By Fr Anthony Nzubechukwu Ibegbunam
Catherine was born in Florence, Italy on April 23, 1522 into a wealthy family, of Peter de’ Ricci and Catherine Bonza. She was baptized Alexandrina. Her mother died when she was an infant. Her pious step-mother, Fiammetta da Diacceto raised her and she observed Alexandrina’s pious ways from early childhood. When “lost”, she could be found praying on her knees in a remote part of the house. The little girl took Our Lady as her mother and had for her a tender devotion. When she was between six and seven years old, her father placed her in the school of Benedictine nuns in Florence where her aunt, Louisa de Ricci, was the abbess. It was here that she developed a great devotion to the Passion of Our Lord. (Saint Catherine of Ricci Feast day: February 13, willingshepherds.org).
Upon returning home, Alexandrina asked her father’s permission to enter a monastery, he rejected her request. She sought to continue her spiritual walk with difficulty at home. Finally, her father allowed her to visit the Dominican Monastery of St Vincent Ferrer in Prato, Italy, which had been founded in 1503 by nine Third Order Dominican ladies. She begged to remain. Her father took her away with the promise to allow her to return. He did not keep his promise. Alexandrina became gravely ill. All thought that she would die. Only then did her father relent and allowed her to enter. On May 18, 1535, at the age of 13, she received the habit from her uncle Fr Timothy dei Ricci, O.P who was confessor to the Monastery. She was given the name Catherine. She made her profession of vows in 1536 a year later.
Catherine was subjected to ridicule and humiliation by her community during her novitiate and for about five years following her profession. They were unaware of the supernatural gifts she received. They did not recognize that her dropping of plates, inattention at community exercises were the result her ecstasies and that she was completely unaware of her surroundings. Catherine, herself did not recognize this as out of the ordinary. The community was about to dismiss her when they realized her supernatural gifts. This now followed a time of agonizing pain for Catherine with no medical explanations. She endured her sufferings patiently by constantly meditating on the passion of Christ. She was suddenly healed; however, she was in frail health the remainder of her life.
After various mystical experiences and visions, on the first Thursday of February, 1542 she began to experience the ecstasies of the Passion. From 12 noon on Thursday to 4 pm on Friday, she relived, every week, for 12 years from 1542 to 1554, all of the events of the Passion of Christ. She would lose consciousness every Thursday at noon and would only come to herself at 4 p.m. on Friday. During that time, she would move about, assuming the positions that Christ held during his Passion (she held her hands out to be bound, just as he did when he was arrested in the garden, for example). During these ecstasies, “watching her face and body, the sisters could follow the course of the Passion, as she was mystically scourged and crowned with thorns. When the ecstasy was finished, she would be covered with wounds and her shoulder remained deeply indented where the Cross had been laid.”
On Easter Sunday of the same year (1542), our Lord was pleased to celebrate Catherine’s espousal (marriage) with Himself, placing a gold ring with a diamond in it on her finger with the words, “Receive, daughter, this ring as a pledge and token that you are and ever shall be Mine.” The people saw on her finger a hard ring just below the surface of her skin; but Catherine clearly saw and experienced it as a physical gold ring (a mystical ring). On the following Friday, April 14, 1542, the sacred stigmata (the wounds of Jesus) were impressed on her hands, feet, and side, and from that time till her death they caused her great and continual pain. Later on, the crown of thorns was placed on her brow by her Divine Spouse (Jesus Christ), and those who nursed her in her illnesses were witnesses of another feature of resemblance to Him whom her soul loved. From her right shoulder down to her waist there was a wide, deep, livid furrow, impressed upon her by the Cross, which she bore in a mysterious manner every week with her Divine Master from the Praetorium of Pilate to the summit of Calvary” (Short Lives of the Dominican Saints, (London, Kegan Paul, Trench, and Trübner & Co., Ltd., 1901). As word of her ecstasies spread the convent was overwhelmed with skeptics, sinners, unbelievers, all sorts of people who wanted to glimpse at her. This interrupted the daily serene convent life to the point that Catherine and her community prayed that the wounds be made less visible. In 1554 the stigmata became less visible and the ecstatic experience ceased.
“Catherine had in her cell (room) a large wooden crucifix to which she bore a tender devotion. Our Lord often spoke to her from this crucifix; and, on one occasion when she was praying before it, the figure detached itself from the cross and came to her. “Beloved Spouse,” said Our Lord, “I come to seek in your heart and in those of My daughters a refuge against the crimes of sinners which overwhelm Me.” Of this miraculous event the whole Community were witnesses.” (Short Lives of the Dominican Saints)
Catherine served her community as a novice mistress, sub-prioress and in 1552 at the age of 30 she was elected prioress for life. She sought to serve her community with humility and love as a mother. Catherine was particularly gentle with the sick. She took special care of the poor; and she desired that they should always be kindly received at the Convent, no matter how importunate they might be. “Manage” she would say to the portress, “that no person shall ever leave the door without being comforted and relieved in some way or other.”
Despite being cloistered in the monastery, Catherine, kept up a correspondence with relatives, friends, and her many spiritual children.
Below is one of her letters of correspondence to a fellow nun whom she counseled, giving her a “resume of the spiritual life” which she considered a summary of how to perfectly follow God’s will. Since we are all called to holiness by following God’s will for our lives, her advice given here to a nun will be helpful for everyone in every state of life.
LETTER OF ST CATHERINE DE RICCI TO A NUN
“Very dear daughter, I have already sent you a letter to exhort you to the service of our Lord; and now I send you this one, in which I am going to give, first for myself, and then for you, an account of the true way of faithfully serving our Divine Spouse, and a resume of the spiritual life; so that, by following it, we shall carry out the holy will of God.
