On St. Catherine of Genoa

«Love Itself Purifies [the Soul] From Its Dross of Sin»

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VATICAN CITY, JAN. 12, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience in Paul VI Hall. In his address, continuing the series of catecheses on the saints, he reflected on the figure of St. Catherine of Genoa, of the 15th century.

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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. 
Trattato» (Treatise on Purgatory); and «Dialogo tra l’anima e il corpo» (Dialogues on the Soul and Body).[1] 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. 


[1] 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, he said:] 

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. 

[Translation by ZENIT]
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