by Father Robert Wild for the Catholic Truth Society, London
Howl, my soul, howl,
Cry to the Lord for His Church,
Howl, my soul, howl.
For the Church is in pain,
Look, she lies in the dust of a thousand roads.
No one stops; the Good Samaritan is not seen
At the bend of those roads yet!
If this were the only quote one read from the writings of Catherine Doherty, the reader would think she was a raving reactionary with a distorted view of all the good things that have happened in the Church since the Second Vatican Council. However, as with anyone’s writings, each statement must be seen as parts of whole. Catherine had a very clear view of both the beauty and sins of the Church. I quote this fragment, not so much to emphasize her vision of the wounds of the Church, as to communicate something of her passionate love of the Church. For the purposes of this brief presentation, it is her love for the Church that was central to what the Holy Spirit was doing through her life: He was inspiring her to create a new model of the Church in the “ecclesial community” she founded.
A Personal Note
If I may share a personal experience to lead into this theme of Catherine and the Church. I do so because the inspiration which led me to join Madonna House is probably similar to the inspiration which has led thousands of people to join the new ecclesial movements and communities: a desire for a deeper and more living experience of the Church.
Before I came to Madonna House in 1971 I had had several years of monastic experience. In the monasteries I had had some exposure to living in a total Christian environment on a small scale; and I had met some very holy abbots and monks.
I was also a parish priest, and involved in the charismatic renewal and Cursillo (among other movements in the 60’s). As I look back, I see that I had really been seeking a new expression of the Church that I had read about in the Council documents. Where was it?
Thus, when I encountered Combermere and Catherine, I recognized first —from my monastic experience —that she was a religious genius, and that she had accomplished the magnificent achievement of putting together a totally Christian environment. It was different, of course, from the monastery: It was a kind of lay monasticism. The deep monastic, traditional elements were there: poverty, obedience, chastity, simplicity, prayer, manual work, silence, community life. But they were all harmonized in a different lay mode, you might say.
Secondly—from my pastoral experience—I recognized that Madonna House was a new, living, model of the Church articulated by Vatican II. And, I dare say, that the five priests who joined Madonna House in the 1950’s were also seeking a new, more vibrant expression of the Church. It was before Vatican II, but they had been reading the Popes’ call to the laity, and saw the need to encourage the lay apostolates. As priests, to leave their dioceses and Orders in the 1950’s and join a community in backwoods of Canada founded by a Russian baroness, was nothing short of heroic!
And something that I didn’t realize for many years (but had within me, from my monastic formation was the fact that I had received, in the monastery, the Catholic spiritual and ascetical tradition through holy men who were living it themselves . Very few people now have the opportunity to receive our tradition in this way. They receive it—if at all—through books, class work, a good Christian family, a holy friend. Few have the opportunity to be immersed in a totally Catholic environment for a few years, and be taught by elders who have received the tradition and are living it.
I don’t know if a great tradition can really be passed on in any other way. What I saw in Catherine, in Combermere, was that people were experiencing the great tradition of East and West through the life and teaching of a very much alive religious genius. It wasn’t exactly old Russia she was transmitting; it wasn’t exactly the Western tradition either: it was both, and we were receiving them through a personal communication.
One way to present a saintly person’s life and vocation is to make a historical list of facts and dates, like in an encyclopedia. This can convey a lot of information about the person but may fail to communicate the person’s inner life and meaning for the Church.
Another possibility—which I will adopt here—is more incarnational and holistic: It is to try and show how grace came in and through a person’s journey through life. It may not cover all the details of a person’s life, but it can outline enough of the main events which forged a person’s character and mission.
Secondly, it would be helpful to try and demonstrate how the graces a person received gradually took on flesh and blood in apostolic endeavors, and in the lives of those who were influenced by him or her.
A still further desirable dimension would be to show how a person’s life was part of a wider movement of the Holy Spirit. It is through such an incarnational and holistic method that I will attempt to present the life of Catherine Kolyschkine de Hueck Doherty (1896-1985) and Madonna House, the community she founded.
Recently I have come across two books extremely significant for understanding Catherine and Madonna House, and indeed, all the new movements and communities.
The first is entitled Movements in the Church. It contains the proceedings of the World Congress of Ecclesial Movements convened in May, 1998, in Rome , by the Council for the Laity. The second is The Ecclesial Movements in the Pastoral Concern of the Bishops. It contains the proceedings of a seminar held in Rome from 16 to 18 June, 1999, again promoted by the Council for the Laity. In using citations from these books I will simply refer to the numbers #2 and #4 respectively, their publication numbers in a series of books on the laity put out by the Council. (Available from: Pontifical Council for the Laity, Palazzo San Calisto , 00120 Vatican City)
It is our community’s opinion that Catherine Doherty, and Madonna House, are part of the movement of ecclesial communities in the Church today. I begin with this—the Church’s own mature assessment of the 20th century lay movement—because it unifies one of the main directions and purposes of Catherine’s life.
Pope John Paul II saw the new ecclesial movements and communities as the providential response, given by the Holy Spirit, to fulfill the great need for mature Christian personalities and communities at the end of the millennium. Some of the lay apostolic ventures of the last century—but not all—evolved into these ecclesial realities. In addressing the World Congress of the Ecclesial Movements in Rome, May, 1998, he said:
What is meant today by ‘movement’? The term is often used to refer to realities that differ among themselves, sometimes even by reason of their canonical structure. Though that term certainly cannot exhaust or capture the wealth of forms aroused by the life-giving creativity of the Spirit of Christ, it does indicate a concrete ecclesial reality with predominately lay membership, a journey of faith and a Christian witness which bases its own pedagogical method on a precise charism given to the person of the founder in specific circumstances and ways. #2/18
Madonna House sees itself as one of these new “concrete ecclesial realities” which the Pope is describing.
Ten years earlier, in Christifideles Laici (1988), the Pope spoke about these new ecclesial realities in this way:
In recent days the phenomenon of lay people associating among themselves has taken on a character of particular variety and vitality. In some ways lay associations have always been present throughout the Church’s history as various confraternities, third orders and sodalities testify even today. However in modern times such lay groups have received a special stimulus, resulting in the birth and spread of a multiplicity of group forms: associations, groups, communities, movements. We can speak of a new era of group endeavors of the lay faithful. (No.29)
A theology of founders and foundresses has arisen since Vatican II. I will simply state that Catherine saw herself as having been called by the Lord to be the foundress of, first, Friendship House, and then Madonna House (both of which we shall be considering). Her awareness of being a foundress grew over a period of time, as it often did with other foundresses. In the early 1940s she begins referring to herself as the foundress of Friendship House; in 1970, after almost 30 years in the service of the Lord, she began writing a series of letters to the community of Madonna House entitled, “Letters From the Foundress.” (Many of these are published in three volumes, entitled Dearly Beloved.) Shortly afterwards she wrote a Constitution, or Way of Life. In her voluminous writings she has given Madonna House its spirit and direction. She certainly believed that the Lord had called her to found a new family in the Church.
Many communities in the history of the Church started out as “lay,” and the persons who founded them were “lay.” Only later did the founders become “religious,” and their communities “Orders.” Had the Church not recognized, in our times, that the Spirit was doing something new, this path of development might have continued for many of these lay groups. And, what would have been more tragic, their new characteristics might have been clipped and molded to make them “fit” older canonical forms. But beginning with Pius XII’s Provida Mater Ecclesia , which dealt with lay people taking promises in Secular Institutes, these new ecclesial realities were coming to birth through the Holy Spirit’s guidance.
When the Lord desires to create a new community, he speaks to someone. (Usually not to a committee!) This brief presentation of the life of Catherine and Madonna House will center around the theological reality of the charism of a foundress. Charism simply means gift. The Holy Spirit orders and enriches the whole Church by his gifts and graces ( Lumen Gentium , 12). He himself is the Gift of the New Testament. By his coming he gave birth to the whole Church, and by his continual coming nourishes and distributes gifts to all its members.
A number of charisms are listed in the New Testament (for example, 1 Cor. 12). But there are many others. Of particular interest for our purposes is what Pope Paul VI, in Evangelica Testificatio, called “the charisms of your founders whom God has raised up in his Church” (11) (Vatican II speaks of the spirit of founders and foundresses.)
Sometimes attempts are made to pinpoint one special gift of such people in order to distinguish them from other founders and foundresses: “What is the charism of St. Francis which distinguishes him from St. Dominic?” Such questions and distinctions have a certain validity. However, concentrating on one particular aspect of a founder can obscure the fact that what we are really dealing with is a charismatic person. At the very end of his valuable study, Foundresses, Founders, and Their Relgious Families , Fr. John Lozano states what I wish to make my overall approach to presenting the charismatic dimension Catherine’s life:
We must face the fact that the charism, properly speaking, cannot be defined. Rather, it must be described by gathering up those traits through which it gradually appeared in those who first lived it, as well as in the successive generations who received it. It is not something that can be expressed in a few words. For if it were reduced to just a few words, many of its really different manifestations in history would seem to blur and coincide. (Ibid. 92)
Theologically, this may be broadening the concept of charism somewhat. However, seeing Catherine, or any founder or foundress, as a charismatic person, and understanding “charism” as a many-faceted reality instead of a single specific grace, is more accurate and helpful.
I recall, in this context, the best imaginative definition of a saint I ever read, given, of course, by a child: “A saint is somebody in a stained glass window, and light comes through him.” Light comes through the whole person, not just one part of him or her.
Secondly, the Holy Spirit gives graces to these outstanding people, generally speaking, in and through the history of their lives:
We must never forget that divine grace is always given to real living persons with their own individual temperament and qualities, yet formed through a series of experiences and conditioned by the environment in which they lived. Not only the temperament and character of a person, but also time and society have a deep influence on the religious experience of the saints. ( Ibid .76 )
Trying to see how the Holy Spirit communicated graces to founders in and through their history, character, upbringing, is a more accurate way of understanding who they were.
Another essential aspect of my presentation will be what the Holy Father, in the above cited address to the movements in St. Peter’s Square, called the communicative dimension of the charism:
By their nature, charisms are communicative and give rise to that ‘spiritual affinity among persons’ and to that friendship in Christ which is the origin of ‘movements.’ The passage from the original charism to the movement happens through the mysterious attraction that the founder holds for all those who become involved in his spiritual experience. In this way movements officially recognized by ecclesiastical authority offer themselves as forms of self-fulfillment and as facets of the one Church. #2,222
Catherine’s life spanned almost a whole century, and it would not be possible, in so short a pamphlet, to do justice to her life.  I will be concentrating, therefore, on those aspects of Catherine’s life which were particularly destined by the Holy Spirit to be ingredients in the ecclesial community she founded. All her teaching can be seen as guiding people to authentic “self-fulfillment,” in order to form the community into a true “facet of the one Church.”
