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Associate Reflections

Reflections about the Feast of Catherine of Siena

Laura Gellott
April 28, 2013


I am grateful to S. Peg Gabik and to the planners of today’s liturgy for inviting me to share these reflections with you,  although to preach on Catherine of Siena to a community whose members include Suzanne Noffke  is either an act of incredible bravery or a fool’s errand.  I hope that what follows will fall somewhere in between, with a balance towards the former.

In all the years that I taught history, I would approach the Fourteenth Century through the paradigm sketched out by many a historian, most famously Barbara Tuchman, who used the phrase “a distant mirror.” And indeed, the events of just the last three months have made the reflection seen in the mirror all the more sharp and focused.  The resignation of a pope, in the midst of a church beset by careerism, corruption, and scandal, the loss of a Christ-centered vision: all of this describes our time – and hers.  The dates of Catherine’s life span a mere 33 years: 1347-1380.  Yet within the wider concepts by which historians frame an era -- the so-called “Long Nineteenth Century” that stretches to 1914, or “the Age of Ideological Revolution” that spans the two centuries 1789 to 1989 --we can locate the years of Catherine’s life squarely between 1294 and 1415.  These years, spanning little more than a century, are bookended by papal resignations, events that were cited three months ago in media references to the precedents of “700 years ago” and “600 years ago.”  Catherine was born 53 years after the resignation of Pope Celestine V, an episode that served to usher in the events that drew Catherine into papal politics.  She died 35 years before the resignation of Gregory XII, mandated by the Council of Constance, which drew to an end the Great Schism.  To briefly fill in the contours of that era, Celestine was aided in his resignation by the cardinal who succeeded him as Boniface VIII, one of the great “lawyer popes” of medieval history.  Boniface’s quarrel with King Phillip IV of France would lead, more or less, to the death of Boniface in 1303 and the election of a French cardinal as Clement V.  It was Clement who moved the governance of the church to Avignon, beginning that period known at the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church.”  It was to Avignon that Catherine and her followers would travel, in 1376, to persuade Gregory XI to return to Rome, and it was the reassertion of papal power in Italy which threatened to re-ignite the quarrels between the independent city states of Italy, for which reason Catherine journeyed to Florence to plead the papal cause and advocate for peace. And it was Gregory’s untimely death, in 1378, shortly after his return to Rome, which triggered the disputed election which resulted in the Great Schism: rival popes in Rome and back in Avignon.  This was a development that grieved Catherine deeply, and led her to devote the last 18 months of her life to the cause of restoration of the unity of the Church under the Italian pope Urban VI.  Her prayer of self-sacrifice to this cause is recorded in last letter of Raymond of Capua:

O eternal God, receive the offering of my life in this

mystic body of holy Church.  I have nothing to give

except what you have given me, so take my heart and

squeeze it out over the face of the bride [the Church].

So while the particular details of the crises within the Church do differ between Catherine’s time and ours, the rare event of papal resignation triggers thoughts of comparison.  So too does the unfolding “next chapter” in our time: the election of a man who takes the name “Francis.”  With this we are again drawn back into Catherine’s world: the world of Francis and of Dominic, whose spirituality and charism Catherine, living as a Third Order Mantellata, embraced.  We are drawn back to the time of the mendicants, who called into question a Church hierarchy clad in gilt robes and dwelling in palaces, elevated literally and figuratively above the faithful whom they were meant to serve.  The same media which, a month earlier, had been absorbed in the parallels of papal resignation, now reacted with surprise and joy to the words and actions of Pope Francis, who explained his choice of name:

 [My good friend Cardinal Hummes, Archbishop Emeritus of São Paolo] gave me a hug and a kiss, and said: "Don't forget the poor!" And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of

Assisi. . . . He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man …

How I would   like a Church which is poor and for the poor!

Now, past those first weeks of exhilarating visuals: the pope taking the bus back to the guest house, paying his hotel bill in cash, phoning home to Buenos Aires to cancel his newspaper subscription, eschewing the papal palace and the red shoes, washing the bare feet of juvenile offenders: young women and Muslims included, we have what for many of us is the first disappointment: the decision to let the disciplinary actions against the LCWR / Leadership Conference of Women Religious proceed.

 And yet even with this, perhaps especially with this, we are drawn back again to Catherine’s world, and to her unrelenting zeal for speaking Truth to power, even to papal power.

