GERTRUDE THE GREAT, from her very infancy, felt a special attraction towards the glorious virgin Catharine. As she was desirous of knowing how great were her merits, Our Lord showed her St. Catharine seated on a throne so lofty and so magnificent, that it seemed her glory was sufficient to have filled the courts of heaven, had she been its sole queen; while from her crown a marvellous brightness was reflected on her devout clients. It is well known how the Maid of Orleans, entrusted by St. Michael to the guidance of St. Catharine and St. Margaret, received aid and counsel from them during seven years; and how it was at Sainte-Catherine-de-Fierbois that she received her sword.
In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the Crusaders of the West experienced the powerful assistance of the Alexandrian Martyr; and, on their return from the East, they introduced her cultus, which soon became extremely popular. An order of Knighthood was founded to protect the pilgrims visiting her holy body on Mount Sinai. Her feast was raised to the rank of first Class, and was observed as a holiday of obligation by many churches. She was honored as patroness by Christian philosophers, scholars, orators, and attorneys. The senior advocate was called bastonier, because it was his privilege to carry her banner; while confraternities of young girls were formed under the invocation of St. Catharine, whose members vied with one another in their zeal for adorning her venerated image. She was classed among the helping Saints, as being a wise counsellor; and was claimed as patroness by various associations merely on account of their experience of her powerful intercession with our Lord. Her betrothal with the divine Child, and other scenes from her Legend, furnished Christian Art with many beautiful inspirations.
The holy and learned Baronius regretted that even in his day the Acts of the great Oriental Martyr were open to discussion on certain points, which were eagerly seized upon by the extreme critics of the succeeding centuries, in order to lessen popular devotion towards her. There remains however this glory to Christian virginity, that in the person of St. Catharine it ws honored by pupils and masters, and became the guiding spirit in the development of human thought, during the centuries illustrated by such brilliant suns of learning as Albert the Great, Thomas of Aquin, and Bonaventure. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. Methodius, a bishop and martyr of the third century, thus speaks in his Banquet of Virgins: “The virgin must have a very great love of sound doctrine; and she ought to hold an honorable place among the wise.”
Let us now read the abridged Legend of St. Catharine in the book of holy Church.
|Catharina, nobilis virgo Alexandrina, a prima ætate studia liberalium artium cum fidei ardore conjungens, brevi ad eam sanctitatis et doctrinæ perfectionem pervenit, ut decem et octo annos nata eruditissimum quemque superaret. Quæ cum Maximini jussi multos propter christianæ religionis professionem varie tormentis cruciatos, ad supplicium rapi videret, non dubitanter ipsum adiit Maximinum, eique nefariam immanitatem objiciens, sapientissimis rationibus Christi fidem ad salutem necessariam esse affirmavit.
||Catharine, a noble virgin of Alexandria, united from early youth the study of the liberal arts with an ardent faith; and attained in a short time to such a degree of holiness and science, that at the age of eighteen she surpassed the most learned men. Seeing many, at the command of Maximin, cruelly tortured and executed for professing the Christian religion, she went boldly to Maximin himself and reproached him for his impious cruelty, showing him by wise reasons that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation.
|Cujus prudentiam Maximinus admiratus, retineri eam jubet, accersitis undique doctissimis hominibus, magnisque propositis præmiis, qui convictam Catharinam a Christi fide ad idolorum cultum perduxissent. Quod contra accidit. Nam plures philosophi, qui ad eam coarguendam convenerant, vi ac subtilitate ejus disputationis tanto Jesu Christi amore sunt incensi, ut pro illo mori non dubitaverint. uamobrem Maximinus blanditiis ac promissis Catharinam de sententia deducere aggreditur: verum id frustra fieri intelligens, verberibus affectam, plumbatisque contusam, dies undecim sine cibo ac potu inclusam tenet in carcere.