To Restore All Things In Christ
If people are attracted to a certain Order or community, it is usually because there is some kind of spiritual resonance, “spiritual affinity,” in their hearts with the founder/foundress and the spirit of that particular community. The charisms of the founder can be and are, in some degree, communicated to the members; and it is this spirit which binds them together in a specific way.
I emphasized that a charism cannot be defined in one word. But, if I were asked if Catherine’s charism could be summed up in one word or phrase(!) I would say it was centered in the motto she chose for the community from Pope Pius X’s first encyclical: “To Restore All Things In Christ.”
In the early years of her apostolate she tried to accomplish this restoration by helping people through the spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and especially through her efforts for interracial justice. As we shall see, it was during the third and final phase of her life—Madonna House—that she began to express this “charism of restoration” in as many ways as possible, on a small scale. She sought to create, in miniature, a world where all things really were restored in Christ. Bishop Albert-Marie de Monleon, O.P, entitled his talk on the new movements, “Places of a Transfigured Humanity.” (#2,149 ff.) She believed that the sparks emanating from such a community could help to ignite the Church and the whole world.
While I will be trying to describe how Madonna House is presently seeking to live out Catherine’s vision, I would emphasize that we are only at a certain stage of the growth of that vision. Her vision is as comprehensive as the Church itself, since it is the Spirit’s intention in these communities to express the very nature of the Church. Catherine’s charism to restore all things in Christ is really unlimited in its scope: any form of the apostolate is open to us. Presently we are involved in certain expressions. My point is that the various aspects of her charismatic life could be expressed in different ways in the future.
One of the main reasons for this “open future” is that the charisms of a founder or foundress cannot be identified with their external works. The charism exists in the interior grace which inspired their activities. These activities can change, and probably ought to. (As the philosophers tell us: for something to remain the same, it has to change.)
Not everything in her life is equally essential for, or able to be communicated to, the community’s identity and mission. Some graces are personal to her (her sufferings, for example; and her degree of sanctity). In order to present an harmonious picture of her life, and that of Madonna House, I will, in each section, mention certain graces of Catherine’s life, seeking to show 1) something of the historical context through which she received them, and 2) how these graces/charisms are presently manifested in Madonna House. In this way we can achieve this more holistic understanding of her life and community. It is the Holy Spirit who gives birth to new communities in the Church. Catherine loved to call him, in her Russian fashion, “the Crimson Dove.”
“I Am Russian”
Although Catherine, ethnically speaking, was only one-quarter Russian, she had a Russian mind and heart. People who originally came from Western Europe , and who had lived in Russia for centuries, became russified. On one occasion, towards the end of her life, Catherine expressed to a friend that, although she had tried to conform, to some extent, to Western ways of thinking and acting when she was exiled from her native land, she was never able to really do it. “I am Russian,” she said, “and I always will be.” Her Russianess will be important to remember as we look at her life and try to understand who she was.
It took those of us who knew her many years before we were able to re-focus our Western minds and hearts and see her life, attitudes, and speech with something of an Eastern mentality. Russians, and Easterners generally, easily understand her; we Westeners have to really work at it. We are literal-minded, logical. Her thinking was more poetical, “iconographic,” you might say. Where she often used images, and therefore was speaking figuratively, we would tend to take her words literally.
This difference came home to me recently. I was reading some sophisticated, theological critiques of her writings. I think, generally, the author missed the point of her particular grace. She wasn’t always theologically precise! Tolkien once said that truth is best communicated through symbols, imaginatively. She was a genius at that. She paints word-pictures. When someone once quoted her own words to her to win an argument, she said: “I will not be bound by my own words!” I simply emphasize that she was Russian, a woman, a poet, not a trained theologian, but someone taught by God. I make a plea that we try to understand her teaching in that light.
A Woman of the Century
The details of Catherine’s birth in Nijni Novgorod , Russia , in 1896, are less important for our specific purposes than the fact that, falling asleep in the Lord in 1985, her life spanned almost the whole of the 20th century. The Holy Spirit used most of the cataclysmic events of that century to mold her character and to communicate graces to her on behalf of the community she founded and, indeed, on behalf of the whole Church. Speaking for myself, I can’t imagine the suffering that was part of her life. Dostoevsky, her countryman and favorite Russian author, said that, without suffering, we will never know many truths about life. She knew most of them.
If we just think for a moment of some of these events in which she was personally involved, we can get an idea, however inadequate, of the scope of her experience, the sufferings she endured, the challenges to her faith, and the greatness of her following of Christ: the First World War, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression in North America, the Second World War, the racial integration movement in the United States, the Second Vatican Council and its aftermath.
And she did not simply read about these events: she was part of them. It is because she came through all these events, with her faith flaming and her love stronger than ever, that she can serve as a safe guide for others in the life of faith.
The testing of her faith was not limited to one convent or monastery, or to a small geographical area, or to one homogeneous group of people. Wife and mother, writer and lecturer, one whose experience and gifts could form a whole community of men and women, she was a kind of total person, involved with life on many levels.
We, the members of Madonna House, do not have, of course, her experiences of all of these events. But she has bequeathed to us her graced response to them, and her Christian perspective on them. Thus, part of our heritage is the wisdom God taught her through a long and difficult human life. The depth of her spiritual legacy stems both from her personal gifts and the extraordinary range of experiences which finely honed and forged these gifts.
C.S. Lewis said that life is iconoclastic, that is, real life shatters all our ideas about it. The extraordinary range of her experiences not only shattered any pre-conceived notions she might have had about life, they also led her to a deep wisdom that came, not from books, but from this shattering. Therefore, her own actual, living presence could also be quite iconoclastic: the depth and intensity of her union with God could shatter one’s mediocrity and pretensions about life. Many people only met her once, or heard her speak once. Nonetheless, their lives were changed by that powerful and charismatic encounter.
Her father, Theodore Kolyschkine, was born in the Russian-occupied section of Poland in the mid-19th century of a Russian father, who was stationed there, and a Polish, Roman Catholic mother. It is possible that her father was secretly baptized as a Catholic: having a Russian father, it would have been illegal for him to have been baptized a Catholic. Thus Catherine’s own breathing with the two lungs of Catholicism and Orthodoxy (a favorite expression of Pope John Paul II) began here in her father’s loins.
Her mother, Emma Thompson, was of purely European descent, her ancestors being part of that professional class whom Peter the Great invited to westernize Russia . But although Emma was Western European, her deep soul also had been “russified.”
Catherine was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. She probably did not have much of a formal, literate education in Orhodoxy as we would understand “religious instruction” in the West. What she did receive was a formation in the Orthodox sense: the experience of the liturgy, home customs, pilgrimages, service to the poor. She would later relate these experiences in her book, My Russian Yesterdays. This book gives some idea of how Catherine was formed, and of the sacral world of her origins which would contrast so sharply with the West into which the Revolution would expel her. If we had some appreciation of the clash within her between the almost medieval world from which she came, and the secularized West, we would have some understanding of the origin of the inner drive she experienced to “restore all things in Christ.”
My Russian Yesterdays
Besides Chapters on Herbs, Education, Sports, and almost every area of life, Catherine has several chapters in her book on the religious aspects of her upbringing. As an example, she relates the splendor of the Easter liturgy she experienced as a young child:
In a loud, penetrating voice, the priest proclaimed, ‘Christ is risen! Christ is risen!’ The whole congregation answered, ‘Truly He is risen!’ Then the priest kissed the deacon, who then passed the kiss of peace down the clerical line.
At this point a Westerner would have been sorely puzzled, for everyone in the church turned around and kissed his neighbor, exchanging over and over again the joyous salutation of the priest: ‘Christ is risen! Truly he is risen!’
At that moment all the church bells started ringing freely, with a song of great gladness, as if repeating, ‘Yes, Christ is risen!’ Beautiful and unforgettable was the sound of the ‘forty times forty’ bells of Moscow. (64)
She remembers carrying the Easter fire home through the darkness. She recalls the long pilgrimages to the holy monasteries. In another of her books, Not Without Parables, she re-tells—adding her own imaginative flavor!—the miraculous stories she heard while sitting at the feet of the holy pilgrims who were given hospitality in her home.
Her mother was, you might say, “quite ecumenical.” She put “Lutheran” on her passport, but her son, Andre, told me that, when they had lived in Brussels after the War, they would attend a variety of churches. She probably did not have too many strict dogmatic opinions! Her faith was lived, expressed mostly in her extraordinary love for the poor, and in teaching Catherine about the dignity of all work and of all men and women.
One of the expressions of the Catholic lung of her father was manifested in the fact that, when the family moved, due to his business, to Alexandria , Egypt, Catherine was put into a Roman Catholic school run by the Sisters of Sion. (This Order had been founded to promote unity between the people of Israel and Christianity.) A strict slavophile Russian would hardly have placed their young, Orthodox child in a Catholic school. Here Catherine was certainly exposed to the Mass, some instruction in the Catholic faith, and the full panoply of Catholic devotions. Some of her most fundamental graces were implanted during that time.
For example, as a young child in that school, she was so moved by the sufferings of Christ on the Cross that she went around to all the crucifixes and tried to take him off. The antics of a child? Yes, but this action revealed that, very early, the Spirit had implanted in her a profound desire to assuage the sufferings of Christ, to console him in his pain and loneliness, to take him off his cross, to wipe his face like Veronica. This passion to console Jesus became the absolute center of Catherine’s spirituality, and it was born in her childlike heart in this school in Alexandria .
Catherine’s family often went, during the summer, to visit her grandmother in Poland . She said she learned a great deal about Catholicism from her. The following quote from the Introduction to her book, My Russian Yesterdays , reveals the religious world in which Catherine grew up, the matrix of her Orthodox/Catholic spirit, the seedbed of her longing for the reunion of East and West:
The customs, celebrations, prayers, and the ‘ways of doing things’ that you will find in these pages were common to both Catholic and Orthodox in Russia . In those days, parts of Poland , Lithuania , and a great part of Catholic Ukraine officially formed part and parcel of ‘ Russia .’ Unofficially, intermarriage, the close living together of neighbors, the influx of Russians into the Catholic parts of the country and vice versa—all had their effects. I give them to you as they came to me, from living with my grandmother’s folks near Warsaw , and with my grandfather’s near Moscow . (v-vi)
We, the members of Madonna House, speculate among ourselves as to why Catherine, when she came to England after escaping from Russia , made a profession of faith in the Catholic Church. (Her name is in the records of converts in Westminster .) We know how and when it happened, but the why remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. In London she had come across a convent of those very Sisters of Sion who had taught her in Alexandria . She received instructions and entered the Church. But why?
Several reasons come to mind.