The historian Catherine Meade, CSJ / (Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Boston), in her book, My Nature is Fire: Catherine of Siena characterized Catherine’s world as follows:

[There existed] the strange dichotomy of a laity growing in personal intimacy with God . . . while estranged from official religious authority . . . . The papacy . . . [felt it   necessary to] defend its authority over powerful . . . religious groups [to preserve] the unity of Christendom. . . . These factors operated in a superstructure whose foundation was  itself in flux as changing patterns of family life, new civic and national awareness, and emotional strains of pious religious expression made change more constant than custom. . . . Changes in established gender patterns … contributed to the overall dynamism of the period.  The combination of new roles for women with increased emphasis on gospel traditions . . . incorporated a uniquely feminine dimension of witness and/or service, some characterized by singular forcefulness, power, and even leadership. [1]

Those words, of course, describe our world as well.  And this is, I believe, what Joan Chittester had in mind when she wrote, only last week:

So what is going on? Especially at what seems to be a moment of the great change in the church of the autocrats and monarchs to the church of the Jesus who walked among the people and loved them?

Well, for one thing, what's going on is the same thing that's been going on for more than 1,500 years: Nuns everywhere are working with the people, hearing their stories, attempting to meet their needs, having a presence in their lives, simply intent on being the caring face of a merciful church -- . . . witnesses to the Gospel of unconditional love.. . .

Sister Joan continues:

[W]hat is going on now is a mysterious work in progress. . . . . The church now has as its   model, it seems, a man who is committed to the poor. . . .  [And] it is impossible to say you are committed to the poor and not know that two-thirds of the hungry of the world are women who get only the leftovers after their husband and children have eaten; two-thirds of the illiterate of the world are women enslaved by their lack of education as the chattel of men; two-thirds of the poorest of the poor . . . are women. . . . It is simply impossible to   be really committed to the poor and not devote yourself to doing something to change the role and status of women in the world. [2]

A work in progress.  A work that requires the same unrelenting zeal that led Catherine to speak of God, of love, of her God-directed zeal as a “fire always burning but never consuming; . . . a fire consuming in [its] heat all the soul’s selfish love, . . . .that light beyond all light who gives the mind’s eye supernatural light in such fullness and perfection that [it] bring[s] clarity even to the light of faith.” [3]

   And so we return to today’s second reading, composed two years before Catherine set out on her journey to Avignon to admonish Pope Gregory.

            “Oh blazing fire ever burning, you are indeed a fire! This it seems is

            what the mouth of Truth said: “I am fire and you are the sparks”.

   From whence came such images and metaphors? We can read in Catherine’s words evidence of at least an acquaintance with the emerging scholastic philosophy of another Dominican, with whom Catherine now shares the title “Doctor of the Church,” Thomas Aquinas; Thomas – whose wisdom pervaded the sermons preached at the church of San Domenico in Siena, and whose insights were already familiar to Catherine’s learned Dominican associates [4]  Efficient, proper, and final causality: -- all those Scholastic terms -- effects which are like their causes, causes which must exist by the very essence of their being: In Catherine’s words:

The fire always wants to return to its source [its cause], and so it always goes back up. Just as the sparks receive their being from the fire, so let us acknowledge that our being comes from our first source.

Yet Catherine’s thought was ultimately inspired less by the rational than by the experiential, the affective, the mystical: by the sights and sounds of her home and of the city of Siena: “the kitchen fire eagerly consuming the wood thrown on it, light filtering through a narrow street, a tall tree laden with fruit,  . . . .the mirror in which she sees her own  reflection, a Tuscan vineyard. ” [5] Even the Lorenzetti paintings in the City Hall of Siena: the “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” informed her critique of the governance of church and state in her day. [6]  And how easy it is to picture Catherine, gazing into the fire on the family hearth in the kitchen of the Benincasa home as she prepared the noon meal, and forming the image:

“I am fire and you are a spark.” So let your soul rise up like a spark, let it first go up and   then come back down. Open wide, open wide your soul to embrace your neighbor in love!   Let us run eagerly along the way of truth! Sow, Sow God’s Word! Make good on the     talents entrusted to you! Be enterprising in your use of them.”

   Let us here today, women and men of Dominic, of Thomas, of Catherine, go forward with that same zeal, imbued with that fire that lit Catherine’s life.  Fire that warms, fire that rages, fire that draws us in, fire that causes the unwary to flinch and recoil.  Fire that burns but does not consume, fire that forges steel.  Let each of us resolve anew to be the sparks, sparks that share in the same nature as their source, the fire that is the eternal love of God, the fire that is Truth itself.