||Maximin, marvelling at her wisdom, caused her to be kept in custody. Then he summoned the most learned men from all parts, and promised a large reward to him that should refute Catharine’s arguments, and lead her from the faith of Christ to the worship of idols. But the result was contrary to his expectations. For many of the philosophers who had assembled to refute her were, by the force and subtlety of her reasoning, so enkindled with love of Jesus Christ, that they were ready to die for him. Maximin next tried to seduce her by flatteries and promises; but seeing his labor lost, he caused her to be lashed and torn with scourges tipped with lead, and finally shut up in prison for eleven days without food or drink.
|Quo tempore Maximini uxor, et Porphyrius belli dux, visendæ virginis causa carcerem ingressi, et ejusdem prædicatione in Jesum Christum credentes, postea martyrio cornati sunt. Interim Catharina educitur e custodia, et rota expeditur, crebris et acutis præfixa dladiis, ut virginis corpus crudelissime dilaceraretur. Quæ machina brevi, Catharinæ oratione, confracta est: eoque miraculo multi Christi fidem susceperunt. Ipse Maximinus in impietate et crudelitate obstinatior, Catharinam securi percuti imperat. Quæ fortiter dato capite, ad duplicatum virginitatis et martyrii præmium evolavit, septimo calendas decembris: cujus corpus ab Angelis in Sina Arabiæ monte mirabiliter collacatum est.
||During this interval, Maximin’s wife, and Porphyrius general of the army, going to see the virgin in prison, were by her exhortations brought to believe in Jesus Christ, and were afterwards crowned with martyrdom. Meanwhile Catharine was brought out of prison, and a wheel was set up garnished with many sharp knives, to cruelly rent the virgin’s body. But at Catharine’s prayer he wheel was speedily broken; by which miracle many were converted to the faith of Christ. Maximin only grew more obstinate in wickedness and cruelty, and ordered Catharine to be beheaded. Offering her head bravely to the sword, she took her flight to heaven, adorned with the double crown of virginity and martyrdom, on the seventh of the Kalends of December. Her body was miraculously carried away by Angels and buried on Mount Sinai in Arabia.
Today’s feast has inspired many liturgical compositions in the West. We will limit our selections to a Sequence from the Gradual of St. Victor’s, and a beautiful and touching Responsory still used by the Friars Preachers.
|Vox sonora nostri chori
Nostro sonet Conditori,
Qui disponit omnia,
Per quem dimicat imbellis,
Per quem datur et puellis
De viris victoria;
|Let the voices of our choir resound in praise of our Creator, who disposes all things; by whom they fight who are unskilled in war, by whose power maidens triumph over men.
|Per quem plebs Alexandrina
Feminæ non feminina
Quum beata Catharina
Doctos vinceret doctrina,
|Through him, the people of Alexandria stand amazed to see in blessed Catharine qualities that seem above her sex, when she vanquishes learned men by her science and the sword by her courage.
|Hæc ad gloriam parentum
Pulchrum dedit ornamentum
Clara per progenitores,
Claruit per sacros mores
|To the glory of her race she adds the precious ornaments of incomparable virtue; and noble by birth, she becomes more noble still by grace and holy living.
|Florem teneri decoris,
Lectionis et laboris
Nam perlegit disciplinas
Sæculares et divinas
|Tender is the flower of her beauty, yet she spares it neither labor nor study; and in early youth she masters earthly science and that which is of God.
|Vas electum, vas virtutum,
Reputavit sicut lutum
Et reduxit in contemptum
Patris opes et parentum
|A chosen vessel full of virtue, she considers transitory goods as mire, contemning her father’s wealth and her ample patrimony.
|Vasis oleium includens,
Virgo sapiens et prudens
Sponso pergit obvia,
Ut, adventus ejus hora,
Præparata, sine mora
Intret ad convivia.
|Filling her vessel with oil, as a wise and prudent virgin, she goes to meet the Spouse; that, ready at the hour of his coming, she may enter without delay to the feast.