She had been raised in the two worlds of Catholicism and Orthodoxy, as the above quote testifies. As a young girl, not over-educated in doctrinal matters(!) she might not really have seen all that much creedal difference between Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
Also, her father used to read to them, as children, from the works of Vladimir Soloviev. Considered by many to be the greatest Russian philosopher/theologian, he himself made a public confession of faith in the Pope as the “wonder-working icon of Christian unity,” and this in the 1880’s in Russia ! Soloviev taught that Christ could not really be divided. She was probably also influenced by him. (His picture has a very prominent place in the main house in Combermere.)
Believing that she would never be able to return to Russia, perhaps there was an impelling sense to identify, now, with the new world in which she was going to live. Protestantism would have had absolutely no appeal for her, and Catholicism was already in her bones.
Privately she retained some of her Orthodox customs all her life: icons, bowing before the Blessed Sacrament instead of genuflecting, prostrations at times. But, in her outward life and teaching of others she would have appeared pretty much as a Roman Catholic.
In her diaries, for example, until the 1960’s, there is very little indication of her Orthodox spirituality. At that time a Melchite priest, Fr. Joseph Raya, became associated with the community. One day he and one of his parishioners walked into the dining room carrying two huge icons as gifts for the community. Something happened in Catherine’s heart. All the memories of Holy Russia flooded back into her. It seemed the time had arrived for her to draw as well upon her Orthodox roots for the enriching of Madonna House and the Church.
From this time onwards—the last 25 years of her life—she began writing her Russian books: Poustinia, Sobornost, Molchanie, Strannik, Urodivoi. They are not exactly Orthodox, or Western, spirituality: they are an interweaving of both. Since her arrival in the West she had tried to assimilate Western Catholicism. These books now expressed the flowing together of the two streams of East and West which had begun in her heart in her mother’s womb, and which had been fusing in a hidden manner during her whole life. This legacy is an essential part of the Madonna House apostolate.
The Two Lungs of Madonna House
If you came to our main center in Combermere, Ontario, Canada, or to any one of our smaller houses, and knew nothing about us, for the first few hours you might be in doubt whether we were Catholic or Orthodox. (In fact, sometimes people ask us that question on their first contact.) Our houses, and our chapels, display icons as well as statues. This is fairly common today, but it was not so common 40 years ago. And when they hear that our foundress was Russian, and when they see the many Eastern books on our shelves, well, they wonder.
Catherine wanted us to understand Orthodoxy, the great Christian tradition of the East. However, she definitely wanted us to be Catholic. In fact, there was a long period where she was fearful that we would not understand Orthodoxy; then a period when she feared that we would “go too far” in Eastern ways. But long before our present Pope John Paul II articulated his famous “two lungs” phrase, Catherine had been led by the Spirit to integrate, in our lives and in our community, the two great traditions. She saw this as part of her mission, and it is part of the apostolate of Madonna House.
Fr. Raya became Archbishop Raya, and eventually a full-time member of Madonna House. (Another indication of the different states of life drawn into ecclesial communities.) He retired in Combermere, and for many years now has celebrated regular liturgies, as well as teaching us about the spirit of the Eastern Church. We strive for unity by our prayer, by trying to understand Orthodoxy ourselves, and by helping others to understand it. We are not presently involved in any projects or programs to attain this unity. It is by trying to integrate Orthodoxy into our hearts and lives, that we hope to be a small bridge of unity in the Church.
“Going Into the People”
In the latter part of the 19th century, and the early part of the 20th, Emma was involved in the movement in Russia called “going into the people.” The well-to-do, the educated and intellectuals, would go into the poor villages to nurse, teach, and do menial chores, in an attempt to bridge the enormous gap between the rich and the millions of peasants. Catherine went on some of these excursions.
Mother was a splendid practical nurse. Twice a week she went into the villages to nurse the sick and the poor. I was her assistant. I would like to have a penny for every mile I walked, carrying a heavy knapsack containing medicines and first-aid needs, for the floors, windows, and doors I scrubbed, for the beds made in sickrooms. Early in my childhood, the truth that Christ is in my neighbor was shown to me by my parent’s example and words. (Yesterdays, 12)
The Holy Spirit used these experiences as a child to plant the seed of one of her most fundamental graces: to personally be where the poor are, and to help them in whatever way she could. Her favorite gospel text was Matt.25:31 ff: “I was sick…I was in prison.” Her inspiration to live with the black people in Harlem was born from these experiences with her mother.
She often related how her father would go to the door to meet beggars, bring them to the table, and serve them. From her earliest years, therefore, she was taught, by example, that Christ really and truly was in the poor. Failure to see Christ in the other she called “heretical,” a word in the West we normally use for wrong doctrine. The Russian spirit sees a lack of charity as heretical, that is, denying the faith in practice. They have an extraordinary awareness of Christ in those who suffer. All spirituality must be incarnate, or else it is unreal.
Catherine asked her mother once how she could touch God. Her mother said, “Touch me.” She took Catherine to touch God in the poor in the villages. Emma loved the poor so much that she wanted to be married among them, in their little village Church , an unprecedented practice in the Russia of that day. Her husband loved her enough to consent. (His side of the family didn’t come.) He even brought a huge pail of vodka along for the wedding.
Pregnant with child, Catherine emigrated to Canada in 1921 with her husband, Boris. She would often meet the train in Toronto which was bringing in more Russian refugees like herself. She helped them find jobs and places of residence. She and her Russian friends organized a kind of ” Russia away from home” colony in Toronto . There Russians could use their culinary, artistic and educational skills to make some money and pass on their heritage to the young.
In the early 1920’s she obtained a job with the famous Chautauqua Circuit whose purpose was to bring culture and entertainment to rural areas. Her act was to dress up in Russian costumes and speak about that far away and mysterious land. She was very popular—especially when she cried! She discovered that she had a talent for holding the attention of audiences, a gift she never lost.
On the verge of beginning a new lecture bureau of her own in 1929, the Great Depression occurred. It was the last straw. If she could go from nobility to rags, and then from financial security to a Depression, was not this life all sand! The Lord was telling her how ephemeral were the foundations of the world. She finally remembered a promise she had made to God when close to starvation, escaping the Revolution: “If you save my life, I will give it to you.” She decided to give up all her possessions and follow Christ in as radical a way as possible.
In the 1930’s men were on the streets in Toronto , out of work. She saw the Communists helping them and indoctrinating them in Marixsm. The Communists had read the papal social encyclicals (she knew, because she went to some of their meetings), and taunted the Christians in their audiences: “All talk and no action!” She thought it was time for the Catholics to act.
She started her own group to study these papal social encyclicals. With the permission of Archbishop Neil McNeil she opened a store front and fed bodies with food and minds with Catholic doctrine. She called it Friendship House.
Several Friendship Houses were opened in Canada until the lies of her being a Communist, and misunderstandings in the diocese about her apostolate (Archbishop McNeil had died), eventually forced her to end this first phase of her work for the poor.
Fr. John Lafarge, S.J., the great social activist, had heard about her work. Hearing that she was no longer involved in her apostolate in Canada , he invited her to come and serve Christ in the black people in Harlem , N.Y. Thus, in 1938, she became one of the first Catholic lay women to get involved in the interracial justice movement in the United States .
She set up youth clubs, clothing centers, food kitchens, lending libraries. Many enthusiastic young people joined her, as they had in Canada . Her “going into the black people,” just as she had done with her mother in Russia , was an ingenius gospel approach. (There is some evidence that President Kennedy got his idea for the Peace Corps from Friendship House, Harlem . His sister, Ethel, used to volunteer at Friendship House. It was her husband, Sargeant Shriver, who was put in charge of the Peace Corps.) Invitations came in from other cities. Friendship House soon was in the forefront of interracial justice.
Catherine challenged not only the civil society but the Catholic Church as well, which, in many areas of the country, had not racially integrated their worshipping congregations, educational institutions, or religious orders. She was involved in some of the first sit-ins in America .
On several occasions, in the South, she experienced open hostility. Once she was mobbed on the stage and had to be physically rescued by blacks. On another occasion, while proclaiming quite forcefully (as was her style) that racial injustice was contrary to the gospel, a bishop who was present got up and said: “Keep Quiet! You can’t say those things here.” She quietly gathered her notes and walked off the stage—in obedience—but it did not stop her apostolate throughout the rest of the nation.
However, for a second time, in God’s providence, this phase of her apostolate was not to last either. The problems this time were internal to the community. Her vision was always very broad, “To Restore All Things In Christ.” Many in the community wanted to restrict that vision to interracial justice alone. Also, her marriage to Eddie Doherty, a nationally famous newspaper man (her first marriage having been annulled), caused some disbelief and hurts. Many were under the impression that they had been called to a vocation of single service to Christ. (Her decision to marry can now be seen as part of her inspiration to remain lay.) The break-up was also due in part, to her not informing her friends about her intention to marry. Not even her spiritual director knew.
But it was all in God’s plan. She went to Combermere , Ontario , with her husband. They began a newspaper. Catherine continued her outreach to the needy in the area through a clothing room, home nursing, a mail order lending library, and cooperatives. Again, young people were attracted to her powerful faith and love for Christ. They came to see, and some never left.
A new community grew up around her, and the apostolate expanded. Mission houses were opened in the Yukon to work with the native peoples, in Edmonton and Regina to feed and clothe the needy, in Peru and Bangladesh , to assist the poor in whatever ways were necessary.
In the late 60s and beyond, Catherine discerned a new need in society: loneliness. She opened several what she called “prayer/listening houses” where the community would be available to others for prayer, listening, and counseling.
Always at the heart of her understanding of service was a direct person to person approach. Even if in some of the houses we have rather extensive programs of food and clothing, she always resisted huge, impersonal methods. She experienced, as an immigrant, how impersonal “helping people” could be. She not only wished to help with the necessities of life, but moreso with the necessities of the spirit. She wanted to communicate the love of God to others through personal love. This is the spirit she has communicated to Madonna House today.
Presently we have 13 houses throughout North America, and 7 in other parts of the world: Brazil, Belgium, Carriacou (West Indies), England, France, Ghana, and Russia. The apostolates vary from the original soup kitchens mentioned above, to parish work, prayer/listening houses, retreat centers, and a variety of other expressions of both the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Catherine always wanted the members of the community to be free to engage in any work to which the Spirit might lead us. We have not been founded, therefore, to render a particular kind of service, but to serve in a particular kind of way. You may be wondering: “How can you have expertise in everything?” Actually, we don’t see ourselves as experts in anything. Everyone brings certain talents and education when they join the apostolate. The formation consists mostly in how to love in simple ways. Some people may be sent away to complete a nursing course for the needs of the community, or to the seminary to study for the priesthood, or to a language school to prepare for one of the missions. Further professional education is open to us; but presently our apostolates are very simple and unprofessional.
