Editor’s note: Article originally published on March 28, 2019.
Healthcare has become a hot-button issue over the past several years. Is it a privilege or a natural human right? Should you vaccinate your children or allow their body’s immune system to fend off diseases naturally? Is surgery better or experimental non-evasive treatment better? The list of questions goes on and on. Because I am not a doctor, I will not be discussing healing of the body in this article. Instead, as a Catholic and student of theology, I will examine the best practices to combat spiritual sickness—sin!
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1501,
Illness can lead to anguish, self-absorption, sometimes even despair and revolt against God. It can also make a person more nature, helping him discern in his life what is not essential so that he can turn toward that which is. Very often illness provokes a search for God and a return to him.
The Healing Mission of Christ and the Church
A common title given to Jesus is Divine Physician because he heals humanity from sin and death. While our ultimate trust focus on God as healer of souls, He has employed various men and women over the centuries to stand as great witnesses to the truth. Such saints are called Doctors of the Church.
Not to be confused with medical doctors, Doctors of the Church are, “certain saints whose writing or preaching is outstanding for guiding the faithful in all periods of the Church’s history. To view a complete and detailed list of all saints with this honor please refer to Dr. Marcellino D’Ambrosio’s Doctors of the Catholic Church—Complete List.
Saints Work for the Divine Doctor
Because of the incredible need for healing and hope in this fallen world, today will mark the beginning of a weekly blog series Spiritual Surgeons —Co-workers with the Divine Physician. Every week we will focus on a different saint. We will examine key themes and advice from their writings to help us root out sin and grow in our relationship with God and neighbor. St. Catherine of Siena will be the focus of this inaugural Spiritual Surgeons installment.
Corruption of Sin
Catherine lived in the 14th century during a period of grave clergy corruption. She famously wrote to Pope Gregory XI urging him to return to Rome and clean up the abuses going on within the Catholic Church hierarchy. At that time, the papacy succumbed to the powers of the world (France) and the pope lived in Avignon to appease the French rulers. Catherine petitioned to the pope by declaring, “But, I hope, by the goodness of God that you will pay more heed to His honour and the safety of your own flock than to yourself, like a good shepherd, who ought to lay down his life for his sheep” (Letter to Gregory XI). Her brave and consistent witness to the Truth even against those in power brings us hope.
Furnace of Divine Love
Along with Catherine’s teaching on the corruption of sin, she teaches sin decays the soul. Similar to how disease infects the body, so too, sin infects the soul. Physical surgery involves pain. Both in the actual procedure and the healing process afterwards. Spiritual surgery necessarily contains suffering as well. St. Catherine’s remedy includes the fire of God’s love.
Catherine warns against non-evasive spiritual treatments in fighting sin. According the Sienese saint in a letter to Pope Gregory XI, “If a wound when necessary is not cauterized or cut out with steel, but simply covered with ointment, not only does it fail to heal, but it infects everything, and many a time death follows from it.” Her advice matches what Jesus taught on the Sermon of the Mount. In Matthew 5:29-30,
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.s It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go to Gehenna.
Purification by Flames
Fire acts as a destructive or purifying agent. Catherine speaks of God’s love as a fire cleansing the soul from sin. The word fire occurs 94 times in The Dialogues of St. Catherine. Phrases such as fire of Divine love and fire of Divine charity occur 5 and 3 times respectively. Although the first man muddied himself with the disobedience of sin, Catherine reminds us that God became man to show us the path of salvation. She wrote in her Dialogues,
So that each man has in his own person that very same key which the Word had, and if a man does not unlock in the light of faith, and with the hand of love the gate of heaven by means of this key, he never will enter there, in spite of its having been opened by the Word; for though I created you without yourselves, I will not save you without yourselves…My only-begotten Son, the Word, come and taken this key of obedience in His hands and purified it in the fire of divine love, having drawn it out of the mud, and cleansed it with His blood, and straightened it with the knife of justice, and hammered your iniquities into shape on the anvil of His own body.
Catherine of Siena lived a profoundly holy life of faith. Her ability to correct clerical abuses with charity was second to none. According to St. Pope John Paul II in his Apostolic Letter Three Co-patronesses of Europe, “Catherine addressed churchmen of every rank, demanding of them the most exacting integrity in their personal lives and their pastoral ministry. The uninhibited, powerful and incisive tone in which she admonished priests, Bishops and Cardinals is quite striking.” Learning from this great Doctor of the Church not only deepened my knowledge about God but strengthened my personal relationship with God.