A Vision of the Whole

Catherine: Cause Newsletter #3 — Summer 2002

Dear Friends of Catherine, 

This is the third of our newsletters devoted to Catherine’s Cause. Thank you for your interest, prayers, and support. 

In the first issue I outlined the present canonical state of the Cause. In this connection, please keep in your prayers the new Bishop of the Pembroke diocese, Bishop Richard Smith. He succeeds Bishop Windle and Bishop O’Brien, who both made significant steps in opening and furthering Catherine’s Cause. The next stage is appointing a committee to investigate Catherine’s life under the Bishop’s direction. 

In the second issue I emphasized that Catherine was a lay person, and the significance this would have for the Church if she were canonized. As a follow-up to this theme, I would like to comment here how the Holy Spirit used outstanding laity such as Catherine to give rise to what the Church is now calling “ecclesial communities and movements.”. 

Ecclesial Communities and Movements

Cardinal Stafford attending the Oxford Conference on Ecclesial Movements and Communities, October 2001.

Cardinal Stafford attending the Oxford Conference on Ecclesial Movements and Communities, October 2001.

Some of you may know that I have been stationed for the past two years in our house in England, whence I am writing. I mention this because last year our Madonna House community was invited to give a presentation at a conference in Oxford dedicated to these new ecclesial movements and communities, of which Madonna House is one. (We probably consider ourselves more of a community than a movement.) James Francis Cardinal Stafford, President of the Pontifical Council of the Laity, was present for the conference and we had a chance to become acquainted with him during meals and have informal conversations about Catherine and Madonna House. 

Through this contact I acquired two books put out by the Council under his auspices, which expanded my own vision of Catherine’s participation in the lay movements of the 20th century. This new perspective seems very relevant for her Cause: it enables us to see her life as part of a larger plan inspired by the Holy Spirit. 

The process for canonization seeks to bring to light indications and signs of a person’s holiness. Only the Church can make the final judgment about the authenticity of such holiness. One of these signs would be that a person’s life and vocation forms part of a wider action and plan of the Holy Spirit in a certain historical period. 

I found that what the Church was saying about the laity and lay movements in the 20th century also applies very much to Catherine and Madonna House. These books have helped to confirm, for me, the authenticity of Catherine’s life and vocation. They articulate the Church’s mature vision of a century of the lay apostolate. They are, therefore, very significant for her Cause. 

The first book 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 in June, 1999, again promoted by the Council for the Laity. 

In using citations from these books I will simply refer to them as #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) 

The Lay Movement

One of the most surprising conclusions of these studies is the magnitude and depth of the lay movement of the past century. Throughout history the Holy Spirit has inspired extensive and profound movements of spirituality to meet certain needs of the times. To mention only the most outstanding: the monastic movement of the 4th and 5th centuries; the mendicant friar movement of Dominic and Francis in the 12th and 13th centuries; the Orders that arose during the so-called counter-Reformation in the 17th and 18th centuries (for example, the Jesuits). 

The Church is saying that the Holy Spirit inspired a comparable vast lay movement in the 20th century to meet her primary need, which was to enter more fully into the whole of society through the laity. Catherine was part of this movement. Not every lay group or organization developed into an ecclesial community, but Catherine’s did. 

What is an Ecclesial Community?

Sometimes it’s helpful to start a presentation by giving the main theme or conclusion. After stating the Church’s main insight about ecclesial communities, I will try to show how, over the years, Catherine’s charism led her to the heart of the Holy Spirit’s purpose and design for some laity in the past century. 

The word the Church is now using for some of these movements and communities — “ecclesial” — really says it all. The 20th century has been called the century of the Church. Lumen Gentium is frequently designated as the key document of Vatican Council II.
Throughout the 20th 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. 

Catherine Doherty at Madonna House in Combermere.

Catherine Doherty at Madonna House in Combermere.

A unique dimension, however, of these communities, was that people from other canonical states—bishops, priests, religious, families—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 Holy Spirit was inspiring new models for Church life, which includes all the states of life. People were seeking a new expression of the Church itself. 

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 on 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 quotation which expresses this ecclesial essence of the new communities: 

“The experience of the movements only confirms the fundamental precept of Christifideles Laici [Pope John Paul II’s Magna Carta 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 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 (…‘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… 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, in the last century, the Holy Spirit poured out special graces on certain persons to be the founders and foundresses of ecclesial communities precisely to manifest different ways of being Church. These persons form a kind of “charismatic coterie” among themselves. Our community’s belief is that 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 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 many characteristics of her community. 

Catherine Answers the Call of the Popes

Catherine Doherty meets with Pope John Paul II, 1981.

Catherine meets with Pope John Paul II, 1981.

In the early 1930’s Catherine began studying, with others, the social encyclicals of the Popes, especially Rerum Novarum by Pope Leo XIII, and Quadragesimo Anno by Pope Pius XI. 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 mind the accent at that time was definitely on her own calling: she didn’t envision other people joining her. She understood God’s call as that of a lone apostle, “Russian style,” as she used to say, trying to implement this call to the laity. 