In this sense we’re all amateurs, “little lovers,” not putting the emphasis on our skills but on our loving, and using whatever skills we have to manifest the love of God to others. We are constantly amazed at what this love can do. Love is the real healer, the real teacher, the real wisdom. Catherine believed that genuine love of others was at the heart of every attempt to help. On one level, our “help” may be, and often is, quite inexpert. And we may have to direct people to get expert help somewhere. But often they return to our houses for the love they originally experienced.
“The Restoration of All Things In Christ”
The Russian world Catherine grew up in would still have been permeated by Christian symbols and a Christian atmosphere. Churches were everywhere. Christ was a reality in the homes and mentality of the people. (Not in everyone, of course: the “intelligentsia” had lost the faith long ago. Chesterton might say they had everything but intelligence.) But in many ways Russia was still a Christian society: the monasteries were flourishing, the saints were invoked, and the icons were carried in magnificent processions. The Russian word for “peasant” is “Christian.”
When she arrived in Scotland, England, Toronto, New York, she must have been vividly (and sorrowfully) struck by what we simply and rather matter-of-factly call “secularization.” We who have been raised in a secularized world probably do not think of it as anything unusual. For us it’s “normal”: we’ve never really known any other kind of society. It doesn’t shock us as it must have shocked Catherine. “Secular” for her was experienced as un-Christian.
She was also shocked by the lack of involvement, on the part of Christians, in helping the poor, in confronting the racial injustice of the times; in short, she did not see the presence of the Church in the public square. She would have been stunned by the compartmentalization of Christainity: people going to Church but generally not involved in having their Christainity penetrate other spheres of their lives.
The books of the renowned sociologist at the Catholic Univesrity of America, Fr. Paul Hanley Furfey (especially his Fire On the Earth) confirmed her own observation of this compartmentalization of Christianity, as well as giving her inspiration and guidance to do something about it. He eventually became her spiritual director.
Many of the older members of the community have seen the circle diagram she used to teach this vision: Christ was at the center, and he radiated outwards into every area of human existence . (In my own study of Soloviev I came across just such a diagram which showed how Christ must penetrate the whole of life.)
Before she came to Combermere in 1947, she had tried, by the spoken word and by her various works of charity, to achieve this ideal of restoring all things in Christ. But it was always fragmented and partial. When she arrived in Combermere, another vision loomed on her spiritual horizon: She began to realize that restoration was possible on a very small scale. It was possible to express, in at least one place, the vision of a community life totally immersed in the Gospel, both creating, and penetrated by, Christian culture.
Catherine’s way of discerning the Lord’s will was to follow him one step at a time. She believed that he spoke in persons and events. I don’t believe she had in mind, when she arrived back in Canada with her second husband, Eddie Doherty what one would presently see. But it was in the Lord’s mind.
Coming from Russia, she loved the rural aspect of Ontario. She and her husband had worked with the British forces in Murmansk in 1918. When they arrived in England they were given the choice of emigrating to any country in the Commonwealth. They chose Canada, because it was the closest in climate to their beloved Russia .
In Canada, as in Russia, there was space: space to plant a garden, trees and have bee hives; space to have cows and a farm; space to have handicrafts and search for mushrooms. In short, to create something like the estate she grew up on in Russia . In fact, when her brother Andre came to Combermere for the first time, one of his comments was: “Why, this is just like Russia!”
The Christian vision of Russia she had carried with her into exile now had the possibility of implementation. Just as her mother taught her how to sew and cook and farm, and that these tasks were holy, so now Catherine taught the young people who came to join her about the dignity of manual labor (new to most North Americans!) She taught them home liturgical customs, some from Russia , but some also from their own tradition that they had never learned. She taught them that life together was the greatest possible achievement, and that it could be exciting, and even fun.
Madonna House, Combermere, is a collection of many buildings, serving the needs of well over a hundred people at any given time. It is without a doubt one of the largest concentrations of people living a community life in North America . It is a total way of life. It is organized into various departments such as cooking, farming, maintenance, publications, office, and all the other tasks which are necessary for such a large community.
There is liturgy every day, and one of the hours of the Divine Office. (It was the great American liturgist, Dom Virgil Michel, who had stopped into Friendship House, Toronto, one day, and taught them how to recite the Office. This was very unusual for lay people in 1934.) The liturgical seasons and customs permeate the community life.
The people who come experience 95% of our community life. Catherine believed that the gospel was first of all a way of life, and that it is communicated, first, by living it yourself, and, then, having others share that life with you. Practically, this means that the guests work, eat, and recreate with the community. Attitudes and habits in the spirit of the gospel are communicated through personal contact.
Catherine’s vision is that if people can only experience the reality of Christian life, they would then be able to communicate it to others. They can then take what they have learned and incarnate it in their own lives and vocations. She saw what she called “the community of love” in some real sense as the essence of the apostolate: “If you love one another, then the world will know that you are my disciples.” An experience of a community of love is an experience of the life Christ came to give us.
Often when people come to Combermere they say it’s like “coming home.” Whether they know reflectively or not what they are articulating, I’m not sure. Certainly they experience a welcoming community, a home atmosphere, a place of acceptance. On a deeper level—and probably they don’t know this consciously—they are experiencing the Church in some life-giving way that they probably have never experienced before. In some sense, the whole Church is present there—East and West, priests and laity, men and women, parish and diocese—and all infused with harmony and liturgy and a Christian culture.
Here we arrive at the heart of where the Spirit was leading Catherine. Unlike some of the other lay apostolates of the last century, Catherine was being led to form what the Church now calls ecclesial communities. This community is the flowering of her vocation and life. For it is not so much her works that crown her life, but that she formed a true ecclesial community, a new model of the Church. All her voluminous teaching could be seen as formative of deep members of the Church. It is to this inspiration of the Spirit we now turn.
What is an Ecclesial Community?
The word the Church is using for some of these movements and communities—”ecclesial”—really says it all. The 20th century has often been called the century of the Church. Lumen Gentium is frequently designated as the key document of Vatican II. Throughout the century, and even before, the Popes had been calling for a greater involvement of the laity in the life of the Church. Many people responded to this call. Some of them were truly charismatic persons who attracted followers, and whose apostolates gradually developed into new communities.
A unique dimension, however, of these communities, was that people from other canonical states of life in the Church were also attracted to join them. What the Church and theologians are saying is that people, whether consciously or unconsciously, were actually seeking a new and life-giving experience of the Church. This is why these communities never “fit” canonical forms, because the Spirit was inspiring new models for Church life.
First I will share a quotation from Pope John Paul II’s address to the communities and movements gathered in St. Peter’s Square in Rome, May 30, 1998. It expresses the Church’s present understanding of where the Holy Spirit was leading certain lay apostolates in the 20th century:
Today a new stage is unfolding before you: that of ecclesial maturity. There is a great need today for mature Christian personalities, conscious of their baptismal identity, of their vocation and mission in the Church and in the world. There is great need for living Christian communities! And here are the movements and the new ecclesial communities: they are the response, given by the Holy Spirit, to this critical challenge at the end of the millennium. You are this providential response! Thanks to this powerful ecclesial experience, wonderful Christian families have come into being which are open to life, true ‘domestic churches.’ (#2, 222-223)
Next, a rather long quote which expresses this same ecclesial essence of the new communities:
The experience of the movements only confirms the fundamental precept of Christifideles Laici [Pope John Paul’s magna Charta on the mission of the laity], in affirming that to reconstruct the fabric of human society what is needed first of all is to remake the Christian fabric of ecclesial communities themselves.
In this regard I would add that, in contrast to the case of the traditional associations of the lay apostolate, here we are speaking of ‘ecclesial movements’, both because they welcome the baptized in their various states of life, and because the charisms that arouse and animate them tend to educate in the totality of the Christian, ecclesial experience (‘everything in the fragment’, according to the expression of Hans Urs von Balthasar, or ‘Church in miniature’, as one of the movements founders put it.) Not partial, sectarian, fragmentary experiences, not even a particular spirituality, still less the claim of being the Church , but rather distinctive reflections of the one Church. Not a fragmentation of the Church, but original, albeit contingent modes of living the mystery of the Church. What a movement embodies and transmits is the life itself of the Church—not just a part of it in some way reduced or ‘specialized’. (Guzman Carriquiry, #4, 61)
Not all forms of the lay apostolate have developed into ecclesial communities or movements. However, the Holy Spirit poured out special graces on certain persons in the last century to be the founders and foundresses of these ecclesial communities precisely to manifest different ways of being Church. These persons form a kind of “charismatic coterie” among themselves. Catherine was one of these charismatic persons. Seeing her life in this larger movement of the Spirit is another way of assessing her sanctity and contribution to the Church. While showing you something of the growth of her apostolate into an ecclesial community, I will also share some of her vision of, and love for, the Church. It was her desire to renew the Church which guided the formation of her community.
Catherine Answers the Call of the Popes
As was mentioned, in the early 1930’s, Catherine began studying, with others, the social encyclicals of the Popes. They were calling the laity, in particular, to Christianize all aspects of the modern world. Catherine looked around Catholic parishes and dioceses but didn’t see much indication that these calls of the Popes were being implemented. She decided to implement them herself. In her own mind the accent was definitely on herself: she didn’t envision other people joining her. She understood God’s call as that of a lone apostle, “Russian style,” trying to implement this call to the laity.
But it seems to me that I must not hide from myself the truth! A truth which I have known in 1934: that the Apostolate God has called me to has facets I barely can bring myself to look at. Yet I have truly not chosen this Apostolate—it has chosen me! Which simply means God has chosen me and no one else to found it. I was convinced that my apostolate, ‘my vocation,’ was to be a lonely apostolate! He showed me his will by sending me followers! From the very beginning I feared ‘foundations,’ ‘followers,’ ‘organization.’ But inexorably, so it seems, the will of God pointed to this strange—to me—development of what I so firmly thought, felt (was sure of) as my lonely vocation. As a Russian I was attracted to the ethos, the spirituality, of the desert—Nazareth—a desert amidst the people like the Holy Family in the midst of a village. But obviously it was not to be. I had to be a foundress in the Western spirituality’s sense of the word! (Diary, April 9, 19 65)
Yes, God had other plans. Her zeal and gifts attracted followers, both men and women. In short, a community was forming. In June, 1934, a small group of 16 made simple promises together in St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto . A few weeks before the ceremony she wrote this prophetic statement in her diary:
The lay apostolate is the coming event of the Church. More and more it will be at the forefront. Filled with the spirit of Christ it will go and conquer the world. O Lord, give me a small share of that work. Small and simple—but allow me to participate in it, out of love for thee and my neighbor.
