St. Catharine of Genoa

(1447 – 1510)

The Fieschi family was one of the most noble and powerful families of medieval Genoa. They gave two popes to the Church.

In 1447 a daughter, “Catarinetta,” was born into the clan. As she grew up, Catharine showed a desire to become a nun, as her sister was. But when she was 16, her family ruled that she must marry a young man named Julian Adorno. It was one of those marriages of convenience so often contracted by noble families. Julian had an aristocratic name but an empty purse. Catharine had an aristocratic name and a full purse. An ideal match.

Since the marriage was founded more in finances than on love, it took long to get off the ground. For the first five years Julian was away from home most of the time. By his own admission, he was unfaithful to his wife. Catharine moped for five years. The next five years she sought solace in parties and entertainments. However, she finally began to pray to God earnestly for light. In 1473, the prayer was answered. God changed her heart and she changed her way of life. She became intensive in her prayer life and even received Holy Communion daily — a rarity in those times. She also dedicated herself to works of piety and charity.

Julian, too, turned over a new leaf. His wife’s prayers and his own bankruptcy brought him to his knees. Since their funds were reduced, the couple moved into a small house. Pledged to live henceforth as brother and sister, they began to devote themselves to the needs of the sick in the hospital of Pammatone. Eventually Catharine became the director of the hospital, and a capable one, too. In 1497 Julian died. Catharine took the responsibility of raising his daughter born out of wedlock.

From 1473 Catharine Adorno led an intensely spiritual life along with a life of constant activity on behalf of the poor and sick. She also wrote two profound mystical books, one on Purgatory and a Dialogue of the Soul and the Body. Thus, she provided another proof that a person can be both a profound mystic and an able administrator. (She kept her financial accounts at the hospital exactly down to the last penny.)

St. Catharine, it must also be remembered, was not a woman religious but a lay woman. Her husband, on his conversion, joined the third Order of St. Francis. She did not even do that. So businesswomen today could well take Catharine of Genoa as a model to follow and a patron to invoke.

There was one curious trait in the makeup of St. Catharine. She was an intense person, we are told, and was “without humor or wit.”

There are people of that makeup. Probably we are more readily attracted to saints who had a lively sense of humor, like Thomas More, Robert Bellarmine, Teresa of Avila and Elizabeth Seton. But even a saint can’t have everything. The lack of wit is a personal flaw comparable, perhaps, to tone-deafness, color-blindness or bowlegs. Flaws like these may be regrettable, but they certainly don’t keep one out of heaven.

Anyhow, after the resurrection, we are assured our personal imperfections will all be rectified. Indeed, as soon as they get to heaven, souls who are good but humorless will quickly learn to smile. Did not the Book of Proverbs say of the valiant woman, “She shall laugh in the latter day?” (31:25) And Our Lord promised, “Blessed are you who weep: you shall laugh.” (Luke 6:21)

As Sir Thomas Browne put it, we can look forward to “that unextinguishable laugh in heaven.”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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