Benedict XVI - General Audiences
On St. Catherine of Genoa
"Love Itself Purifies [the Soul] from the Dross of Sin"
H.H. Benedict XVI
January 12, 2011
Dear Brothers and Sisters!
Today I would like to speak about another saint who, like Catherine of
Siena and Catherine of Bologna, is also called Catherine; I am speaking
of Catherine of Genoa, who is best known for her visions of purgatory.
The text that tells us about her life and thought was published in the
Ligurian city in 1551; it is divided in three parts: "Vita," (Life) on
her life itself; "Dimostratione et dechiaratione del purgatorio"
(Demonstration and Declaration of Purgatory) -- better known as "Trattato"
(Treatise on Purgatory); and "Dialogo tra l’anima e il corpo" (Dialogues
on the Soul and Body). The compiler of Catherine's work was her
confessor, the priest Cattaneo Marabotto.
Catherine was born in Genoa in 1447, the last of five children. She lost
her father, Giacomo Fieschi, when she was very young. Her mother,
Francesca di Negro, educated them in a Christian way, so much so that
the elder of her two daughters became a religious. At 16, Catherine was
married to Giuliano Adorno, a man who, after several experiences in the
area of trade and in the military world in the Middle East, had returned
to Genoa to get married. Their conjugal life was not easy, above all
because of the husband's character [and his] affection for games of
chance. Catherine herself in the beginning was induced to lead a worldly
life, in which she did not find serenity. After 10 years, she had a
feeling of profound emptiness and bitterness in her heart.
Her conversion began on March 20, 1473, thanks to an unusual experience.
Catherine went to the church of St. Benedict and to the monastery of Our
Lady of Graces for confession and, kneeling before the priest, "I
received," as she herself writes, "a wound in my heart of the immense
love of God," and such a clear vision of her miseries and defects, and
at the same time of the goodness of God, that she almost fainted. She
was wounded in her heart by the knowledge of herself, of the life she
led and of the goodness of God. Born from this experience was the
decision that oriented her whole life, which expressed in words was: "No
more world, no more sin" (cf. Vita Mirabile, 3rv). Catherine then left,
leaving her confession interrupted. When she returned home, she went to
the most isolated room and thought for a long time. At that moment she
was inwardly instructed on prayer and became conscious of God's love for
her, a sinner -- a spiritual experience that she was unable to express
in words (cf. Vita Mirabile, 4r). It was on this occasion that the
suffering Jesus appeared to her, carrying the cross, as he is often
represented in the iconography of the saint. A few days later, she
returned to the priest to finally make a good confession. The "life of
purification" began here, a life that for a long time caused her to
suffer a constant pain for the sins committed and drove her to impose
penances and sacrifices on herself to show her love of God.
On this path, Catherine became increasingly close to the Lord, until she
entered what is known as the "unitive life," that is, a relationship of
profound union with God. She wrote in her "Life" that her soul was
guided and trained only by the gentle love of God, who gave her
everything she needed. Catherine so abandoned herself in the Lord's
hands that she lived, almost 25 years, as she wrote, "without the need
of any creature, only instructed and governed by God" (Vita, 117r-118r),
nourished above all on constant prayer and Holy Communion received every
day, something unusual at that time. Only years later, the Lord gave her
a priest to care for her soul.
Catherine was always reluctant to confide and manifest her experience of
mystical communion with God, above all because of the profound humility
she felt before the Lord's graces. Only in the perspective of giving him
glory and being able to help others in their spiritual journey, was she
convinced to recount what had happened at the moment of her conversion,
which was her original and fundamental experience.
The place of her ascent to mystical summits was the hospital of
Pammatone, the largest hospital complex in Genoa, of which she was
director and leader. Thus, Catherine lived a totally active life,
despite the profundity of her interior life. In Pammatone a group of
followers, disciples and collaborators was formed around her, fascinated
by her life of faith and her charity. She succeeded in having her
husband himself, Giuliano Adorno, abandon his dissipated life, become a
Franciscan tertiary and go to the hospital to help her. Catherine's
participation in the care of the sick went on until the last days of her
earthly journey, Sept. 15, 1510. From her conversion to her death, there
were no extraordinary events; only two elements characterized her whole
existence: on one hand, her mystical experience, that is, her profound
union with God, lived as a spousal union, and on the other, care of the
sick, the organization of the hospital, service to her neighbor,
especially the most abandoned and needy. These two poles -- God and
neighbor -- filled her life, which was spent practically within the
walls of the hospital.
Dear friends, we must not forget that the more we love God and are
constant in prayer, the more we will truly love those who are around us,
those who are close to us, because we will be able to see in every
person the face of the Lord, who loves without limits or distinctions.
Mysticism does not create distances with others; it does not create an
abstract life, but brings one closer to others because one begins to see
and act with the eyes, with the heart of God.
Catherine's thought on purgatory, for which she is particularly known,
is condensed in the last two parts of the book mentioned at the
beginning: "Treatise on Purgatory" and "Dialogues on the Soul and Body."
It is important to observe that, in her mystical experience, Catherine
never had specific revelations on purgatory or on souls that are being
purified there. However, in the writings inspired by our saint purgatory
is a central element, and the way of describing it has original
characteristics in relation to her era.
