Today the Church celebrates the feast of St. Catherine of Alexandria. She is the patroness of preachers and philosophers. The reason for this will become quite clear. Tradition tells us that Catherine was born in Alexandria and was the daughter of Constus, who was the governor at the time. She was a studious child and greatly enjoyed learning. She received a vision of the Madonna and Child and converted to Christianity. Persecutions were becoming increasingly more brutal under the emperor Maxentius during her lifetime. Being the daughter of the Governor, she went to Maxentius and rebuked him for his cruelty and persecution. It was then that the emperor called his fifty best pagan philosophers and orators to dispute her claims of the validity of Christianity. Instead Catherine won the debate and quite a few of her adversaries converted to Christianity due to her gift of eloquence. Those philosophers and orators who publicly declared themselves Christians after the debate were quickly put to death.
Catherine refused to denounce Christianity and was scourged and imprisoned by the emperor. Many people came to visit her while she was imprisoned, including Maxentius’ wife. It is said that all of her visitors converted to Christianity and were martyred. Maxentius continued to have her tortured, but she refused to renounce the Faith. At one point the emperor proposed marriage and she declined telling him that Jesus Christ was her spouse and she had consecrated her virginity to him. Eventually the emperor had her condemned to death on a spiked wheel, but tradition says it shattered at her touch. She was finally beheaded and martyred at some point in the early 4th Century.
The historicity of St. Catherine has been difficult to pin down. Her story is one that seems to have originated in oral tradition during the Roman persecutions of the late 3rd to early 4th Centuries before Christianity was finally legalized under Constantine. The cult surrounding St. Catherine, not surprisingly, became popular in the Middle Ages. Given her gift of rhetoric, reason, and theological understanding in engaging in discourse with interlocutors, it is not surprising that a time of great learning was when her following developed. With the reported discovery of her body at Mount Sinai in 800, many pilgrimages began and a great interest in Catherine among the faithful developed. By the end of the Middle Ages a great following was established and she was seen as a powerful intercessor in the Medieval period. She was revered as one of the most important female virgin-martyrs.
In many places her feast was celebrated with the utmost solemnity, servile work being suppressed and the devotions attended by great numbers of people. In several dioceses of France it was observed as a Holy Day of Obligation up to the beginning of the 17th century, the splendour of its ceremonial eclipsing that of the feasts of some of the Apostles. Numberless chapels were placed under her patronage and her statue was found in nearly all churches, representing her according to medieval iconography with a wheel, her instrument of torture.
Catholic.org, St. Catherine of Alexandria
Regardless of the exact historical details of her life, there is much that can be learned by her life, example, intercession, and pious following.
It is no mean thing to challenge an emperor who is known to put Christians to death. St. Catherine saw the injustice of the system and chose to do what she could about the evil she witnessed. While not all of us are called to march into the offices of heads of state, truth-be-told, we wouldn’t even get close to them these days, we must remember that we are called to defend the faith in charity and truth. There will be moments in our lives when we must ‘give an account for what we believe’ and that is very true in a culture that is becoming increasingly more intolerant of Christians. The Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe was this past Saturday. Who do we say Jesus is? Is He the King of the Universe and the King of our own lives? There will be times when we must answer the charges, ignorance, or even hatred of others towards our Catholicism with great courage. Catherine of Alexandria is a great example of this courage in the face of persecutors and those who do not, or will not, understand.
Not every Christian is called to be a scholar, but every Christian is called to study and know the Faith they profess. Catherine’s example is a reminder to us that study is of great service in our own spiritual lives, as well as in those times we must engage with others. Study is something that should be done daily. In fact, Advent is a wonderful time to focus on studying the eschatology of our Faith and the Incarnation. It is in that season we wait for the Second Coming and the birth of the Word made flesh in a manger. Study allows us to grow in a deeper understanding and can also enrich our prayer life.
We live in a world where traditionally Catholic countries are falling into secularism while other countries, especially in Africa, are rising up in the Faith. There is a great need to evangelize a culture that has lost sight of Christianity and has replaced it with a listless nihilism. The symptoms of this abandonment should be obvious to us in light of what we see on the news daily and in much of the garbage that passes as television these days. We live in a culture that cannot even see that it is suffering and without purpose. It is our call as members of the laity to bring the world into conformation with the Blessed Trinity through His Catholic Church. And why wouldn’t we want to? We have been given the peace and joy that surpasses all understanding. We have been given Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, fully present in the Holy Eucharist. We have the answer to all of the pain, violence, and despair in the world. It is a gift that once poured into ourselves overflows out to all the people we meet in our daily lives.
Those who visited and were open to the truth professed by St. Catherine of Alexandria encountered Christ. They saw Him through her life. They converted to the Faith and they even gave their very lives as martyrs. Martyrdom does not come down from a water-down, bland version of Christianity. The courage to die for Christ is a profound grace, but it also comes from a great love, a real encounter. Those Christians dying on the beach in Libya not too long ago gave their lives because they knew Christ is King. They knew in the end; He is all that matters. How are we witnessing in our own lives? How are we bringing others to Christ in a world with so much darkness in it? St. Catherine gave every waking moment and every encounter to Christ and because of it, many came to Christ. It is time for us to rise up and bring others to Christ. Loving others means helping them to find the ultimate longing of their hearts and the very purpose of their lives, which is found in Jesus Christ and His Church. Let St. Catherine of Alexandria be a guide and intercessor in your life as you encounter others and live a life of holiness.
St. Catherine of Alexandria, ora pro nobis.
Image: Guido Reni, The Martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria, public domain