St. Catherine, virgin and martyr, is honored in both the Western and Eastern churches on November 25, the traditional date of her martyrdom in Alexandria, Egypt.
The usual account of Catherine’s life and death represents her as beautiful, of noble birth, and of high intelligence. When the Roman Emperor Maximus was persecuting Christians, this 18-year-old woman is said to have rebuked him for his cruelty and attempted to prove to him the folly of worshipping false gods. Maximus called in some leading pagan scholars to refute her, hoping that they would induce her to apostatize. But the little saint stood her ground so well that even some of the emperor’s scholars were converted to Christianity.
Furious over his failure, the emperor then had the young woman scourged and imprisoned. His wife, the empress, fascinated by what she had heard of Catherine, went in the company of the emperor’s generalissimo to visit her in jail. The empress and general were also converted to Christianity by her words. Maximus therefore ordered that Catherine be tortured to death on a spike-studded wheel. At her mere touch, the deadly wheel fell apart, so the ruler had her beheaded. Her body was transported (by angels, says the legend) to Mount Sinai in Arabia. There in 527 Greek monks built the monastery of St. Catherine, which is still functioning.
Another statement made in the legend of St. Catherine is that before her death she had already reached the heights of contemplation, and in a vision of Mary and the Christchild had received the grace of being accepted by Him as His mystical spouse.
Now, even the brief sketch I have just given has a very legendary ring. As a matter of fact, what has come down to us about the life and death of this saint is not historically dependable. Her various “biographies” are filled with even more extravagant miraculous details. During the Middle Ages, when the crusaders brought back news of Catherine’s story to the West, popular devotion tended to favor lives of saints that were full of miracles and wonders. St. Catherine caught the fancy of everyday Christians and from the tenth to the eighteenth century, she was venerated as one of the fourteen most powerful saints (the “Fourteen Holy Helpers”). Many churches were named after her; her statue, with the broken wheel as identifying symbol, was found in most churches. Some of the greatest artists painted her likeness and the events of her life. Because of her wisdom in disputation, theologians invoked her aid. Churchmen sang and preached her praise. Nuns prayed to her because of her mystical graces. Young women (and spinsters) looked at her as their particular friend. Wheelwrights naturally chose her as their saint because of the episode of the broken wheel. St. Catherine’s feast was observed with solemnity and popular festivities throughout Europe. (Do you know the “official” name of that firework called a “pinwheel”? Look in the dictionary under “Catherine wheel”!)
With the arrival of the eighteenth century and of rationalism with its chill gaze, critics began to look askance at all medieval legendary lore. To be sure, criticism of dubious documentation was in order. Perhaps through overreaction to St. Catherine’s fabulous biography, she became thenceforth less popular as a saint.
Such a loss of popularity by saints is not uncommon. It says nothing about the saints, only about the fickleness of the faithful. Maybe that is why God permits so many women and men to be canonized. He knows well our childish caprice and inconsistency, and will not condemn it.
Nevertheless, St. Catherine served for centuries to inspire untold numbers of peasants, tradesmen, craftsmen, theologians, poets and orators. Then it was high time, the little Alexandrian may well have thought, to pass on to other saints some of her long-term responsibilities as a popular heavenly go-between.
–Father Robert F. McNamara