[1] Catherine M. Meade, CSJ, My Nature is Fire: Saint Catherine of Siena (New York: Society of Saint Paul, 1991), 14-15.

[2] Joan Chittester, “Tainted by Radical Feminism? More Like ‘Living the Gospel,” National Catholic Reporter, 24 April 2013.

[3] Mary O’Driscoll, O.P., ed., Catherine of Siena: Passion for the Truth, Compassion for Humanity: Selected Spiritual Writings (New Rochelle, NY: New City Press, 1993), 136.

[4]  Meade, 18.

[5] O’Driscoll,16.

[6] Meade, 22-26.




For a tree there is hope, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again and that its tender shoots will not cease.  Even though its root grow old in the earth and its stump die in the dust, yet the first whiff of water it may flourish again and put forth branches like a young plant. Job 14:7-10 



Taken from:  Rooted in Hope,The Story of the Dominican Sisters of Racine, Wi                              

by Sister Mary Hortense Kohler


Grace and peace to you in the Compassion of the Spirit which grounds us and keeps us.  Amen.


It’s been said here lately that we all live in our stories.  So let me share one of mine.  In my front yard there’s an apple tree – three actually – but only two look like apple trees.  The other pretty much looks like a stump.  It used to look like an apple tree but a couple of years ago, the small leaves died on it even before the blossoms came. When I pushed it, it wobbled in the ground as though it’s roots had come loose.  It’s bark was bruised as though something – a riding lawnmower? – may have rammed into it.  I made some ‘inquiries’ of my family as to how this may have happened but no one seemed to know. 

Here at Siena, you can imagine what I felt, having just recently lost – and blessed – and saved some trees yourselves.  I was mourning this apple tree. It was special.  It had been planted for me by a friend in memory of her son who had died tragically when I was their pastor.  “Well, there’s no sense in having that dead tree out there in the yard,” I said to my husband, George, and I was ready to have him pull it out.  But he, being wiser  - and maybe more compassionate than myself - said, “No, I don’t think it’s dead.  Let’s just leave it for a while.”  So we cut off the clearly dead part and left the stump.

Last spring, it still looked like just a stump. But early summer, George came in and said, “The apple tree’s growing.”  Sure enough, with a rest over winter and the “whiff” of spring rains, from the base of the stump had sprouted two tall shoots, leaves open, reaching for the sky.  The truth was that it wasn’t dead.  It’s deep roots, however loosened, held it’s wobbly life secure, waiting in hope of renewed life.  Over this past winter, I noticed sadly that the rabbits had nipped those two new shoots off.  But this spring, yet again, there were new ones at the base of the stump…living in ceaseless hope of bearing fruit once more.

Our stories are always like that, of being cut down and of new growth.  Our 150 history and my considerable shorter personal one both know those places.  We know that particularly well here at Siena, as lately we’ve watched and waited through endless meetings where village boards, the DNR and other entities lay out what seems an endless list of requirements before moving ahead with the new building.

Almost four years ago, I retreated here, struggling as the pastor of a small parish whose vision for their ministry had turned out to be very different from what I felt God was calling me to be about.

Hope can be difficult to find in times like that.  It’s anxious, waiting for the gentle rains to come, difficult to rest in the dark earth waiting for the life that will come tomorrow. Like Job’s story, and this community’s, and mine, things can look hopeless sometimes.  Yet….here you are – on the brink of this  exciting new collaboration with ‘the Lutherans.’  And here I am, a Lutheran pastor about to become a Racine Dominican Associate.  Who would’ve thought?  Except the One who grounds us, and waters us, cuts away the dead parts, and makes us flourish.

It is that rootedness that has brought me – and all of you – sisters and associates alike, together…for in this place, we see the indwelling of God in and for each other and the world.  Here, God’s vision of truth and justice is that ‘whiff,  that ‘scent’ of spring rain that seeps into our very roots, keeping us grounded – even when we wobble – and daily renewing our hope that we might just indeed be the bearers of compassion and justice…at least for this time and this place...and that is all god asks of us…to live rooted in that hope.  Thanks be to God.

Reflections by Associate Candidates


Through the Valley of the Shadow

by Jean Gfall (New Richmond ,WI)

I walked with my dogs last week through the DNR land near our home where they had just burned. It was black and dreary and little puffs of gray ash formed around our feet as we traversed this valley of the shadow of death. It was a bleak landscape. Yet the dogs, being their normal busy selves, were even then nosing out evidence that life continues here.

