Saturday, 29 April 2006

St Catherine of Siena and the Crusades

Today we celebrate the feast of St Catherine of Siena (1347-80), Patron of Europe and Patron of Italy - whose body lies in the beautiful basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome (the titular church of our Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor).

Despite dying a humble Dominican Tertiary at the age of 33, St Catherine managed to achieve much in the political sphere. She encouraged Gregory XI to leave Avignon and return to Rome and she promoted his idea of mounting a crusade, designed to unite Christendom against the Turks. Crusading is very un-PC in the current climate, but it's interesting to see just how many saints were involved in promoting the idea (perhaps I'll do a post on it someday) - not out of blood lust or greed or fanaticism, but because Islam was a real threat to the very survival of Christendom. Crusades were basically a case of being offensive in order to be defensive. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, ‘when people talk as if the Crusades were nothing more than an aggressive raid against Islam, they seem to forget in the strangest way that Islam itself was only an aggressive raid against the old and ordered civilization in these parts. I do not say it in mere hostility to the religion of Mahomet; I am fully conscious of many values and virtues in it; but certainly it was Islam that was the invasion and Christendom that was the thing invaded.’

Back to our saint. St Catherine zealously promoted Gregory XI's crusade of 1374 and even tried to get the infamous English mercenary, Sir John Hawkwood, who plundered his way through Italy, on side. St Catherine wrote him a letter, which was taken to the Englishman by Blessed Raymond of Capua: 'My soul desires now to see you quite changed, and enrolled under the Cross of Christ crucified; you and all your comrades forming a Company of Christ, and marching against the infidels who possess the holy places where the Sweet and Eternal Truth lived and died for us. I beg of you, therefore, in His name, that since God and our Holy Father give the orders to march against the infidels, and since you are so fond of fighting and making war, you will fight no more against Christians, for that offends God, but go and fight against their enemies.' Hawkwood actually promised to support the crusade, although it never did get off the ground. The connections between St Catherine and Hawkwood are celebrated in a painting at the back of the chapel of the Venerable English College, Rome.

Buona festa everyone!



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