Catherine of Genoa, St.
CATHERINE OF GENOA, ST.
Widow, mystic, heroic servant of the poor and sick in her native city, hospital administrator; b. Genoa, toward the close of 1447; d. probably Sept. 15, 1510; canonized May 18, 1737.
Life. Catherine was the youngest of five children in the Fieschi family, then the most powerful of the Guelph families of Genoa. She was a descendant of Robert, brother of Innocent IV. Her father was Viceroy of Naples; her mother, Francesca di Negro, belonged to an ancient, noble family of Genoa. They had three sons, then two daughters: Limbania, who became a nun, and Caterinetta. Reliable details of Catherine's early years are scarce. At age 13 (1460) she attempted unsuccessfully to enter religious life. Late in 1461 her father died, and in
the ensuing political realignments Catherine became an unhappy family pawn in the union of the Guelph Fieschi with the Ghibelline Adorni. On Jan. 13, 1463, at only 16, she was married to Giuliano Adorno, a wayward, self-indulgent man. Neglected by her husband, the lively, sensitive Catherine spent ten dreary years, the first five in utter loneliness and the rest in futile, if innocent, worldly gaieties, while her inner depression deepened to desperation. On March 20, 1473, while attempting to make her confession to a priest, she felt herself suddenly over-whelmed by the immense love of God, lifted above her miseries, enlightened by grace, and radically changed. The experience lasted for some time and was followed at home shortly after by a first (and last) vision of the Crucified. She made a general confession on March 24 and entered a new life. Almost simultaneously Giuliano's affairs had moved toward bankruptcy. This misfortune, together with Catherine's prayers, brought about his conversion. He agreed to a life of perpetual continence and became a Franciscan tertiary, although Catherine, in spite of her devotion to the Franciscan mystic Jacopone da Todi, did not. Giuliano disposed of valuable properties and together with Catherine lived in a small house near the hospital of the Pammatone to serve the sick and help the poor of the district. In this humble work they persevered until Giuliano's death on Jan. 10, 1497.
From 1479 on, they occupied two small rooms within the hospital, serving without pay and at their own expense. From 1479 to 1490 Catherine worked as an ordinary nurse. From 1490 to 1496 she was administrative head (rettora ) of the hospital. During the epidemic of deadly fever of 1493, which is said to have carried off as much as 80 per cent of the population, her heroism and efficiency intensified. Her remarkable friendship with Ettore Vernazza, a young Genoese lawyer, began that same year. Much of the authentic information known about Catherine is due to this intimate friend and associate.
For almost 25 years up to 1479 Catherine's life, so interiorly rich, so externally fruitful in charitable works, developed solely under the impulse of grace without human help. It was marked by frequent ecstatic absorptions and by long, mysterious fasts, during which she was unable to take food—apparently an operation of God in which (as she said) her will had no part and to which she attached no great significance. With the death of Giuliano, this middle period came to a close and with it her fasts and spiritual isolation. Shortly after, she came under the spiritual direction of a priest, Cattaneo Marabotto, to whose firsthand knowledge of her spirit, doctrine, and interior life, history is much indebted. Catherine appreciated Marabotto's presence and help, his capacity to understand and not interfere with the work of God's grace in her soul. She continued her hospital work, managed the detailed finances of Giuliano's estate, and extended her influence in conversations with disciples. Becoming more expansive and communicative, she opened up to share with them her intense love and mystical insight. From 1506 until her death in 1510, gathering infirmities took their toll, and she was incapacitated for increasing periods of time, but she continued at her work almost to the end.
Cult and Relics. A popular cult began 18 months after her death when her body was exhumed to be placed in a marble sepulcher and was found almost perfectly preserved. In response to popular demand, her remains were exposed for eight days. Cures attributed to her intercession began to occur, and popular veneration continued. Official efforts to have her canonized began in 1630, but her canonization did not take place until May 18, 1737, when she received that honor together with Vincent de Paul, Francis Regis, and Giuliana Falconieri. Her portrait without nimbus found in the sacristy of the hospital church may be the picture mentioned in the hospital accounts less than two years after her death and approved by Marabotto.
Writings. The works commonly attributed to Catherine present a problem. There is no solid evidence that Catherine ever wrote down her thoughts and sayings. All extant biographies, editions, and translations of her works go back to the Vitae Dottrina, published in Genoa by Jacobo Genuti in 1551. It is the joint production of Catherine's confessor, Marabotto, and her spiritual son Ettore Vernazza, both of whom faithfully recorded her sayings, but with interspersed interpretations of their own. Thus the luminous, fascinating, spontaneous utterances of Catherine, obviously born of intense experience and insight, rest in a matrix of dull comment.