The first original feature refers to the "place" of the purification of
souls. In her time [purgatory] was presented primarily with recourse to
images connected to space: There was thought of a certain space where
purgatory would be found. For Catherine, instead, purgatory is not
represented as an element of the landscape of the core of the earth; it
is a fire that is not exterior but interior. This is purgatory, an
interior fire. The saint speaks of the soul's journey of purification to
full communion with God, based on her own experience of profound sorrow
for the sins committed, in contrast to the infinite love of God (cf.
Vita Mirabile, 171v). We have heard about the moment of her conversion,
when Catherine suddenly felt God's goodness, the infinite distance of
her life from this goodness and a burning fire within her. And this is
the fire that purifies, it is the interior fire of purgatory. Here also
there is an original feature in relation to the thought of the era. She
does not begin, in fact, from the beyond to narrate the torments of
purgatory -- as was usual at that time and perhaps also today -- and
then indicate the path for purification or conversion. Instead our saint
begins from her own interior experience of her life on the path to
eternity. The soul, says Catherine, appears before God still bound to
the desires and the sorrow that derive from sin, and this makes it
impossible for it to enjoy the Beatific Vision of God. Catherine affirms
that God is so pure and holy that the soul with stains of sin cannot be
in the presence of the Divine Majesty (cf. Vita Mirabile, 177r). And we
also realize how far we are, how full we are of so many things, so that
we cannot see God. The soul is conscious of the immense love and perfect
justice of God and, in consequence, suffers for not having responded
correctly and perfectly to that love, and that is why the love itself of
God becomes a flame. Love itself purifies it from its dross of sin.
Theological and mystical sources typical of the era can be found in
Catherine's work. Particularly there is an image from Dionysius the
Areopagite: that of the golden thread that unites the human heart with
God himself. When God has purified man, he ties him with a very fine
thread of gold, which is his love, and attracts him to himself with such
strong affection that man remains as "overcome and conquered and
altogether outside himself." Thus the human heart is invaded by the love
of God, which becomes the only guide, the sole motor of his existence
(cf. Vita Mirabile, 246rv). This situation of elevation to God and of
abandonment to his will, expressed in the image of the thread, is used
by Catherine to express the action of the divine light on souls in
purgatory, light that purifies them and elevates them to the splendors
of the shining rays of God (cf. Vita Mirabile, 179r).
Dear friends, the saints, in their experience of union with God, reach
such profound "knowledge" of the divine mysteries, in which love and
knowledge are fused, that they are of help to theologians themselves in
their task of study, of "intelligentia fidei," of "intelligentia" of the
mysteries of the faith, of real deepening in the mysteries, for example,
of what purgatory is.
With her life, St. Catherine teaches us that the more we love God and
enter into intimacy with him in prayer, the more he lets himself be
known and enkindles our heart with his love. Writing on purgatory, the
saint reminds us of a fundamental truth of the faith that becomes for us
an invitation to pray for the deceased so that they can attain the
blessed vision of God in the communion of saints (cf. Catechism of the
Catholic Church, 1032). Moreover, the humble, faithful and generous
service that the saint gave during her whole life in the hospital of
Pammatone is a luminous example of charity for all and a special
encouragement for women who give an essential contribution to society
and to the Church with their precious work, enriched by their
sensitivity and by the care of the poorest and neediest. Thank you.
 cf. "Libro de la Vita mirabile et dottrina santa, de la beata
Caterinetta da Genoa" (Book of the Life and Doctrine of St. Catherine of
Genoa), which contains a useful and Catholic demonstration and
declaration of purgatory, Genoa, 1551.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Holy Father then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English,
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Our catechesis today deals with Saint Catherine of Genoa, a
fifteenth-century saint best known for her vision of purgatory. Married
at an early age, some ten years later Catherine had a powerful
experience of conversion; Jesus, carrying his cross, appeared to her,
revealing both her own sinfulness and God's immense love. A woman of
great humility, she combined constant prayer and mystical union with a
life of charitable service to those in need, above all in her work as
the director of the largest hospital in Genoa. Catherine's writings on
purgatory contain no specific revelations, but convey her understanding
of purgatory as an interior fire purifying the soul in preparation for
full communion with God. Conscious of God's infinite love and justice,
the soul is pained by its inadequate response, even as the divine love
purifies it from the remnants of sin. To describe this purifying power
of God's love, Catherine uses the image of a golden chain which draws
the soul to abandon itself to the divine will. By her life and teaching,
Saint Catherine of Genoa reminds us of the importance of prayer for the
faithful departed, and invites us to devote ourselves more fully to
prayer and to works of practical charity.
I am pleased to greet the many university students present at today's
Audience. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors,
especially those from Finland, Malta, China, Indonesia and the United
States of America, I cordially invoke God's blessings of joy and peace.
Copyright 2011 -- Libreria Editrice Vaticana
[In Italian, he greeted the youth, sick and newlyweds present:]
Finally, I address an affectionate greeting to young people, the sick
and newlyweds. The events of our time bring very much to light the
urgent need for Christians to proclaim the Gospel with their life. To
you, dear young people, I say therefore: Always be faithful to Christ,
to be among your contemporaries sowers of hope and joy. You, dear sick,
do not be afraid to offer on the altar of Christ the incalculable value
of your suffering for the benefit of the Church and of the world. And
finally you, dear newlyweds, I hope that you will make of your family a
genuine school of Christian life.
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