him in this pilgrim life, we can only find our way by recognizing this fact: Everything we have really belongs to God. He has put it all into our hands for one reason: So that we can have the true joy of sharing it with others.

* who died 634 years ago today