1934. This means that Catherine was one of the first in the 20th century whom the Holy Spirit chose to begin a journey towards an ecclesial community, a new expression of the Church.
One of the signs that Catherine was destined to create a new and life-giving expression of the Church is the fact that it was her love for the Church, her desire to make the Church more beautiful as the Bride of Christ, that formed a deep part of her motivation. It’s possible to help the poor, work for racial justice, and be involved in all the aspects of the lay apostolate, without the renewal of the Church being too much in the forefront of one’s motivation (except in a general way). But Catherine always saw her life and call as a longing to make the Church everything She was meant to be. Even while in England, before she came to Canada, she was given an understanding of the Church which formed part of her inmost love for Jesus. In a public talk once she said:
As I grew up I began to understand the Christian idea of the Church. At some point, somewhere along the line, I realized who and what the Church was. I was young, I was in England , and I read something. Suddenly, like a flash, I realized that she was the Spotless Bride of Christ. I saw her clad in the King’s robes, beautiful and glorious. This vision stayed in my heart like a warm, consoling thought: the Church was the Bride of Christ, spotless, without blemish, shining, radiant. As scripture says, ‘The King’s daughter is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many colored robes she is led to the King.’ (Ps. 45:13-14) Yes, my imagination was working overtime. I know that she wasn’t clad with just anything. She was something so holy, so precious, something you should die for. This is the Church.
Yes, I understood. I understood the Mystical notion of the nuptials of the Christian with his God. I cannot explain it. It’s beyond explanation. But because I entered into the mystery of love which is God, I entered into the mystery of His Church which is his beloved; and I still live in this mystery.
When such things happen to people, then the Church as a mystery, the Church as the Bride, the Church as the People of God, the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ, becomes a reality of faith, for we are in the realm of faith.
From the earliest years, then, Catherine, through her love for the Church, was being led to form one of the ecclesial communities. As her understanding of her vocation grew, so did her realization that she was being called to give some kind of new expression to the life of the Church.
In her diary for May 14, 19 65 , she was reflecting on the role of priests who were coming to join Madonna House. Her more mature understanding of what the Holy Spirit was doing is exactly what the Church is now saying about ecclesial communities. She wrote:
They [the priests] have been brought to `a little flock’ especially selected, brought into being by God Himself. `This little flock’ is also `the people of God.’ By their coming to MH with the approval of the Bishop, MH now becomes a `full little church,’ or should I say a complete little church,’ i.e., Bishop, priests, people of God!
Yet this `little church’ is not a parish, nor a religious order: it is a `little church on pilgrimage,’ on a special pilgrimage, for it has and has not a permanent physical abode. `It goes where it is needed.’
Historically, such groups often evolved into religious orders or congregations. But whenever she found herself veering too close to traditional religious life, the Spirit kept guiding her towards authentic lay spirituality.
What was the inspiration for Catherine’s desire to form a community of love, a living expression of the Church? Again, I think her home life was at the root of it. As she said in My Russian Yesterdays:
Our joys, our gladness, our fun [at our home in Russia ] came from within. They sprang from that sense of security, love, and belonging, which our parents gave us so lavishly. They came, too, from the sense of Order. I spell it deliberately with a capital ‘O’ because it stems from the great and tranquil Order of God himself. When the life of an individual or a family is rooted in that great tranquillity of God’s order, when its ends are Christocentric, and Faith is an essential part of it, then joy, true laughter, and real gaiety flower abundantly in that individual’ s or that family’s life. Then children grow up in an atmosphere of love and tenderness. Where love is, God is. (13)
This is a simple but accurate description of the vision she had for Combermere. Catherine had experienced a loving family in Russia , but hardly anything like a religious community. What she did know, after experiencing the revolution and two World wars, and as a result of her long reflection on the Gospel, was that love was the answer to life.
I believe that her tragic first marriage was also a powerful impulse to achieve the loving community that she so longed for. In the early years of the Toronto community, and then in Friendship House in the States, she had some experience of forming people into a loving family. But Combermere provided the opportunity for a community life on a grand scale.
In the last 20 or 30 years—especially in the writings of the present Holy Father, but in many other books and articles as well—there has been a pronounced emphasis on the Blessed Trinity as our ultimate model for the Church, communities, parishes. In my own up-bringing before the Council, I never heard much at all about the Trinity as a model for our life in the Church here below. I’m sure I first heard it from Catherine’s lips, in the 70’s, that the ultimate model for community life was the Blessed Trinity:
The Eternal Community is the Trinity. It has existed eternally, having no beginning and no end. The Community of the Trinity is simply the Community of Love: God the Father loving God the son, and this love bringing forth the Holy Spirit. In order to form a community, man must make contact with the Trinity first. Then and only then can he make a community with his fellowmen. (The Gospel Without Compromise, 55)
In the very beginning of our Constitution, or Way of Life, she was careful to mention the Trinity:
At this point I would like to bring to the family that God has deigned to establish through me the very essence of my spirituality, the Trinity, which takes its roots, of course, from Eastern—that is, Russian—spirituality.
Besides seeing the Trinity as our model for unity, Catherine’s very dynamic description of the Trinitarian life is very significant for the Christian life. We are not involved here with the Unmoved Mover of Aristotle:
To me the Trinity is fire, flame and movement. It is like an immense disk from the ends of which shoot out huge flames, the whole of which cover the cosmos. But this is not all. I feel myself being drawn into the center of this fire, flame and movement as if into the eye of a hurricane. (4)
The distinctive spirituality of each of the servants of God flows from his or her understanding of the mysteries of the faith. Catherine’s understanding of the trinitarian life was not that of a static, immobile, community of Persons in perfect peace and tranquillity. Her God was fire and movement and explosive energy. She reflected this in her life! She said that her whole life had been an attempt to reflect this reality of the Trinity.
Rublev’s icon of the Trinity is now frequently seen in Churches, homes, religious establishments. It was not so in the 1950s. Catherine had the trinitarian vision within her from her Russian heritage. And whether it was the frenzy of divine love impelling her to love, or the relations of the Three Persons among themselves, the trinitarian life was the model which she actually sought to express in our lives.
There are two practical dimensions of this theology which our readers may find of particular interest: our authority structure for the community; and the concept of Sobornost in electing our directors.
I don’t know of any authority structure in the Church, past or present, which is quite like that of Madonna House. There are the three sections of lay men, lay women and priests, and each of these groups has an elected director. Thus, there is no one authority head of the whole community. The threesome approach flows from Catherine’s trinitarian vision:
The governing authorities of Madonna House are the Directors General. There is a Director General of women, a Director General of lay men, and a Director General of clergy. The three, like the most Holy Trinity, must be of one mind, one heart and one spirit, each consulting the other on all questions of any importance pertaining to the Apostolate (flock) of which they are the servants. (Constitution, 26)
I believe that a number of groups in the Church’s history have started out with both men and women members. No doubt one of the big challenges they had to face was men in authority over women, or vice versa. What Catherine was led to—with her face turned towards the Trinity—was a kind of division of authority. In matters which affect the whole community, all three Directors must agree. In matters which affect individuals, the obedience would come from the respective Director. This is a simplistic explanation, but in practice it means that individuals are under their respective Directors for major, personal aspects of their lives; and the community’s direction, as a whole, is guided by all three Directors. So far, it’s working!
But in daily life, there will be, and are, many situations where a man may take his obediences from a woman, or vice versa; or a priest from a lay person, or vice versa. A Director of a certain house, for example, may be a man or a woman. Then your obedience, on a day to day basis, is given to that person.
The great key, of course, is to understand that obedience is always given to Christ himself. The frequent changing of superiors actually helps us get beyond having our obedience infected with mother- or father-figures, or even distorted clerical images. With such shifting and changeable superiors—sometimes daily—one is more and more led to understand that it is always Christ one is obeying.
As I said, I have lived in monastic communities, and know something about how obedience functions there. I can testify that our trinitarian arrangement is workable, and is working so far. It is not easy, and has its challenges. But, then, what authority structure doesn’t?
I explained this community structure to a monk in an Orthodox monastery once, and he simply said: “It will be more difficult, because it is more of the gospel.”
Since we are trying to be Church, one of the graces we have to offer to the Church today is precisely deeper relationships in Christ among men and women, priests and laity, working and living very closely together. “Clericalism” is modified and purified by constant relationships with laity, and by recognizing their gifts. And the new “laicism” (lay people becoming as authoritarian as any priest!) is modified and purified by the constant presence of priests, and by respecting his graces of ordination and teaching. The Church is a family. Our authority structure respects the graces of men and women, priests and laity—or at least, is trying to!
The mystery of the Trinity has a “practical” application in how the election of a Director takes place.
Catherine introduced the Russian concept of sobornost, unity of mind and heart. The Three Persons are totally one, though distinct in their divine Persons. Whenever some kind of total unity is experienced on earth, a sobornost, an expression of the Trinity has blessed the earth. (Catherine pointed to Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the infant Church, as an example of sobornost.) “Sobornost originates with the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit are completely one and they draw us to become one with them and with each other. We are to become as united together as the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. Sobornost is truly a Trinitarian concept.” (Ibid. 9)
This unity, in a very real sense, is already a present reality, since the Trinity dwells within each one of us. Sobornost concerns overcoming all the obstacles in relationships so that this unity can be effectively, as well as essentially, present.
In our “Way of Life” she calls us to achieve a total unanimity in the election of a Director. This has not been easy, but so far, with the grace of God, it has been achieved. The theology behind it is that if everyone is truly in a deep relationship of love with God and with one another, the Spirit will inspire all with the same choice.
At the heart of our Madonna House spirituality, therefore, in all of our houses, is to form a community of love, with the Trinity as our model. It is not self-enclosed, turned inward. There is always the outward, missionary dimension which is part of the essence of the Christian life. The apostolic community of Acts 2:42—”faithful to the prayers, the brotherhood, and the breaking of bread”—must be complemented by Matthew 28:19—”Go out into the whole world and preach the good news.”
St. Benedict said that the Divine Office, the praise of God, was the opus Dei, the work of the community. You might say that Catherine saw love as the opus Dei, the great work. This love must be accomplished and safeguarded at all costs. If that is not present, the apostolate is dead, and it has lost its reason for being.
These communities, small as they often are, must be places where people experience the love of Christ. They must be open, welcoming. She once described the heart of Madonna House as a warm cup of coffee and hospitality of the heart. It is not complicated, but it demands a great deal of selflessness on the part of the members.
Our houses also attempt to reflect a Catholic/Christian culture, so that when people enter they know they are in a Christian home. Christian homes are the last bastions of freedom. We can, if we will, create atmospheres permeated with the Gospel and Christian symbols. The fundamental “divine milieu” Catherine desired for our houses was that of Nazareth .
