The saints shed a lot of light on theology---by living it humbly, spiritually and existentially
In times such as ours, when the so much of the world and church appears convulsed in trials, attacks from without and from within, and the judgments consequent to it all which seek to call us back, one searches history to find at least roughly analogous times. The 14th century was certainly one of those times.
The Lord prophesied that the Church would always be attacked from without, but dissident attacks and storms from within are more difficult. Doubtless the fact that there was a Judas even among the Twelve whom Our Lord called was intended to be instructive for all time, yet it is an often forgotten fact. And so when crisis from within breaks upon the Church there is great pain and confusion spread throughout the entire Mystical Body as it attempts to correct the situation, resolve the crisis, and expel the viruses which attempt to destroy the living vineyard of Christ.
Such were the times St. Catherine of Siena was called to be a holy witness in. After over a millennium of relative 'domestic' order, the papacy found itself in a crisis of almost unbelievable proportion except for the fact that sinners, human beings, were as always involved. In her day different claimants to the papal office were rending the Church apart. It was so grave that not only bishops and teachers but even saints (1) sided with different claimants to the papal throne.
"This was the period of great difficulty from 1378 to 1417 which Catholic scholars refer to as the "Western schism" or, "the great controversy of the antipopes" (also called "the second great schism" by some secular and Protestant historians), when parties within the Catholic Church were divided in their allegiances among the various claimants to the office of pope. The Council of Constance in 1417 finally resolved the controversy"---wikipedia.
What I think is so instructive in the life of St Catherine for traditional Catholics was how she resolutely conformed herself to her crucified Lord, making herself an oblation not only for her "faction" but for the whole Church, even for those in great errors. The temptation for Catholics in our time of shadows, is to split apart and make our own analysis of the situation, i.e., our own studied convictions, the litmus of acceptance for all; and thus barring the way back for many who do not comprehend the complex theology fully, either intellectually or emotionally.
St. Catherine, however, gave herself in Christ for the whole mystical Body of Christ, even as she tended to the poor and never ceased to turn her heart outward for the conversion of poor sinners in the world.
"Deep mystery this, wrote Pope Pius XII, "subject of inexhaustible meditation: that the salvation of many depends on the prayers and voluntary penances which the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ offer for this intention" (Mystici Corporis Christi)
How deep was Catherine's Love (divine charity) in this regard! To read her life is a consolation beyond words. For she spent herself, "crucified with Christ" for the whole Mystical Body, the Church militant struggling in time against the powers of darkness. She never lost sight of the whole rent Body and gave herself in Him for all, even especially for those in errors and for those who are responsible for error, those cut off by it, as did Our Lord Himself. Her living motto was "Lord, take me from myself and give me to yourself."
She lived St. Paul's mystical theology in uniting herself to the cross for all.
St. paul wrote: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body's sake, which is the church; whereof I was made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which was given me to you-ward, to fulfil the word of God" (Col 1:24, 25)
Not for our own sins only
Pope Pius XI wrote of this penance in divine Love:
Penance then is, as it were, a salutary weapon placed in the hands of the valiant soldiers of Christ, who wish to fight for the defense and restoration of the moral order in the universe. It is a weapon that strikes right at the root of all evil, that is at the lust of material wealth and the wanton pleasures of life. By means of voluntary sacrifices, by means of practical and even painful acts of self-denial, by means of various works of penance, the noble-hearted Christian subdues the base passions that tend to make him violate the moral order. But if zeal for the divine law and brotherly love are as great in him as they should be, then not only does he practice penance for himself and his own sins, but he takes upon himself the expiation of the sins of others, imitating the Saints who often heroically made themselves victims of reparation for the sins of whole generations, imitating even the divine Redeemer, who became the Lamb of God "who taketh away the sins of the world" (lo. i. 29). ---Pius XI, Caritate Christi Compulsi, # 25, 1932
St. Catherine from the earliest age showed how this purity of heart and crucified Love is the fertile ground through which Christ works His miracles in the world---and why the lack of this purity of heart in our time makes our day sterile, devoid of many miracles. She teaches I believe that restoration will come about not solely through didactic theological persuasion but through the mystical living of our theology as the saints did. When people see purity and love for all, then they will listen more keenly. It must begin with a great empathy for all who are confused, all who are suffering in our time of trials and confusions. It will consider the hearts and not only the heads of those perplexed in our great storms and times of theological differences or deviance; for without charity, without divine Love, even for those who err or stir up trouble, our theology will not bear fruitful restoration. We feed but half man's hunger then.
Catherine Fournier writes of St. Catherine: "Beginning when she was only about six years old, Catherine loved to go out to quiet places to pray and talk to God. She began to have mystical experiences when she could see guardian angels as clearly as she could see the people they were protecting.
As she grew up, Catherine continued to love quiet prayer. She became a Third Order Dominican when she was sixteen, and kept on having visions of Christ, Mary and the saints. For three years, she only spoke to God and to her confessor. Then, one night, she had a vision of herself as a bride of Christ, and saw the Infant Jesus giving her a wedding ring. She began to tend the sick, to serve the poor and work for the conversion of sinners.
"[After protracted periods in solitude] she rejoined the world, and began to serve Christ in the sick, poor and ignorant. Many people were attracted to her by her charm, calm and wisdom. She served the poor, sick and to pray for the conversion of sinners. She still spent much time in prayer. Despite persecutions by the local clergy and others, she began to gather disciples. When another vision commanded her to enter the 'public life of the world', Saint Catherine entered into correspondence with the princes and republics of Italy, was consulted by papal legates about the affairs of the Church, and began working to repair the damage of civil war and religious factions in her country.
"There were great disagreements in the church at this time. The Pope had left Rome and moved to a city in France called Avignon. Saint Catherine knew that God was unhappy about the way people were arguing, so she wrote to the Pope and after awhile was able to convince him to move back to Rome. Saint Catherine wrote many letters and a book that is still read and admired today. Because of all the help she was able to give to the Church, and the great wisdom of her writing...
"Saint Catherine was always very close to Jesus and God. She had visions, and special trials sent to her all through her life. Towards the end of her life, she was given 'the Stigmata'- the marks of Christ's crucifixion - though, at her prayerful request, they remained invisible until her death. About fifty years after she died, her body was found to be incorrupt."
Penance, oblation and love for the whole Mystical Body, this is the lesson of St. Catherine of Siena for me in this time in history.
(1) St. Catherine of Siena remaining firmly with Urban, Sts. Vincent Ferrer and Peter of Luxembourg with Clement. Note how grave the problem here, and yet the saints overcame as they always do through trust, confession of the faith and charity.