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St. Thomas Aquinas — St. Catherine of Siena

DM 101: Week 23

By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Dec 9, 2005)
According to St. Thomas, the members of Christ's mystical Body on earth, the Church, are members of one another. What this means in practice is that they are to bear one another's burdens, principally in three ways: (1) first, by patience with each other's faults and failings, and weaknesses of body and spirit, (2) by relieving one another's needs, whether of body or of spirit, and (3) by making satisfaction (atonement or reparation) for each other, especially by prayer and good works, for the remission of the temporal punishment due to sins. John Saward explains in his essay on St. Thomas (p. 95):

Since in Christ we are members one of another, we are enabled, by his grace, in the communio sanctorum of his Mystical Body, to make atonement not only for ourselves but for one another. By our prayers and good works, by our sufferings offered up in union with Christ's sacrifice, we can contribute to the salvation of our brethren. In so doing, we act mercifully.

This also leads to the importance of the Beatitude of Mercy (Mt. 5:7): "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy." We must show mercy to others in need, in order to be able to receive mercy ourselves from God. In addition, when we show mercy to our neighbors, we are actually showing mercy to Christ Himself, the Son of Man (Mt. 25: 35-40): "For I was hungry and you gave me food, thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me....Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me."

We might well ask: "How can this be? How can we give solace and relief to our Savior, who is now in the nearer presence of the Father in Heaven, where He surely needs no solace and relief from us? Surely the risen and glorified Christ is impassible, and beyond all suffering?"

St. Thomas answers this question in his commentary on St. Matthew's gospel by referring to the theological truth: "Head and members are one body." In this sense, the Son of Man, Head of His Church, continues to suffer in the members of His Body, and so in them He can still be the object of our compassion and mercy. One problem with this whole discussion, however, is that St. Thomas seems to discuss it only in relation to mercy shown to other members of the Church, the Body of Christ. What about human mercy shown to any of the poor, whether they are materially or spiritually poor? Is not mercy shown toward pagans also in some way mercy directed toward the compassionate Christ? (We shall discuss this issue in greater depth later in this course).

When we fail to be merciful, St. Thomas reassures us that Divine Mercy for the repentant is not just adequate or sufficient for us, but superabundant, as infinite as God's nature itself. He writes of "infinity of the Divine Mercy, which is greater than any number and magnitude of sins.... The mercy of God grants pardon to sinners through penance without any limits" (ST III.84.10).

Divine Mercy without any limits: such is the Mercy Theology of St. Thomas Aquinas!

Divine Mercy in the Spirituality of St. Catherine of Siena
St. Thomas Aquinas was not the only early Dominican for whom the Divine Mercy was of central importance. A similar emphasis can be found in the life and writings of one of the most remarkable women of all time: St. Catherine of Siena.

Catherine Benincasa was born in 1347 in Siena, Italy, to a family of no great wealth or social standing. She received little in the way of formal education. At the age of six she had a vision of Christ in the sky above a Dominican Church, and at age seven she made a private vow of celibacy to Christ. In fact, as a young girl she was noted not only for her piety, but also for her cheerfulness. She was nicknamed "Euphrosyne" " the classical grace of "merriment."

At the age of 18 Catherine was admitted into the Dominican Third Order " a select group of female tertiaries, mostly widows, called "the mantellate." They lived in their own homes or family homes, yet kept religious vows, and were permitted to wear the Dominican habit.

Thereafter, Catherine began a most remarkable life of prayer, asceticism, literary production, and political activism. As we shall see, the whole of her spiritual vision centered upon the mercy of God.

1. Political Activism
Catherine's reputation for holiness arose from her frequent efforts at nursing the sick, especially when she and some of her companions heroically practiced this work of mercy when the plague swept through Siena. Catherine then put her reputation to good effect: writing to popes, kings, and other notable persons, lecturing them on their moral and religious duties in the midst of the confusion and strife of the 14th century. In particular, she insisted that Pope Gregory abandon the papal residence in Avignon, France, and return the headquarters of the Holy See to Rome, the city of St. Peter. In this political effort she was largely successful, and, in part for this reason, she is a patron saint of the city of Rome. However, she failed in one of her other political/ecclesiastical interventions: her attempt to settle the schism in the Church caused by the three rival claimants to the papal throne. Catherine had strongly supported the claims of the first of the contending popes to be elected, Urban VI, but it would later take an ecumenical council of the Church to sort out the mess.

(Continued next week on the Mercy Spirituality of St. Catherine of Siena. Again, we wish to acknowledge our debt to Fr. John Saward's outstanding essay, "Love's Second Name: St. Thomas on Mercy" that appeared in the Canadian Catholic Review in March, 1990).