“If, then, my daughter, you would be the true spouse of Jesus, you must do His holy will in all things; and you will do this if you entirely give up your own will on every occasion, and if you love the divine Spouse with your whole heart, your whole soul, and your whole strength. Then, you must carefully attend to the following points (but it is necessary to weigh all these words), as they contain the summary of Christian perfection:
1. We must force ourselves to DETACH the heart and the will from all earthly love; to love no fleeting things, except for the love of God; and, above all, not to love God for our own sakes for self-interest, but with a love as pure as His own goodness.
2. We must DIRECT all our thoughts, words and actions to His honor; and by prayer, counsel, and good example seek His glory solely, whether for ourselves or for others, so that through our means all may love and honor God. This second thing is more pleasing to Him than the first, as it better fulfills His will.
3. We must aim more and more at the ACCOMPLISHMENT of the divine will: not only desiring nothing special to happen to us, bad or even good, in this wretched life, and thus keeping ourselves always at God’s disposal, with heart and soul at peace; but also believing with a firm faith that Almighty God loves us more than we love ourselves, and takes more care of us than we could take care of ourselves.
The more we conform to this way of acting, the more we shall find God present to help us, and the more we shall experience His most gentle love.
“But no one can reach such perfection except by constant and courageous sacrifice of self-will; and, if we would learn to practice such abnegation, it is necessary to keep ourselves in a state of great and deep humility, so that by perfect knowledge of our own misery and weakness we may rise to learn the greatness and beauty of our God.
“Consider how just and necessary it is to serve Him unceasingly, with love and obedience. I say just, because God being Father and Master of all things, it is just that His son and servant should obey and love Him: I say necessary, because by acting otherwise we could not be saved.
“Let us always remember, never doubting, that it is the eternal, sovereign, all-powerful God who does, orders, or allows everything that happens, and that nothing comes to pass without His divine will.
“Let us remember that He is Himself that wisdom which, in the government of the universe—of heaven, earth, and every single creature—cannot be deceived (He would be neither God nor most wise, if it were otherwise). Let us look upon Him as supremely good, loving and beneficent. If, through His mercy, this conviction becomes strongly impressed upon our wills, we shall easily take all things from His sacred hand with well-contented hearts, always thanking Him for fulfilling His most holy will in us; because, by acting thus (with the help of His holy grace) we shall unite ourselves to Him by true love in this life and by glory in eternity.
May He grant it to us in His goodness! Of your charity pray for me, a wretched sinner, who commends herself to you all. Your sister in Christ.”
CATHERINE AND THE SOULS IN PURGATORY
“The poor souls in Purgatory often appeared to her soliciting her prayers, and she would take their sufferings upon herself to obtain their release.” Catherine offered many prayers, fasts, and penances for Philip Salviati, a great benefactor of her monastery, and thus obtained his salvation. It was revealed to her that he was in purgatory; and she offered to suffer all the pains about to be inflicted him. Her prayer was granted. The soul entered heaven, and for forty days Catherine suffered indescribable agonies. Her body was covered with blisters, emitting heat so great that her cell (room) seemed on fire. She could not be touched because she was scorching hot. Her flesh appeared as if roasted, and her tongue like red-hot iron. Amid all she was calm and joyful, saying, “I long to suffer all imaginable pains, that souls may quickly see and praise their Redeemer.” The doctors were stupefied by this illness, not seemingly possible to them this sort of infirmity, so that in the end, compelled by obedience, she confessed that she was suffering the pains of Purgatory for a great benefactor.”
After a long illness, Sister Catherine passed from this mortal life to everlasting bliss and the possession of the object of all her desires, on the feast of the Purification of our Lady (Presentation of the Child Jesus in the Temple), February, 2, 1589 at Prato, Italy at the age of 67, while the angels were heard over the Convent singing harmoniously the words, ” Come, O Spouse of Christ, receive the crown which the Lord has prepared for you from all eternity.”
Following her death, many miracles took place at her tomb, and her veneration soon spread from Prato throughout the whole of Italy. Pope Clement XII beatified her on November 23, 1732 and Pope Benedict XIV canonized her on June 29, 1746. The canonization of St Catherine was not granted because of the extraordinary phenomenon surrounding her life, but for her heroic virtues and her complete union with Christ. Her feast day is February 13
LESSONS FROM THE LIFE OF ST CATHERINE OF RICCI
The preacher of the Pontifical Household, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa OFM. Cap. said that “The mystics have the special role of talking to us of God’s love and of helping us to glimpse something of the reality still hidden from our eyes. They are called “mystics” simply because they have had a particularly vivid experience of the Christian “mystery.” They are our safest guides in helping us to look into the reality beyond the reality.”
St Catherine was a mystic, very devoted to Jesus and bore his wounds (stigmata). Are you as devoted as you could be to Jesus? While Jesus does not mark every follower with his wounds, would you be willing to endure some pain or ridicule for your beliefs and love of Christ? Ask the Lord to help make you a stronger disciple as we begin the season of Lent.
“What St Catherine chiefly laboured to obtain, by meditating on the life and sufferings of Christ, and what she most earnestly asked of him, was that he would be pleased, in his mercy, to purge her affections of all poison of the inordinate love of creatures, and engrave in her, his most holy and divine image, both exterior and interior—that is to say, both in her conversation and her affections, so that she might be animated, and might think, speak, and act by his most Holy Spirit.” (Alban Butler, The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, Vol. II, D. & J. Sadlier, & Company, 1864, www.ewtn.com).
O Lord Jesus Christ, it was your will that the blessed virgin, Catherine, who loved you so intensely, should become illustrious by contemplating your passion; grant, through her intercession, that, devotedly recalling the mysteries of the passion, we may be worthy to possess its fruits. Amen St Catherine of Ricci, pray for us
Fr Anthony Ibegbunam is a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Nnewi