‘There is no remedy but God.’
Simple, holy lives — often defined by obscurity as much as by suffering — describe most of the saints known only by God. Sometimes, however, such hidden lives can change the world. And St. Catherine of Genoa did just that.
Catherine (1447-1510) was born into a family of wealth and status and had ties to various prominent political and religious figures. Not much is known about her childhood except that by around the age of 13 she was resolved to enter the convent and pursue religious life. Persuaded to wait on account of her youth, Catherine was forced into a marriage before she turned 16. The marriage was arranged with the hopes to end a feud with the groom’s family.
The marriage united her to a Genovese nobleman named Giuliano Adorno, and it appeared doomed from the start. Adorno and the future saint could not have been more opposite from each other. Catherine had an intense personality, lacking humor, and her husband was rash and drawn to life’s pleasure. For the first five years of their marriage, Catherine suffered from depression, which was exacerbated by her husband’s infidelity. Their marriage never produced any children.
As Adorno and Catherine approached a decade of marriage, Catherine prayed for God to rescue her from her misery. Her request confined her to a sick bed, but God infused her with an intense love while making a confession in 1473. Through this conversion, Catherine entered into deeper union with God through concentrated prayer and daily Communion — a rarity for a lay woman in her day, and a practice she kept the rest of her life. Around the same time, Adorno’s reckless lifestyle nearly brought him to ruin. With the help of his saintly wife’s prayers, he reassessed his life’s priorities. He reformed his life and turned to the Faith.
Together, they grew in union with each other and in the Lord. They even agreed to be celibate for the remainder of their marriage. Catherine and her husband moved from their residence and chose to live among the poor in Genoa. They devoted themselves to the care of the hospitalized, eventually moving there six years later. Catherine became the administrator of the hospital and personally cared for plague victims in Genoa, where nearly 80% of its citizens died in 1493.
When Catherine’s health deteriorated to such an extent that she needed to resign leadership at the hospital. Her husband died the next year. She told a friend: “As you are well aware, he had a rather wayward nature, and I suffered interiorly a great deal. But even before he died, my tender Love assured me of his salvation.” Her last years were spent in severe pain and physicians were unable to determine a diagnosis, dismissing her illness as something supernatural and divine. She died on Sept. 15, 1510.
In Catherine’s later years, a group of disciples came under her spiritual guidance. Her life of humility, obscurity and love inspired them to establish the Oratory of Divine Love, a movement of laypeople who sought to imitate Catherine’s life of prayer and service. By her abandonment to God’s will in what appeared trivial to the mind of the culture, St. Catherine became a leaven to a world in need of God’s love, and her witness was a major influence in the lives of many figures of the Counter-Reformation. Her feast is Sept. 15.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana. This article is taken from the ‘Saints in Times of Crisis’ booklet from Our Sunday Visitor.