As the community was growing, Catherine asked the Lord in prayer what really was the essence of Madonna House? She went into the poustinia for five days in May, 1965, and sought some light. When she emerged the answer she gave us was this: “Madonna House is a community of love, like the Holy Family of Nazareth.”
She had been amazed at, and had pondered for many years, the mystery of Nazareth . It was her original inspiration to simply live a Nazareth-type life amidst people. And she pondered endlessly: Why did the Lord live so many years of his earthly life in a family in an obscure village?
Well, first of all, that’s how most people live, with their families, at home. These are the life cells of the human family. He lived in Nazareth most of his life to emphasize that you can come to the Father there. To live in love with those with whom you live is the greatest achievement – and probably the hardest. Christ came to give us the power to live in love together. This is the sign that something new is happening in the world. This is the great sacrament. The Holy Family in Nazareth was the perfect reflection of the Trinity on earth. The Trinity and Nazareth – there were the two basic models for our life together.
Our houses outside of North America, however, are not simply North American transplants. We take some of our Combermere traditions with us (which often include customs from other traditions, for example, Our Lady of Guadalupe). But Catherine’s charism of striving for “East and West” unity does not simply mean an interiorizing of “Catholic” and “Orthodox” elements, generally understood. This charism, at its heart, is an appreciation for the traditions and cultural expressions of the whole Church, world-wide. Every country to which we are invited, has its own saints, its own culture, its own treasures. We try to both learn from other Catholic cultures and reflect them in our houses. This is important.
Catherine said that each of our houses is simply “another room” of Madonna House. But even in our centre in Combermere, there is a universality expressed because the Catholic cultures of our houses flow into the centre. Our liturgical customs, for example, come from a variety of countries and traditions.
“To Restore All Things In Christ” means making our Catholic heritage come alive once more. We are open to the best of new expressions of Catholicism in the modern world. But so many of our ancient treasures are lying dormant in our books, in our history, in our museums. As the Lord said, “A good householder draws forth from his treasury things both old and new.”
Many well-intentioned young people today are cut off from, and therefore ignorant of, any deep spiritual tradition. Peter Berger, the American sociologist of religion, called it, in a book by that title, the heretical imperative. Because cut off from any living tradition, they are forced to find their own, often heterodox, spirituality – New Age, for example. I sympathize with them.
Catherine often said, in the sixties, that the youth were “turning East” because no one had told them about the profound Christian traditions of prayer, silence, and interior disciplines. They flocked to Sai Baba because no one had ever told them about John of the Cross or St Anthony of the desert. Madonna House seeks to be this place where young people can discover their own spiritual treasures. One outstanding example of our attempt to restore Christian forms of asceticism to these modern God-seekers is the poustinia. There are many others.
Catherine’s book, Poustinia, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in many languages. It is a call to silence, to prayer, to reflection on the Word of God. On the grounds of Madonna House in Combermere, we have over 20 small cabins where people may go for a whole day of prayer and silence. (In one field, a row of six stand over-looking a valley. They are to me, sentinels, watching over the world with prayer and fasting and intercession.) These poustinias incarnate, for the young (but not only for them) a means of seeking God that they have not found in any Church of their experience. We have had a number of people who had been involved in the New Age find in Madonna House the treasures they had been seeking. The poustinia is just one example of how we are trying to restore our Catholic culture to the modern world.
Catherine and the Saints
The saints play a very important part in understanding Catherine’s spirituality. She called them walking gospels: in their lives we see how the gospel is concretely lived. She herself learned much from them, and tried to imitate them.
This section will concentrate mostly on the saints of the Western tradition. She had a great love, of course, for the saints of Holy Russia (she had an icon of St. Seraphim of Sarov over her bed). But (if I may put it thus), I find that the Western saints were more like her personal friends. In her writings she speaks of them as intimates, people to whom she prays and to whom she turns in her needs. I don’t find this same familiarity with the Orthodox saints. In any case, what she says about her saintly Western friends is important for understanding aspects of her own life with God
Significantly, her own patron saint is not Catherine of Alexandria but Catherine of Siena. Someone had given her mother a book about the latter, and she was drawn to her. That she named her daughter after the mystic of Siena is another indication of the two strands of Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the family. (Also “Catherine” was the name of her husband’s first wife who had died.) Catherine’s cabin in Combermere was called “St. Catherine’s.” A statue of St.Catherine of Siena, upholding the triple crown of the popes, had the most prominent place in her cabin—in the center of the mantel overlooking the fireplace. I don’t recall her often mentioning St.Catherine, but that statue said it all: the mystic of Siena upheld the papacy, and was graced to know who the legitimate Vicar of Christ was in a time of great turmoil.
St. Francis of Assisi was, by far, the most important and beloved saint in her life. Appropriately enough, she met the “tumbler of God” while playing. She was running after a ball in the convent garden in Alexandria . It rolled up to a statue of the Poverello on whose granite arms real birds were perched. “Yes, that is how I fell in love with St. Francis of Assisi—in a convent garden in Egypt. Can any one wonder he has been my friend, my confidante, ever since. He teaches me about love and loving.” (Friendship House, 47-48) He was her “first love” among the saints. St. Francis led her to some of his other friends.
In the late 20’s she came in contact with a person whom I believe was a saint, and for whose canonization I often pray: Fr. Paul Watson of Graymoor. He was an Episcopalian (as Anglicans are known in North America ) pastor of a parish. It was through reading the works of Cardinal Newman that he was converted to Catholicism. He had a very great love for St. Francis, naming the Order he founded, the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement.
Catherine saw him as a modern day St. Francis. Fr. Paul received Catherine into the Third Order. Through his influence Catherine’s devotion to St. Francis grew. She took with her everywhere a small statue of Francis which is still at the front of her desk in her cabin in Combermere.
Fr. Paul had a newspaper called Ut Unum Sint for which Catherine often wrote articles about the Third Order. She saw the spirit of Francis as capable of sanctifying the laity in the world. When the first Friendship House was formed in 1934, it was canonically affiliated with Fr.Paul’s Order. When public and ecclesiastical opinion turned against her in Torono, he spoke up strongly on her behalf. Madonna House owes him a great debt of thanks.
Theresa of Avila appealed to her as the model mystic: one who has her feet on the ground and her head in the heaven’s. She enjoyed her sense of fun. She loved Mary Magdelen (whose name she took in the Franciscan Third Order) who had sinned much but was forgiven because of her passionate love. Catherine loved passionate lovers!
In the early years of her apostolate in North America there were several other saints who had a strong influence upon her. In her book, Friendship House, the last chapter is called, “The Men In My Life,” meaning male saints. A brief look at each of these men will also be instructive for pointing out some aspects of her spiritual journey.
After meeting St. Francis while playing quite innocently, she recalls how she met another saint in that convent school in Alexandria , this time playing a bit more mischeviously.
Catherine wasn’t a naughty child: let us say imaginative, creative—well, a normal, healthy child! She was running through the convent halls—”I shouldn’t have been, but I was, and I ran head on into him and knocked him to the floor. He fell with a loud thud and broke into pieces. That gentleman was St. Ignatius of Loyola, of all the people in the world.” (Ibid. 148-49) It was the beginning of her association with the Jesuits.
I read once that, for centuries, Russians called all Catholic priests “Jesuits.” Catherine the Great had given the Jesuits sanctuary after their Order had been dissolved. (She didn’t pay much attention to Papal statements.) They ran educational institutions in Russia . Perhaps they were the only Catholic priests most Russians ever met or knew about. She said St. Ignatius was present on every retreat she ever made.
When she seriously entered upon a spiritual life, she often choose Jesuits for directors. One of the first was Fr. Filion, the superior general of the English Jesuits in Canada . Ignatius taught her strength of soul and the enormity of sin. Ignatius was her guide through the purgative way: “He shows me the delights of the rugged path. It is he who fashioned the staff of my will, he who shod my feet with the sturdy sandals of clear faith, he who gave me the warm habiliments of penance and mortification.” (Ibid. 149)
Significantly, many pages of her early diaries are filled with the Ignatian exercise approach to daily meditation: a reading, reflection, prayers in response, and resolutions. These diaries are an inexhaustible mine of insight into Catherine’s spiritual journey. Ignatius was her master in laying the firm foundations of her spiritual life.
A surprising man in her life for me, when I first read this chapter, was the gentleman she met on the eve of fleeing Russia . It was during one of those gray and anxious days when spiritual darkness was descending on Russia . Catherine was listless, restless. She went into her father’s library and reached for a familiar book. But it turned out to be another, a new, unfamiliar one, The Confessions of St. Augustine. She read for four hours non-stop. “He tore off the veil of his soul for me. He revealed the battles that went on in it against the world, the flesh and the devil. And through it all he sang of the Mercy of God.” (Ibid. 151)
Catherine was to have a very tempestuous struggle with God herself. Completely foreign to her was any modern, soft, painless entering into the depths of God. She saw in the lives of the saints, like Augustine—and certainly in her own—that the journey to God is painful, a battleground. She may also have learned from him that it was acceptable to admit one’s struggles, doubts, and fears in the journey to God. (In this sense, Augustin was way ahead of his time: not many of the Fathers share their struggles as intimately as he did.)
She was also consoled by Augustine’s life: he did not start out as a saint. I will be saying something at the end about Catherine’s Cause for Canonization that is in progress. I think of it here because more and more will become known about Catherine’s life ,which includes her serious moral failings. Some will be tempted to say – some are saying it already—”How can she be a saint.”
She loved people like Augustine and Mary Magdelene precisely because they were sinners who finally found a greater Love. She told us countless times that we were saved sinners, and she meant herself first of all. Saints are not people who have never sinned, but living human beings who overcame their sinful tendencies and fell passionately in love with the Beauty they loved all too late.
Another of her directors in Canada was the Fr. Henry Carr, Provicial of the Basilian Fathers. He was a Thomist and an educator. He first introduced Catherine, “in cold Canada ,” to another saint of warm Italy , Thomas Aquinas. Although she never entered upon any serious course of Thomistic studies, she found in Thomas, despite his often abstract profundity, the same fire of divine love she had found in Francis.
