One of the pictures that I most treasure is the central panel of the St John Altarpiece by Hans Memling. It was commissioned for the altar of the Old St John’s Hospital in Bruges and completed in 1479. The work is still there, though no longer adorning an altar. The Sint-Janshospitaal is a place that I have visited many times over the years on my regular trips to that beautiful city.
On the left of the picture, the infant Jesus places a wedding ring on the finger of St Catherine who has, on the floor beside her, the famous wheel, broken, at her knees, together with the sword with which she was beheaded.
The legend of St Catherine tells that before her baptism, Our Lady asked the infant Jesus to receive St Catherine among his servants. After her baptism, Our Lady presented her request again, and this time Our Lord placed a wedding ring on her finger. This mystical marriage shaped her life and her death.
As a high-ranking intellectual, so the legend continues, St Catherine was challenged to debate with fifty of the best pagan philosophers. She won the debate and several of the philosophers became Christian and were immediately martyred. St Catherine herself was martyred by the emperor Maxentius who urged her to marry him. She refused, citing her existing mystical marriage to Christ. In his rage, Maxentius tortured and killed the holy virgin.
The Collect of today’s Mass (in the usus antiquior) reads as follows,
Deus, qui dedísti legem Móysi in summitáte montis Sínai, et in eódem loco per sanctos Angelos tuos corpus beátae Catharínae Vírginis et Mártyris tuæ mirabíliter collocásti: præsta, quǽsumus; ut, ejus méritis et intercessióne, ad montem, qui Christus est, perveníre valeámus.
O God who gave the law to Moses on the summit of Mount Sinai, and in the same place through your holy angels placed the body of blessed Catherine, virgin and martyr; grant we beseech you, that by her merits and intercession, we may be able to reach the mountain which is Christ.
The prayer reminds that the Saint’s body was taken by angels to the foot of Mount Sinai where a monastery grew up. It is called the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai because of its location in the place where Moses saw the burning bush and where God, on being asked His name, said “I am Who am.” The mountain itself is the place where the law was given to Moses.
Devotion to St Catherine grew during the medieval period, and the Saint became particularly popular among women as a model of wisdom, strength, virtue and chastity, both in religious life and married life, so that she was considered a special patron for young women and students.
Today her patronage is needed more than ever. The need of a patron for chastity has been evident since the beginning of the “sexual revolution”, but now there is a great sadness among many of the young thanks to a devastating confusion about our identity. The devil “prowls around like a roaring lion” and devours the minds of many young people by suggesting that their being male or female is a matter of changeable “gender”.
Even in schools, children are taught the erroneous moral imperative that they must not show any negative reactions if one of the boys decides that he is now a girl, or one of the girls decides that she is now a boy. Adults encourage this confusion and it is considered a hate crime to speak against it, and uphold the truth of the first chapter of the book of Genesis and again in the fifth, “In the day that God created man, he made him to the likeness of God. He created them male and female; and blessed them.” (Gen 5:2)
In the street we are routinely confronted with outfits that derive their popularity from the pornography with which girls and women are degraded and exploited. It is common for girls to value aggression, sadly even trying to actually become male in a distorted way, by trying to be the worst type of man in brutishness and coarseness.
We must have great compassion for young people confused by this diabolical confusion over our maleness and femaleness, our sexual nature created by God as a gift to us. In our compassion, we need to ask for the light, prudence, and grace to speak to young people in such a way that they can be moved by our words when we affirm the truth of their God-given nature.
May the great martyr, St Catherine teach us all to reverence the gift that God has given us of our human nature, male and female. May she intercede for the young, and inspire them to emulate her heroic virtues.
Picture Credit: Wikimedia. Author: yakovlev.alexey from Moscow, Russia. File licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.