The Treatise on Purgatory ascribed to her is a collection of her sayings first written down (as part of the Vita ) by Vernazza, but later enlarged by theological additions that convey little of Catherine's fresh and lively spirit. The Spiritual Dialogues depend on the Vita but chiefly convey Battista Vernazza's version of Catherine's spirit, learned at second hand. They make a solid, intelligent, and well-organized treatise, but one that contains little of Catherine's rich spontaneity. Nevertheless, the words of Catherine scattered through these works constitute a precious record of her spiritual doctrine and mystical insight.
Doctrine. Although Catherine's authentic teaching drew its nourishment from the pre-Reformation Church, it has nevertheless a remarkably contemporary, or perhaps timeless, ring and resonance. In spirit it is open, positive, joyous, trustful of the all-embracing goodness of God. It shows the unstudied spontaneity of a saintly soul's personal experience; there is a soaring and yet sober quality in it, a refinement at once of holy liberty and of docility to the Holy Spirit. It is a rich mystical realization of the immense, tireless love of God, always expressed in new turns, applications, and rediscoveries. Lift sin, she said, from a man's shoulders, then allow the good God to act. God seems to have nothing else to do but to unite Himself to men. Everything she said is a variation on this theme.
Theologians and spiritual writers have singled out her thoughts on purgatory for special notice, but these with other eschatological texts are part of the larger intuition of God's loving way with souls. The historical emphasis on her Treatise on Purgatory (originally but a chapter in the Vita ) derived in part from the Lutheran controversy shortly after her death. There are indications that early editors conventionalized some of her phrases. But the central thought comes through: purgatory is the projection beyond of that mystical purgation which also takes place in this world in souls open to God's action. Frederick William Faber approved her concept of purgatory; Cardinal H. E. Manning wrote a preface to an English translation; Cardinal J. H. Newman enshrined it in his Dream of Gerontius; Aubrey de Vere wrote a poetic paraphrase of it.
According to Catherine, the imperfect soul at death plunges willingly into its purgation with joy and pain. The same law of purification is at work Here-and-Now and Beyond—there is essential continuity of the interior life; the difference is rather in extent and intensity. The fundamental and universal experiences of the soul Here also have their place There. Hence her eschatology focuses on those features that she can forecast on the basis of her experience. She speaks of the holy soul, still in the flesh, placed in the purgatory of God's burning love so that it might, at the time of death, go straight to God. In this way one is to understand how it is with the souls in purgatory, abiding content in the fire of divine love.
Initial experience and act. In passing out of this life the soul to be purged perceives its sinful self as cause of its purgatory just once, never to dwell on the fact again, since it would be a self-centered thought. Then, wholly centered on God, it plunges eagerly into the ocean of purifying fire. The motive force is impetuosity of the "love which exists between God and the soul and tends to conform the soul to God." The soul seems to find God's great compassion in being allowed to remove the impediment within.
Subsequent process. This involves the dispositions, joys, and sufferings of the soul during its purgation, and finally comes the conclusion of the process. It is the story of Catherine's own mystical experience of purgation and her interpretation of that experience. The souls in purgatory simply accept the consequence of their epoch-making choice to deliver themselves to purgation. They do not dwell on their past sins; they do not compare themselves with others. They see themselves in God only; otherwise they would be letting self come in. Though the pain of purgatory is "horrible as hell," yet these souls are content, cannot find the pain to be pain. There is no joy comparable to that of a soul in purgatory, except the joy of the blessed in paradise. Because the soul has an instinct for God and its own perfection, an extreme fire springs up within it. As it approaches its original purity and innocence, that instinct of God releases increasing happiness, "for every little glimpse that can be gained of God exceeds every pain and every joy that man can conceive without it." The joy of the soul in purgatory continually increases because of the inflowing of God into it as the impediments diminish. The soul becomes progressively impassible. The fire burning within it without opposition is like the fire of life eternal. The soul purified remains in the fire, and the fire remains what it was, God. Thus, the pain of purgatory arises from the discord of spirit with Spirit and ends when they are in complete concord.
Feast: Sept. 15.
Bibliography: p. u. b. da genova, S. Catherine Fieschi Adorno, 2 v. (1960–62). Catherine of Genoa: Purgation and Purgatory the Spiritual Dialogue, ed. s. hughes (New York 1979). d. c. nugent, "Saint Catherine of Genoa: Mystic of Pure Love," in Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, ed. k. m. wilson, (Athens, Georgia 1987) 67–80. k. jorgensen, "'Love Conquers All': The Conversion, Asceticism, and Altruism of St. Caterina of Genoa," in Renaissance Society and Culture, eds. j. monfasani and r. musto (New York 1991) 87–106. c. balduzzi, Il Soprannaturale in Santa Caterina da Genova: patrona degli ospendali (Udine 1992). f. de martinoir, Catherine de Genes, La joie du Purgatoire: Caterina Fieschi Adorno, 1447–1510 (Paris 1995).
[p. l. hug]