What did Thomas teach her? “For the more I got to know him, the more I wanted to know him. He gave me the gift of an intellectual hunger for God, and added one more way in which to love and serve Him better. He walks and talks with me.” (Ibid. 153-4)
St.Thomas inspired Catherine to become a witness to the gospel by her writings and teachings as well as by the example of her life. It is noticeable that in the early years of her life, her writings could be quite logical and systematic—like Aquinas. She loved to look up the definitions of words and them give them gospel interpretations; she carefully defined terms and arrived at conclusions. However, in the final and most profound period of her life, this “Thomistic method” changes. Now she is being taught more directly by the Holy Spirit, and her style is clearly more poetic, unsystematic, flowing from her deep life with God. Some of Catherine’s statements and teachings, if taken out of context, might be interpreted as being anti-intellectual, or that she was even against the intellectual life itself. Nothing is farther from the truth. Aquinas taught her that exact thinking is also a medium for the truth. She certainly believed that the mind could be dodge and defense against the deeper illumination by the Holy Spirit. She read voraciously herself. True, she was insistent that one also had to “put one’s head into the heart” to obtain the highest wisdom. One of her favorite quotes was from Aquinas, when he realized, at the end of his life, that everything he had written “was straw.” (Mentally I used to note that the Lord had also said to Thomas, from the crucifix, “Bene scriptsisti de me, Toma,” “You have written well about me, Thomas.”) She didn’t often talk about St. Thomas , but he had taught her the excellence of sound thinking, and gave birth within her to this intellectual hunger for God. Francis inspired her with a love for the Crucified; Thomas, a love to know him who said, “I am the Truth.”
Another “man in her life” played a key role in her spiritual journey. She came across him in a Catholic pamphlet rack in 1927 when she was making a fair bit of money, but she wasn’t happy. “My heart was heavy with unspoken, unfulfilled longings, my soul restless for the mansions of the Lord, my mind in a turmoil of dreams and desires to serve him.” The saint she met was John Bosco. His apostolate to youth “crystallized my desires. He, as it were, gave me the compass bearings on the sea of life, pointed to the port I had to reach, and offered to be my guide.” (Ibid. 152-3) A few years later she left all and tried to put John Bosco’s love for youth and the poor into action. She named her first youth club house for boys in Toronto after him.
St. John of the Cross was the last gentleman she met among these special loves; and the only one introduced to her by a woman, St. Theresa of Avila. It was through her writings that she learned about John. He probably would not have been part of spiritual direction given her by Jesuits! Also, she might have been subject to a general impression at the time—and still now- that St. John is for people in the higher stages of the spiritual life. Her humility, and prudence, would not have prompted her to seek out such authors on her own.
What did she learn from him? “He walks alone and meets one only in the shadows of one’s soul. He speaks only through silence. So I am learning to be silent, and silence is hard to put into words. All I know is that I love him, and with all of me I want to listen to him, because he has the words that open secret and hidden paths to the Lord.” (Ibid , 154)”
He was her guide in the deeper reaches of the spiritual life. As is well known, he is very strict about extraordinary phenomena, and emphasizes the centrality of faith. His teaching, combined with the pragmatic and almost anti-mystical tendencies of Ignatius, put Catherine on a very solid basis in her spiritual journey. These are some of the reasons why, later on, in the 1950’s, when the Lord began to bestow upon her more profound graces, they strike me, without a doubt, as authentic, because she had gone through the basics of the purgative way, and avoided, with the help of sound spiritual direction, the pitfalls of false mysticism. Several times in her diaries she expresses her legitimate apprehensions regarding mysticism, and her reluctance of being called a mystic.
Because of Catherine’s love for the black people in the US , she fell in love ( a phrase foreign to us but in keeping with her passionate feminine nature!) with Martin de Porres as soon as she heard about him. His statue was in the Church across the street from her first apartment in Harlem . She often named her store fronts or other buildings after him. Her second husband, Eddie Doherty, wrote a life of Martin.
Father Paul Furfey
One of the blessings of Combermere, the “little church” that was being born, was the presence of priests. From that time on Catherine always had spiritual directors, first in the person of Fr. Callahan, then after his death, Fr. Émile-Marie Brière, who was perhaps her closest confidante. But before that time she had to search for and find directors. There were occasions when she was without one. I cannot refrain from saying a bit more about Fr. Furfey, whom I have already mentioned, because we owe him a special debt of gratitude.
He was an outstanding priest of the times, a teacher, an intellectual, who decried the absence of Catholics in society. In those days there really was too much of a “God and me” spirituality, which lacked an apostolic dimension. He agreed to be Catherine’s spiritual director during a most crucial period of her life—after the break-up of her first Canadian apostolate, and during the foundation and expansion of the Friendship House Apostolate in the United States (1938-43).
We have a very valuable series of correspondence between them, which I hope one day can be published. He doesn’t talk a great deal about profound dimensions of the spiritual life. He guided her along a sane, practical path to the formation of her apostolate, and to her relationships and guidance of those joining her. He encouraged her in her strivings to become a saint.
At a certain point, when Catherine was beginning to enter areas of the spiritual life unfamiliar to Fr. Furfey, he had the humility to suggest that he had come to the limits of his own discernment and understanding, and that perhaps she should now seek someone else. She doesn’t, right away, but I was always impressed by his honesty, humor, practicality, and friendship. He was a providential blessing to our foundress during those crucial years.
Again, some of the seeds of Catherine’s spirituality were sown in that school in Alexandria , this time, a love for priests. A priest, his talks to the children, had mentioned that some people give their lives for priests. Afterwards, Catherine said she wanted to do this. The priest told her she was too small. The time would come when she wasn’t.
I’m sure also that in both Orthodoxy and whatever Catholicism she experienced (for example, in Poland, on those visits to her grandmother), a great reverence for priests would have been inculcated in her.
One of her famous and off-repeated stories—I will tell it in my own words, as we often heard different versions!—is that one day she and her mother came across the village priest drunk on the street. (It might have been in one of those small peasant villages when they went “into the people). Emma told the horrified little Catherine to help her. They helped the priest to his house, put him to bed, and left quietly. There was an awkward silence all the way home, awkward at least for Catherine.
When they got to where they were staying Emma told Catherine to go into her bedroom and get the potty from under her bed, wash it, fill it with water, and bring it. When Catherine did so Emma said, “Now go into the garden and bring me a lily.” Catherine did so. Emma put the lily in the potty and said: “Now, never forget what I’m going to tell you. The potty is the human, sinful, imperfect man. The flower is Christ in the priest. Never confuse the two.”
Later on Catherine would often speak of the Simon and Peter in each priest. “There is a Simon in every priest,” she would say, “and we should fear to criticize him lest you touch Peter in him.”
Her love for priests was extraordinary because she knew what it as to be left without them. She saw one of the last in Petrograd tragically shot.
It was 1918, a dangerous time to be celebrating Mass. At the moment of the consecration, when the priest lifted up the Host, “the main door flew open. “`Stop that nonsense!’ A single shot rang out. Slowly a crimson stain appeared on the back of the white vestment. The priest swayed, then toppled sidewise down the altar step, his outflung arms letting go of the Host, which rolled slowly, and came to rest on the polished floor of the lower step. The Host was ground into the floor, and 24 hours later the priest was buried.” (Friendship House, 130-131)
Catherine had experienced what it was to be without priests and the sacraments. She was well aware of the sins and weaknesses of priests, but her faith told her that only they could give her the Bread of Life and forgive her sins. “Life for a Catholic without a priest is so tragic, so empty, that it has to be lived to be realized.” (Ibid.)
Catherine never in her life wanted to be a priest, but she wanted priests to be priests. If I may be permitted here a slightly irreverent story. A priest came to Madonna House once and was seated next to Catherine at table, although he did not know it was Catherine. During the meal he began to speak about going away to study psychology, and how important this was in today’s world. Catherine never looked at him, but as she continued eating said, “Horse shit!”
The priest was most embarrassed, and very angry. He said, “I beg your pardon!” She said, You heard me, it’s all horse shit. If I want advice about law, I go to a lawyer. If I want help with my health, I go to a doctor. If I want to know about God, I go to a priest.” Then she said right in his face (as the expression goes) “GIVE US GOD!”
He told me afterwards that he was angry for two days. But he found out who that “old lady” was, and started to think about what she said, he concluded that she was right. He never did go to study psychology. He actually became a kind of Catholic evangelist, speaking to thousands of people, about—yes—God.
She didn’t think most priests really knew who they were, or what powers they had. If she kissed their hands—which she often did—it was to convey to them what they often forgot: that their hands are anointed, holy, and handle the Bread of Life. If she stood up when they entered a room—which she often did—it was to remind them and everyone else that Christ was in them in a way he was not present in other Christians.
I recommend, to priests especially (but to everyone, to increase your love for priests) her book, Dear Father.
This love for priests has been passed on to the members of the community—the priests as well! We are human, and everyone struggles with the Simon in the priest. But there is a special awareness of Peter. How fortunate we are to have so many (about 25) priests as full-time members of the community.
Catherine probably never envisioned priests actually joining Madonna House. But the Lord had other plans.
For 30 years she had had priests as spiritual directors, retreat masters, counselors. In the early 1950’s, through a series of very providential events, Fr. John Callahan, of the diocese of Rochester, N.Y., asked to join. Catherine was overwhelmed. After him, several other priests became members. Another extraordinary phase in this priestly dimension was when one of the laymen, Robert Pelton, asked to become a priest. Catherine was ecstatic. A new phase of Madonna House had begun.
What phase? Of becoming Church in a deeper way. A Russian émigré, founding a community on her own in the back woods of Canada, didn’t exactly give everyone confidence! Catherine, on her own, could be daunting; and often people were not sure of her status in the Church. When Fr. Callahan joined the community, Madonna House achieved a sort of legitimacy in the eyes of interested seekers. The presence of the priest gave allayed the fears of many. Several of our older members told me that they would never have joined Madonna House if priests were not present.
Catherine’s love and concern for priests is also expressed in our Associate members—Bishops, priests and deacons. Numbering over 150, Associates find in Madonna House a spiritual family. They receive our cross (which says pax caritas), and our community newsletters. Once a year we have a meeting in Combermere. Attracted to the spirituality of Madonna House, they seek to live it out in their specific pastoral assignments.
Pope John Paul lI specifically encourages the participation of priests in the new ecclesial “realities”:
Many priests, attracted by the charismatic, pedagogical, community and missionary drive which accompanies the new ecclesial realities participate in many ecclesial movements alongside the laity. These experiences can be very useful because they are capable of enriching the life of individual priests as well as enlivening the presbyterate with precious gifts.
The positive effectiveness of the movements is revealed when priests find in them the light and warmth which help them mature in a true Christian life, and in particular in a genuine sensus ecclesiae, spurring them to greater fidelity to their legitimate Pastors, making them attentive to ecclesiastical discipline and helping them to carry out with missionary zeal the tasks inherent in their ministry. (On the occasion of the Theological Pastoral Convention on “Ecclesial Movements for the New Evangelization,” L’Osservatore Romano, 11 July, 2001 )
The origin of our associate members is worth noting.
Fr. Raya (whom I mentioned above) came to visit. He really didn’t want to, but friends dragged him up to Canada . When he saw our cross on Fr. John Callahan, he said he had to have one! He had had a dream about that very same cross. Taking this as a sign from the Lord, Catherine and Fr. Callahan agreed to give Fr. Raya our cross. He is, therefore, the father of all the associates.
