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Saint Catherine of Alexandria

On the 25th of November we find another bright gem in the liturgical calendar in good company with our Saint from just a few days ago, Saint Cecilia, for she too is a Virgin and a Martyr.  These two holy women were only separated by one century and strikingly resemble each other in their great apostolic zeal that worked many conversions, and inspired deep and abiding devotion for nearly the entire history of the Church. Though, Saint Catherine is not honored by being placed in the canon of the Mass as Saint Cecilia is she has the distinction of being one of a very special group of saints known for their very powerful intercession.  This group is called: the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

 

The Fourteen Holy Helpers

Saint Agathius, Against headache

Saint Barbara, Against fever and sudden death

Saint Blaise, Against illness of the throat and for protection of domestic animals

Saint Catherine of Alexandria, Against sudden death

Saint Christopher, Against bubonic plague and dangers while traveling

Saint Cyriacus, Against temptation on the death-bed

Saint Denis (Dionysius), Against headache

Saint Erasmus (Elmo), Against intestinal ailments

Saint Eustace, Against family discord

Saint George, For the health of domestic animals

Saint Giles, Against plague, for a good confession, and for cripples, beggars and blacksmiths

Saint Margaret of Antioch, During childbirth, and escape from devils

Saint Pantaleon, For physicians, and against cancer & tuberculosis

Saint Vitus (Guy), Against epilepsy, lightning and for protection of domestic animals

 

Some other Saints sometimes substituted in for certain places with particular devotion include the following: Saint Anthony the Anchorite, Saint Leonard of Noblac, Saint Nicholas, Saint Sebastian, Saint Oswald the King, Pope Saint Sixtus II, Saint Apollonia, Saint Dorothea of Caesarea, and Saint Roch.  In France the Virgin Mary is added as a 15th “helper”.

 

Saint Catherine is also the patron saint of Philosophers owing to the wonderful demonstration of her great wisdom, certainly given her by God because of her great purity and holiness, in the acts of her martyrdom.  Most fittingly then is she also the protectress of the entire Dominican Order, which bears the greatest Philosopher the Church has ever seen: Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose school of Philosophy and Theology has been held up time and again by the Holy Fathers and even Councils of the Church as being preeminent.  Never more so, however, than in Pope Leo XIII’s wonderful encyclical Aeterni Patris, On the Restoration of Christian Philosophy.  Which promoted in no uncertain terms the Summa Theologiae of Saint Thomas Aquinas.



The Liturgical Year

 

Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.

 

November 25

 

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

 

Virgin and Martyr

 

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. (Legatus divinae pietatis, iv. 57.)  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 honoured 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. (Baron. Annal. ad ann. 307.) There remains however this glory to Christian virginity, that in the person of St. Catharine it was honoured 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 Aquinas, and Bonaventure. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. (Matt. 5:8)  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 honourable place among the wise.” (Methodius. Conviv. Oratio 1:1.)

 

Let us now read the abridged Legend of St. Catharine in the book of holy Church.

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.

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 subtility 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 labour 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.

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 rend the virgin’s body. But at Catharine’s prayer the 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.

To-day’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.

 

SEQUENCE.

 

Vox sonora nostri chori

Nostro sonet Conditori,

Qui disponit omnia,

Per quem dimicat imbellis,

Per quem datur et puellis

De viris victoria;

 

Per quem plebs Alexandrina

Feminae non feminina

Stupuit ingenia,

Quum beata Catharina

Doctos vinceret doctrina,

Ferrum patientia.

 

Haec ad gloriam parentum

Pulchrum dedit ornamentum

Morum privilegia,

Clara per progenitores,

Claruit per sacros mores

Ampliori gratia.

 

Florem teneri decoris,

Lectionis et laboris

Attrivere studia:

Nam perlegit disciplinas

Saeculares et divinas

In adolescentia.

 

Vas electum, was virtutum,

Reputavit sicut lutum

Bona transitoria,

Et reduxit in contemptum

Patris opes et parentum

Larga patrimonia.

 

Vasis oleum includens,

Virgo sapiens et prudens

Sponso pergit obvia,

Ut, adventus ejus hora,

Praeparata, sine mora

Intret ad convivia.

 

Sistitur imperatori,

Cupiens pro Christo mori;

Cujus in praesentia

Quinquaginta sapientes

Mutos reddit et silentes

Virginis facundia.