Cupiens pro Christo mori;
Cujus in præsentia
Mutos reddit et silentes
|Longing to die for Christ, she is led before the emperor; and in his presence, by her eloquence, puts fifty philosophers to silence.
|Carceris horrendi claustrum,
Et rotarum triste plaustrum,
Famem et jejunia,
Et quæcumque flunt ei, Sustinet amore Dei,
Eadem ad omnia.
|For love of God she endures the horrors of the prison, the cruel wheel, hunger and want, and all her other sufferings; she remains unchanged through all.
|Torta superat tortorem,
Quia cedit cruciator,
Nec valent supplicia.
|The tortured overcomes her torturer, a woman’s constancy triumphs over the emperor; yea, the emperor himself is tormented, seeing both executioner and torments unavailing.
|Tandem capite punitur,
Et, dum morte mors finitur,
Vitæ subit gaudia.
Angelis mox fuit curæ
Dare corpus sepulturæ
Terra procul alia.
|At length she is beheaded, and by death ending death, enters into the joys of life, while Angels with all care bury her body in a far-off land.
|Oleum ex ipsa manat
Quod informos multos sanat
Bonum nobis dat unguentum,
Si per suum interventum
Nostra sanet vitia.
|An oil flowing from her body, by a visible grace heals the sick; good indeed is the unction she gives us, if she heals our vices by her prayers.
|Gaudens ipsa videat
De se præsens gaudia,
Et futura præbeat,
Quæ dedit præsentia,
Et hic nobis gaudeat,
Illi nos in gloria. Amen.
|May she rejoice to see the joy she causes us; may she who gives us present joys give likewise those to come; and may she now rejoice with us, and we with her in glory. Amen.
|Virgo flagellatur, crucianda fame religatur, carcere clausa manet, lux cœlica fusa refulget: * Fragrat odor dulcis, cantant cœli agmina laudes.
||The virgin is scourged, loaded with chains, tormented with hunger; but while she remains shut up in prison a heavenly light shines around. * A sweet fragrance fills the air, and hosts of heaven are there singing praises.
|℣. Sponsus amat sponsam, Salvator visitat illam.
||℣. The Spouse loves his bride and visits her as a Savior.
||* A sweet fragrance.
|Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.
||Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.
||* A sweet fragrance.
O blessed Catharine, accept us as thy disciples. In thy person, philosophy, true to its beautiful name, leads us to Eternal Wisdom, truth leads to goodness, and science to Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life. “O curious inquirers, who delight in idle, fruitless speculation,” exclaims the most eloquent of thy panegyrists, “know that the brilliant light of science which enchants you, is not intended merely to pleases your eyes, but to guide your steps and rule your conduct. Vain minds, that make such pompous display of your learning in order to win men’s praise, learn that this glorious talent has not been entrusted to you for your self-advancement, but for the triumph of the truth. And you, cowardly, sordid souls, who use science as a means of gaining earthly goods, consider seriously that so divine a treasure is not meant to be traded with in so unworthy a manner; and that the only commerce it is concerned with, is of a higher and sublimer kind, viz: the redemption of souls.”
Thus, O Catharine, thou didst employ thy science solely for the truth. Thou madest “the majesty of Jesus Christ so visible, that his presence dissipated all the errors of philosophy, and the truths it had usurped acknowledged him for their Master, or rather were gathered up in him as in their center. Let us learn form this holy example to bear witness to the truth and to make it triumph over the world, employing all our light of knowledge in the fulfilment of this duty. O holy truth! I owe thee the testimony of my words, of my life, of my blood: for the truth is God himself.”
This, O magnanimous virgin, is the thought of holy Church, when she thus formulates her prayer for today: O God, who didst give the law to Moses on the summit of Mount Sinai, and didst wonderfully deposit in the same place the body of the blessed Virgin and Martyr Catharine by means of thy holy Angels; grant, we beseech thee, that by her merits and intercession, we may be enabled to arrive at the mountain, which is Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee for ever and ever.