by Margo Borders
Walking around Rome, I am frequently reminded of the feminine standard to which I am held as a member of the Catholic Church. The Virgin Mary watches at every street corner, and every time I catch her eye, the amazing virtues that she displayed in her life cross my mind. It often makes me think of my role as a woman in the Church, and the example Mary has set before me as a perfect model of femininity.
It is easy for people to criticize the Church for a lack of “female empowerment” or even positions of power for females. Because they don’t see women at the front lines, critics assume that women have no influence, or that they need power in order to have influence. My experience of living in Rome has been a constant reminder of how much women have shaped our Church.
A week ago I traveled to Siena, a little city outside Florence where St. Catherine of Siena was born. The city is quaint and is full of winding streets that, if you follow them long enough, will bring you to the few major sites of the city. Because I have read some writings of St. Catherine and love her story, I dragged my travel companions to see the different sites in the city devoted to her.
Two images come to mind when I think of St. Catherine. The first is the statue in her sanctuary that depicts her standing tall, holding a cross up high with her hands. This is not the image of an oppressed, meek woman who had no influence. This is the image of a humble, devoted woman who had the strength to help move the papacy from France back to Rome in the midst of chaos in the Catholic Church. The second image is of her head, which is preserved in the local basilica in Siena. This head, preserved because of the amazing works she did on behalf of the Church, is small and decayed. It is set in a relatively simple church compared to many others in Italy. This shows another side of Catherine that brings her feminine qualities in balance and makes her one of my favorite female saints. She had a mind for humility and serving others, rarely thinking of herself. She was not concerned about how sin affects oneself, but about how it always affects others.
My favorite phrase St. Catherine uses in The Dialogue is when she asks for a “holy hatred of thyself.” What is this holy hatred? For me, it is a humility that goes beyond oneself. It is a kind of feminine genius that focuses on serving others instead of a play for power. It seeks to contribute to God’s Church on earth. It is forgetting oneself for just a moment in order to think of others, whether you judge them worthy of your attention or not. This kind of feminine genius, one of love and humility, is a kind of femininity that would truly benefit the Church today.
I write this column as I sit in the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. I am gazing at the tomb of St. Catherine as pilgrims upon pilgrims make their way up to the golden altar to pay her homage and pray to the saint who had strength, courage, humility, and holiness. As I kneeled at her tomb, I only asked that she would help me to manifest and display my femininity in a way that served God as hers did.
Pray for us, St. Catherine, that we may know Christ as intimately as you, and that our hearts might be strong in serving Him.