 

Carceris horrendi claustrum,

Et rotarum triste plaustrum,

Famem et jejunia,

Et quaecumque fiunt ei,

Sustinet amore Dei,

Eadem ad omnia.

 

Torta superat tortorem,

Superat imperatorem

Feminae constantia:

Cruciatur imperator,

Quia cedit cruciator,

Nec valent supplicia.

 

Tandem capite punitur,

Et, dum morte mors finitur,

Vitae subit gaudia.

Angelis mox fuit curae

Dare corpus sepulturae

Terra procul alia.

 

Oleum ex ipsa manat

Quod infirmos multos sanat

Evidenti gratia.

Bonum nobis dat unguentum,

Si per suum interventum

Nostra sanet vitia.

 

Gaudens ipsa videat

De se praesens gaudia,

Et futura praebeat,

Quae dedit praesentia,

Et hic nobis gaudeat,

Illi nos in gloria.  Amen.

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

Tender is the flower of her beauty, yet she spares it neither labour nor study; and in early youth she masters earthly science and that which is of God.

 

A chosen vessel full of virtue, she considers transitory goods as mire, contemning her father’s wealth and her ample patrimony.

 

Pilling 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.

 

Longing to die for Christ, she is led before the emperor; and in his presence, by her eloquence, puts fifty philosophers to silence.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

 

 

Responsory

 

Virgo flagellatur, crucianda lame religatur, carcere clausa manet, lux coelica refusa refulget: * Fragrat odor dulcis, cantant coeli agmina laudes.

 

V. Sponsus amat sponsam, Salvator visitat illam, * Fragrat.

 

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.  * Fragrat.

The virgin is scourged, loaded with chains, tormented with hunger; but while she mains shut up in prison a heavenly light shines around. * A sweet fragrance fills the air, and the hosts of heaven are there singing praises.

 

V. The Spouse loves his bride and visits her as a Saviour. * A sweet fragrance.

 

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 please 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 within 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.” (Bossuet, Panegyric on St. Catharine.)

 

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 centre.  Let us learn from 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.” (Bossuet, Panegyric on St. Catharine.)

 

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 forever and ever. (Collect of the day.)



The Lives of the Saints

 

Rev. Father Alban Butler (1711–73)

 

Volume XI: November

 

November 25

 

St. Catharine, Virgin and Martyr

 

 

St. Catherine, whom the Greeks call Æcatherina, glorified God by an illustrious confession of the faith of Christ, at Alexandria, under Maximinus II. Her acts are so much adulterated that little use can be made of them. The Emperor Basil, in his Greek Menology, relates with them that this saint, who was of the royal blood, and an excellent scholar, confuted a company of the ablest heathen philosophers, whom Maximinus had commanded to enter into a disputation with her, and that being converted by her to the faith, they were all burnt in one fire, for confessing the same. He adds, that Catharine was at length beheaded. She is said first to have been put upon an engine made of four wheels joined together, and stuck with sharp pointed spikes, that, when the wheels were moved, her body might be torn to pieces. The acts add, that at the first stirring of the terrible engine, the cords with which the martyr was tied were broken asunder by the invisible power of an angel, and, the engine falling to pieces by the wheels being separated from one another, she was delivered from that death. Hence the name of St. Catharine’s wheel.

 

The learned Joseph Assemani thinks that all the account we have of the particulars relating to this saint upon which we can depend, is what we meet with in Eusebius, though that historian mentions not her name. His relation is as follows: 1 “There was a certain woman, a Christian, and the richest and most noble of all the ladies of Alexandria, who, when the rest suffered themselves to be deflowered by the tyrant (Maximin), resisted and vanquished his unbounded and worse than beastly lust. This lady was most illustrious for her high birth and great wealth, and likewise for her singular learning; but she preferred her virtue and her chastity to all worldly advantages. The tyrant, having in vain made several assaults upon her virtue, would not behead her, seeing her ready to die, but stripped her of all her estates and goods, and sent her into banishment.” Maximin, not long after, declared war against Licinius, and, after several engagements, was at length defeated by him in 313. Having lost his empire after a reign of five years, he fled to Tarsus, and there died in extreme misery. The body of St. Catharine was discovered by the Christians in Egypt, about the eighth century, when they groaned under the yoke of the Saracens. It was soon after translated to the great monastery on the top of Mount Sinai, in Arabia, built by St. Helen, and sumptuously enlarged and beautified by the Emperor Justinian, as several old inscriptions and pictures on Mosaic work in that place testify. 2 Falconius, archbishop of San-Severino, speaks of this translation as follows: 3 “As to what is said, that the body of this saint was conveyed by angels to Mount Sinai, the meaning is, that it was carried by the monks of Sinai to their monastery, that they might devoutly enrich their dwelling with such a treasure. It is well known that the name of an angelical habit 4 was often used for a monastic habit, and that monks, on account of their heavenly purity and functions, were anciently called Angels.” From that time we find more frequent mention made of the festival and relics of St. Catharine. St. Paul of Latra kept her feast with extraordinary solemnity and devotion. In the eleventh age, Simeon, a monk of Sinai, coming to Rouen to receive an annual alms of Richard, duke of Normandy, brought with him some of her relics, which he left there. The principal part of the mortal remains of this saint is still kept in a marble chest in the church of this monastery on Mount Sinai, described by Dr. Richard Pocock. 5