One final expression of Catherine’s love for priests is worth mentioning. Around 1980 Catherine had the inspiration to make our community experience in Combermere available to young men trying to discern a vocation to the priesthood. This was prior to the Vatican ‘s own plea for a propaedeutic year for young men before they enter the seminary.
Every year, then, since 1980, we have had young men come for six months or so, and live in our community. They receive a formation in living a simple life-style, prayer, liturgical life, obedience. The priests are available to help in their discernment process. (In reality, they receive discernment from other members of the community!)  The Holy Father, in the address cited above, notes the usefulness of these ecclesial communities for the formation of seminarians: “The ecclesial movements are also a source of help and support in the journey towards the priesthood, particularly for those who come from specific group situations, with respect for the norms of discipline prescribed by the Church for seminarians.”
The Marian Form of Ecclesial Identity
Msgr. Piero Coda, in his important article, “The Ecclesial Movements, Gift of the Spirit,” (4/104) concludes by pointing out that Our Lady’s presence is a mark of these movements and communities:
Von Balthsar has indicated, as a need for the Church today, the rediscovery of the Marian principle: not merely in the sense of renewing devotion to Mary, but in the sense of reawakening in the whole People of God—laity, hierarchy and consecrated—the Marian form of their ecclesial identity. And he recognizes in the movements a stimulus and a providential chance in this direction. 2/104
The fact that Catherine choose, as a name for her community, “Madonna House,” the “House of Our Lady,” indicates how profoundly she understood what Coda further quotes from Von Balthsar: “Should we not, in our reforms, keep our gaze permanently fixed on Mary…simply to understand what the Church, ecclesial spirit and ecclesial conduct, really are?” (Ibid.)
In 1956 Catherine gave the community one of her most prophetic talks about the spirit of Madonna House. At the end, one of the priests said: “Catherine, you didn’t mention Our Lady!” Never lost for words, she replied:
Such is the spirit of our Apostolate. Perhaps my silence about Mary was a tribute to the woman wrapped in silence. But I conclude by saying that all that we do in this Apostolate we do through Mary. All of us are consecrated to her as her slaves. That’s why we are free. And that is why we can dedicate ourselves so utterly to her Son, because it is she who shows us the Way.
Besides the extraordinary love she brought from her Orthodox tradition, Catherine and her husband Eddie made the de Monfort consecration by vow. She testifies in her writings that from that day on, extraordinary growth took place in the Apostolate. The de Monfort consecration is not required, but is highly recommended to all the members. She has written several books on Mary, including Bogoroditiza and Our Lady’s Unknown Mysteries. She believed that Madonna House was a gift that the Lord had made to his Mother. We belong to her. For us, Our Lady is not simply another devotion. “John Paul II, in a memorable address to the Roman Rota, spoke of the Marian profile as just as—if not more—fundamental and characterizing for the Church as the petrine one.” (#2/103) We seek to integrate our love for Mary at this fundamental level.
Servant of God
The Cause for Catherine’s canonization was opened in 1990, and I have the privilege of being the postulator. Presently she can be called “Servant of God.” Testimonies are coming in from hundreds of people who either knew her or have been influenced by her life and teachings. However, her greatest achievement was the community she founded. All her writings can be understood as profound teachings about forming a Christian community of love, whether families, parishes, or any other form of the Church’s life.
In publicly soliciting testimonies about Catherine over the years, one of the questions I have been asking people is: “If Catherine were canonized, what would be the significance of her life for the Church today?” In official documents, the Church puts the question this way: “What is the pastoral significance of her life?” We have received many responses to this and other questions from Cardinals, Bishops, Priests, Religious and laity. What follows is my brief summary of some of the main replies to this question which highlight the pastoral relevance of her Cause in the minds of those who knew her or about her.
It is well known that the present Holy Father is seeking to canonize more lay people. It has been a common criticism for many years that countless religious are canonized out of all proportion to the laity. (In the Commons for the Divine Office we don’t even have an Office for a holy couple, Sts. Joakim and Anne.) The practical problem seems to be that lay people do not have a community behind them to do the necessary work. I think the Congregation for the Saints should somehow address itself to this abnormality. It is inconceivable that there is a lack of heroic holiness among lay people to warrant their canonization. By the grace of God, Catherine has such a community, but what about all those who do not?
The importance of canonized laity is obvious: most of the Church is lay; heroic sanctity among the laity is a reality; the laity need to see the Church publicly raise lay people to the heights of the altar so they can be encouraged and inspired in their Christian lay vocations. The lay character of Catherine’s life and vocation would certainly be very significant for the life of the Church if she were canonized.
She was inspired to develop a spirituality that is neither monastic nor religious, but is precisely about loving God in the ordinary tasks of everyday life. Her constant theme, even before it was emphasized by Vatican II, was that holiness is possible in every walk of life. And she especially emphasized—- because often not preached or taught very clearly in her day—- that lay people could become holy by doing their daily tasks with great love.
Lay Catholics in the post-Vatican II age are more familiar with the Church’s teaching which urges them to take up their responsibilities in the marketplaces of the world. In the 1930s it was not generally taught so clearly. Catherine will go down in history as one of the pioneers of the lay apostolate in the Church of the 20th century. It is difficult for us now to imagine how revolutionary and prophetic she was. And she paid the price for it. Her life can serve as a model of lay heroism and dedicated activity as a member of the Church in society.
Catherine’s married and family existence went through many stages. It’s because she tried to live these stages as a Christian, and maintain her love for God, the Church, and neighbor throughout, that her married life has tremendous relevance for the people of our day.
Her first marriage was very tragic and unhappy. Her husband was unfaithful to her. She was a psychologically battered wife, and knew all the pain of a broken covenant and of trying to raise a child in such circumstances. She didn’t handle every situation perfectly. Her son, especially, had wounds from a very confused family situation. She had to go through the travail of obtaining an annulment from the Church, and all the pain that that entails. So many in broken marriages today would find support and consolation in her heroic struggles to remain faithful to God and the Church in such circumstances.
Her second marriage to Eddie Doherty was extremely happy. Thus, she is also able to be a model for the happiness and sanctity of married life: that the love of God must be both the dominant love in marriage, as well as the love that binds the partners in Christ beyond all human ties. This totality of her married experience—- the tragic and the joyful—- makes her a contemporary witness to fidelity to God in the midst of family circumstances.
After more than a decade of this second marriage, she and her husband, decided to give up their conjugal rights and live a celibate life as members of the new community of Madonna House which the Lord was fashioning. Not to imply that this choice is to be imitated, or that it is the “culminating ideal” of married life, but it is one option recognized by the Church. Here too she can serve as a model for those called to this choice in the Lord.
A love for the poor and those deprived of their rights has always been a concern of the Church. But especially in our century, the Church herself has called for a “preferential option for the poor.” And Pope Paul VI has said that there can be “no real peace without justice.” Often, if the people of our time do not see this concern for justice in the lives of Christians who are canonized, they do not see any particular relevance of these saints to their own lives in the contemporary situation which cries out for a concern for the poor.
She had the courage not only to help those oppressed by such injustice, but to publicly denounce such a denial of the Gospel in Church and society. Nor did she simply counsel obedience and patience under the present legal systems. As one imbued with the prophetic spirit, she had a vision beyond time-bound contemporary scenes. She possessed the moral courage of the gospel to say that such laws and prejudices were unjust and must be changed. We have in our archives a long report she wrote, at the request of the American bishops, pointing out the racial injustice in Church and society.
She had, all her life, an extraordinary love for the poor. She requested to have on her grave cross the simple phrase, “She loved the poor.”
I believe it can be shown from her diaries, and other personal writings and teachings, that her love for the poor was fired by her love for Christ suffering in them. This has enormous relevance for today when there is so much impersonal and merely humanistic social work. Christ, present and suffering in the other, was at the heart of her spirituality. It was out of this faith and love that her whole life flowed.
I’ve emphasized (above) her charism to desire, and strive for, the unity of Catholicism and Orhodoxy. She became an harmonious blending, in her own person, of the riches of the East and the West. Her life is a bridge across which many can walk towards greater union and understanding between these two “Sister Churches,” (to use the expression of Pope Paul VI). Catherine’s canonization, therefore, would have a great relevance for this movement of the Spirit in our time towards the reunion of East and West.
Suffice here to say that, if she were canonized, the people of God would become more aware of the depth and extent of her writings. Even during her lifetime her books were being translated into many languages. What has been published is only a fraction of what one day will be available to the Church. Her canonization would give the Church’s approval to her writings. They will immeasurably enrich the life of God’s people.
“By their fruits you shall know them.” Catherine founded one of the new ecclesial communities in the Church. Her canonization would be a witness to the fact that God continues to inspire new communities in the Church in every age. The spirituality she has bequeathed to this community is, even now, a source of spiritual food and support for thousands of people. In the 60’s someone asked her if she had ever received any “words of the Lord” that sort of summed up the essence of her spirituality. She went to her cabin, and pulled out, on various scraps of paper, what she called her “little mandate” from the Lord. It reads:
Arise—go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up my cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little—be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life—without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Do little things exceedingly well for love of Me.
Love… love… love, never counting the cost.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fears into the depths of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
Her canonization would increase the spread of this spiritual treasure for the Church universal, (and, God willing, permanent) part of the Church’s life.
I don’t know about you, dear reader, but often, when reading the lives of the saints, I wish they had shared with us more of their struggles and human weaknesses. Do not their doubts, fears and failures inspire us, and give us confidence that we too, who also struggle, can become holy? One of the Fathers said that the doubts of Thomas has done more for our faith than all the faith of the other Apostles put together.
When Catherine’s diaries are revealed, I think the absolute honesty of her weaknesses and struggles will be one of the greatest blessings for the people of God. Those who have criticisms about her will see that no one was more critical about herself than she. One of the lights shining through her stain glass window will be an incarnation of what the Lord said to St. Paul: “My strength is made perfect in weakness.”
C.S. Lewis applied his comment about life being “iconoclastic” to his wife who had died. It will form a fitting conclusion to this brief presentation of Catherine’s life:
All reality is iconoclastic. The earthly beloved, even in this life, incessantly triumphs over your mere idea of her. And you want her to; you want her with all her resistances, all her faults, all her unexpectedness. That is, in her foursquare and independent reality. And this, not any image or memory, is what we are to love still, after she’s dead. (A Grief Observed)
1. Trans. Joseph Daries, C.M.F. Claret Center for Resources in Spirituality, Religious Life Series, Vol. 5 (Chicago, Los Angeles, Manila), 1983.
3. I was the director of our program for a number of years. See my book Chambers of Her Heart: Madonna House and Priestly Formation (Madonna House Publications, Combermere).