I want to tell you a story—about St. Catherine.
But let me preface my remarks by saying that the Bible calls every believer a “holy one,” or a “saint.” And because all are “set apart” and not just a select few, the Reformers—with their emphasis on the priesthood of all believers—sought to minimize the clergy/laity divide.
So ever since the Protestant Reformation, which swept across Europe in the sixteenth century, those of us who inherited their legacy have tended to downplay canonized saints and their days. Sure, we know about St. Patrick and St. Nicholas and St. Valentine’s Days, and perhaps the Feast of Stephen (thanks to Good King W.), but that’s about it. And we certainly don’t know much about the women. Actually, we know little about any of the “cloud of witnesses” who have stood strong for the faith since the Book of Acts was written. And that is the unfortunate part of our equalizing. Because we have much to learn from the saints of the past.
The story of one such holy person provides a much-needed challenge for today. She is the woman known as St. Catherine of Siena. One of the patron saints of Italy, Catherine has a story that is particularly appropriate as our world faces what could be the Black Death of 2014.
One hundred seventy years before the Reformation, the Ebola of the day swept through Siena, Italy, and by AD 1349, half the population had died. Half. Does that sound familiar?
And in the middle of this—the first of several such pandemics—little Catherine was born. Her parents’ twenty-fourth child, Catherine lost a twin at birth, and a younger sister after her died as well, making her the youngest of a large family indeed. From a young age, she was devoted to Christ.
When the plague came roaring back into town, no one escaped. If they didn’t die, people lost half or more of their loved ones. Catherine herself lost a brother, a sister, and eight nieces and nephews—some of whose little bodies she dressed for burial. And we know what can happen to people who touch the corpses of such victims.
Indeed, my city is ground-zero for seeing in America what is more likely to happen to those who help the sick in any way. These workers risk exposure to horrible, wasting disease, and they may die for their kindness. The very people who help the most are at greatest risk. What an incentive to run the other way!
But that is not what Catherine did. She actively pursued Siena’s sick. When the A.D. 1374 plague came roaring back, Catherine was only 27 years old. And while just about anyone who could flee the city for the safety of the countryside did so, she and her followers—men and women alike—stayed to care for Jesus Christ in the faces of the sick and to prepare his body for burial in the corpses of the dead. With all their hearts they believed our Lord’s words, “I was sick, and you took care of me” (Mt. 25:36).
Catherine lived six more years—to the ripe old age of 33, when she is said to have died of a stroke. (The average life expectancy during the Middle Ages was 30 to 35 years.) The pandemic never touched her, as her God was her shield. But that is not actually the point. If the Black Death had taken her life, she was willing to lay it down.
I wonder…who will be the Catherines of our generation?