 

From this martyr’s uncommon erudition, and the extraordinary spirit of piety by which she sanctified her learning, and the use she made of it, she is chosen in the schools the patroness and model of Christian philosophers. Learning is, next to virtue, the most noble ornament, and the highest improvement of the human mind, by which all its natural faculties obtain an eminent degree of perfection. The memory is exceedingly improved by exercise: those who complain that in them this faculty is like a sieve, may, especially in youth, render it by use retentive of whatever is necessary, and particularly adapted to be a storehouse of names, facts, or entire discourses, according to every one’s exigency or purposes. But nothing ought to be learned by heart by children but what is excellent or absolutely necessary. To load a mind with other men’s lumber, and to make it a magazine of errors, trumpery, or toys, is to pervert all the purposes of this faculty, and a certain proof of the sloth, ignorance, and stupidity of a master. As the understanding is the light of the soul, so is it plain how exceedingly this is enlarged both by exercise and by the acquisition of solid science and useful knowledge. Judgment, the most valuable of all the properties of the mind, and by which the other faculties are poised, governed, and directed, is formed and perfected by experience and regular well-digested studies and reflection; and by them it attains to true justness and taste. The mind, by the same means, acquires a steadiness, and conquers the aversion which sloth raises against the serious employment of its talents. It is doubtless the will of the Creator that all his works be raised to that degree of perfection of which they are capable, and, where our industry is required to this, it becomes a duty incumbent upon us. This is in nothing so essential and important as in our own mind, the dignity of our being, and the masterpiece of the visible world. How much its perfection depends upon culture appears in the difference of understanding between the savages (who, except in treachery, cunning, and shape, scarcely seem to differ from the apes which inhabit their forests) and the most elegant civilized nations. A piece of ground left wild produces nothing but weeds and briers, which by culture would be covered with corn, flowers, and fruit. The difference is not less between a rough mind and one that is well cultivated. The same culture, indeed, suits not all persons. Geniuses must be explored, and the manner of instructing proportioned to them. Conditions and circumstances must be considered. 6 Generally the more sublime theological studies suit not those who are excluded from teaching, though women, upon whom the domestic instruction of children in their infancy mainly depends, ought to be well instructed in the motives of religion, articles of faith, and all the practical duties and maxims of piety. Then history, geography, and some tincture of works of genius and spirit, may be joined with suitable arts and other accomplishments of their sex and condition, provided they be guided by, and referred to religion, and provided books of piety and exercises of devotion always have the first place both in their hearts and in their time.

 

Note 1. Eus. Hist. l. 8, c. 14, p. 400 ed. Cantabr. anno 1720.

Note 2. See the present situation of this great monastery, described by Mr. Thompson, in his travels, t. 2.

Note 3. In Comment. ad Capponianas Tabulas Ruthenas. Romæ, 1755, p. 36.

Note 4. [Greek].

Note 5. Dr. Richard Pocock’s Travels, t. 1. p. 140, in folio.

Note 6. The female sex is not less capable of the sublime sciences, nor less remarkable for liveliness of genius. Witness numberless instances in polite literature, and, in theology, the celebrated Venetian lady, Helen Lucretia Cornaro, doctress in theology at Padua, in 1678, the wonder of her age for her skill in every branch of literature, and still more for the austerity of her life, and her extraordinary piety.

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