As a Home Care Chaplain, I spend much of my time with people who are walking through that valley of the shadow where it appears that death, physically or spiritually, is the only option; that their life is going to crash and burn and there will be nothing left. It is impossible to tell them that all will be well, for they cannot hear my words. But my role as chaplain is not to convince them of anything; my role is to walk with them through the fire, helping them hold at bay the shadows that they fear and the flames that threaten to engulf them. For one man, it was as simple as showing up at his door and listening. He told me how much he missed being able to care for his ‘bluebird trail’ of bird houses since it became impossible for him and his wife to stay in their own home any longer. For another person whose physical life would, indeed, end shortly, it was walking with him back through what he had learned and believed all his life about God’s grace - that it was for him and that he needn’t fear he hadn’t done enough, been good enough to warrant it. In each, I could see the small green sprouts of life appear as the shadows began to dissipate.

Today, just a few days later, I walk near the same expanse of DNR land and rain has come. There are tiny green shoots beginning to emerge from the blackness. I can smell the plum blossoms as they open in defiance of the flames that just a week ago licked their lower branches. The pond echoes again with the cheery voices of spring peepers. Life is returning already and abundantly. The shadows of death are being overrun by it. I think of resurrection. I breathe in the fragrant air and give thanks.


Valentine’s Day Encounter

by Mare Wheeler (Gilbert AZ)

On Valentine’s Day I accompanied Jason, an ER nurse and instructor at the medical school where I teach, on a "house call" to a homeless female prostitute. We drove to a grimy roadside restaurant in a run down section of town. Liliana soon arrived; she was in very bad shape - her right eye swollen shut, she was tremulous from not having money to buy her drug of choice (opiates) and was running a fever. Earlier she had been unceremoniously kicked out of a local ER without being treated. Quickly, before the restaurant owners kicked us out, we figured out the source of infection, got her the needed medications, made sure she had a safe place for the night, clean water, (neither a given here) a hug, and instructions to follow up later with Jason.
St. Catherine of Siena wrote, "To the servant of God... every place is the right place and every time is the right time." My encounter with Liliana was at the right time and place! So Valentine’s Day, when we celebrate human love, was very powerful for me. It reminded me of my Dominican "compelled to justice" commitment to preach by my presence - to show up for those for whom others will not show up, to meet the leper - or the prostitute - or the social justice need - and embrace it (or her!). I see my ministry, my charism as a Dominican associate as not a politely passive thing. It is scary, up for surprises, requiring sometimes brutal truth and humility. I work among the homeless, undocumented and the addicted because it is there I find my passion, my com-passion, the fire in my belly, my best self and a luminous God in the eyes of those whom I encounter. There, I hope, as Albert Camu once wrote, "to do the least amount of harm and maybe a little good."
As a result of our Valentine’s night urgent care visit with Liliana, Jason, that intrepid ER nurse, and I are starting a medical ministry called "House Calls." At least one evening a week we make a "home visit" among the homeless and/or undocumented folks in this very large city. Jason takes his large backpack which contains almost enough for a field hospital. I take a large flashlight, my Spanish dictionary and a prescription pad. If possible we take a "promontora" (health care worker) with us to ensure follow up. The work is nerve-wracking, enlightening, and for me, grace-filled. We never know what or whom we’ll encounter. I only know that it’s the right thing to do. By the way, Liliana recovered quickly from that last nasty infection.


We Are Blessed



by Michael Meier (Racine WI)
As Dominicans, we Praise, we Bless and we Preach. The word "Bless" is a simple word with many uses. It is a polite term when someone sneezes, "Bless you", or "God bless you". It becomes a term of power when used in scripture. We are reminded by God how blessed we are and that those blessings will continue. In the book of Numbers (6:24) we hear "The Lord bless you and keep you." So too, the Psalms are filled with praise and blessings to and from God.
God gives us the biggest blessing…that of life, and all that is needed as followers to journey through life.
God the Son, our Lord Jesus, gave us the blessings of forgiveness and salvation through His ultimate sacrifice on the cross. That sacrifice gives us the hope of eternal life with God at our life’s end.
God the Holy Spirit blesses us with the gift of faith, provided by the Word and the Sacraments, including the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, held near and dear to our hearts.
To be blessed by God is an assurance of hope, and a certainty of faith.