By Bishop James Conley
St. Catherine of Siena said, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
St. Catherine was an unlikely woman to set the world on fire. But she did.
Born in Siena, Italy, in 1347, she entered the world amidst the tumult of the black plague in her hometown. Her father was a simple cloth dyer, and she was her parents’ 23rd child, although half of her siblings died in their early childhood.
St. Catherine developed a deep prayer life from an early age. In her prayer, she discovered that Jesus was calling her to follow him in a unique way, through a mystical marriage with him.
She lived out the religious life, but in an unconventional way. She did not enter a convent. She became a member of the Third Order of St. Dominic, while living at home with her parents. This allowed her to spend her days tending to the sick and poor of Siena, bringing the love, tenderness, and compassion of Jesus to those in great pain.
Despite having no formal education and a modest family background, St. Catherine set the world on fire. People were drawn to her because of her holiness and wisdom. She began to correspond with the leaders of the various republics of Italy. Church leaders throughout Europe hastened to seek her counsel.
St. Catherine lived during a turbulent time in the history of the Church. The pope at the time, Pope Gregory XI, chose to live in Avignon, which is in the south of France, to avoid the political difficulties in Rome. St. Catherine knew that Pope Gregory was first and foremost the Bishop of Rome, and he needed to return to his people. Perhaps her most well-known accomplishment was the fact that St. Catherine persuaded the Holy Father to return to Rome in spite of the disapproval of the King of France and most of the College of Cardinals.
During the past few weeks, I’ve had the honor of traveling throughout the Diocese of Lincoln to administer the sacrament of Confirmation. Autumn is a beautiful time of year to be traveling through the rural areas of Nebraska, seeing the farmers hard at work, reaping the fruit of their labor.
Farmers are successful when they put their heart into their work. They do this by knowing the land and following the best agricultural practices.
But, they are also dependent on things that are out of their control. Their crops need to receive the right and timely amount of moisture and sunshine. They need the blessing of good weather. They need to receive fair and just prices on their harvests.
Farmers throughout our state do their best to be who they were meant to be as farmers, but they are not in complete control. They are dependent upon divine providence.
In my Confirmation homilies, I try to remind the confirmands that God wants them to become saints. We find our fulfillment and our joy by becoming who we were meant to be. And we are meant to be saints. We accomplish this only through God’s help.
Through the sacrament of Confirmation we receive the grace to become great saints. As confirmands are sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit, they are united more firmly to Jesus, given an increase in the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, and are given the strength to be faithful missionary disciples of Christ in our fallen world.
During the general assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which met in Rome this past month to discuss young people, the faith, and vocational discernment, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said, “We need to show young people what holiness looks like, by living the Gospel we preach, proclaiming Jesus Christ by the way we live. We need to call young people to be saints — and we need to be saints ourselves.”
In these recent Confirmation Masses, I also try to direct my words to the parents of those receiving the sacrament. I remind them that on their wedding day they promised to love and honor their spouse for the rest of their lives. And they also chose to accept children lovingly from God and to bring them up according to the law of Christ and his Church. Parents make this promise again when they present their children to the Church to be baptized.
Parents play the crucial role in calling their children to be saints. It’s their task to help their children get to heaven. Parents are the ones who show their children what holiness looks like.
St. Catherine of Siena set the world around her on fire. In her short, 33 years in this world, she was loved by the poor and the sick; she influenced the rich and the powerful. Her mystical theological writings are still great sources of spiritual edification today; and helped to earn her the title “Doctor of the Church.”
However, St. Catherine was only able to set her world on fire for Jesus because she desired to be close to him first. Our Lord has placed us in our own little world, and he wants us to set it ablaze. And this will only happen if we first seek to deepen our relationship with him.