But 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 men and women 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 neighbour.” 

One of the signs that Catherine was destined to create a new and life-giving expression of the Church is that her love for the Church, her desire to make the Church more beautiful as the Bride of Christ, formed a deep part of her motivation. 

It’s possible to be called to help the poor, work for racial justice, and be involved in all the aspects of the lay apostolate, without being called by the Holy Spirit to renew the Church through a new community. 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 coming to Canada, Catherine was given an understanding of the Church which formed part of her inmost love for Jesus. Once, in a public talk, 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- coloured robes she is led to the King.’ (Ps. 45:13–14) I knew 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 a person, 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, and out of her concern that the Church be renewed, 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. 

Catherine and Eddie Doherty at prayer with the community.

Catherine and Eddie Doherty at prayer with the community.

In her diary for May 14, 1965, she was reflecting on the role of priests who were coming to join Madonna House. This 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.’ Through the coming of priests to Madonna House with the approval of the bishop, Madonna House now becomes a ‘full little Church,’ or should I say a ‘complete little Church,’ i.e., bishop, priests, people of God.” 

The titles “founder” and “foundress” are used by the Church in connection with these ecclesial communities. It’s difficult to say exactly when Catherine saw herself as a foundress. Probably it was at the high point of the Friendship House movement (1942), when various houses had been established in the United States and yearly conventions were being held. In her diaries at this time she recognizes that she is the foundress of what she called “the Friendship House movement.” 

In the next issue I will show how she was led by the Holy Spirit to form a more concentrated community, rather than a more diffuse movement. Fewer people were involved, and she was drawn by the Holy Spirit into a profound personal “journey inward.” It was out of these depths that what the Pope called a “domestic Church,” a “wonderful Christian family,” a new ecclesial community was born. 

— Father Robert Wild, Postulator for the Cause 

 Publications featured in this issue: 


Robert Lax :

Robert Lax, a Jew who became a Catholic, was brought to Harlem by his friend, Thomas Merton, to meet Catherine. In her book, Not Without Parables, in a story entitled, “A Son of Israel,” she reflects on her relationship with Lax: “Yes, I love Jews greatly because Christ was a Jew and so was Mary, his mother. In Bob Lax I saw both the child of Abraham and the Son of Mary—both Judaism and Christianity. Alleluia!” At the time when I wrote to Lax asking him for a testimony about Catherine he was living on the island of Patmos, awaiting the parousia! He has since died. 

“Dear Father Robert, 

I dream of a long, long letter extolling Catherine’s saintly qualities, and it only keeps me from writing the brief note you asked for. 

So, briefly, in answer to your first question: Yes. Her life certainly merits the opening of a Cause. 

Secondly, if she were canonized, what would be the significance of her life for the Church and world of today? 

All the significance that a grace-filled, often joyous, dedicated, energetic, tirelessly loving and compassionate, human-divine life can have for the Church and the world and the Heavenly Kingdom, now and in eternity. The apparently perfect fusion in her life and personality of well-directed and effective action with constant, profound and deeply loving contemplation and urgent, confident prayer is the quality, the combination of qualities, that I associate first with Catherine. 

May Catherine’s Cause prosper, for Heaven’s sake, for hers, for ours and for the world’s. 

Robert Lax” 

Father Godfrey Diekmann :

Father Diekmann, one of the outstanding liturgists of the 20th century, was acquainted with Catherine through his association with the eminent liturgist, Dom Virgil Michel, O.S.B. (Both were from Collegeville). 

In the book mentioned above, Not Without Parables, Catherine relates her meeting with Dom Michel in the early 1930’s: “How does one begin to thank another human being for opening eyes that were still partially sealed? That day Dom Virgil Michel gave us postulants and novices in the then-unknown novitiate of the lay apostolate the vision of the whole. He showed us the whole Christ who was not crippled by compromise or touched by the fear of human respect.” 

I wrote and asked Dom Diekmann for his testimony: 

“Dear Father Wild, 

I am delighted and grateful to God that the bishop of Pembroke is promoting the Cause of Catherine’s beatification (canonization). But whether I can personally contribute anything to the furtherance of the Cause seems perhaps unlikely. 

For the simple reason that, though I knew relatively much about her, I personally met her face to face only a few times, and then rather briefly in each case. The first time in the mid-thirties when she came to St. John’s to visit the four black young men from Harlem whom Father Virgil Michel, O.S.B. had accepted as college students (at a time when few if any Catholic colleges, even in the North, were admitting blacks). 

So I can only report impressions and conclusions from witnessing the powerful influences she exercised on others. 

Impressions: I’ve met very few people in my life that radiated such vitality and almost overwhelmed you with a contagious joie de vivre. She so obviously believed most firmly in her apostolate and knew that the Lord would answer that trust. 

She was the exact opposite of the simpering plastic saints that popular religious art had almost convinced us to regard as “normal.” She loved life. All of it. 

Conclusion: Perhaps as a consequence of the above character traits she was able to inspire a unique brand of enthusiasts and seemingly unquestioning loyalty and devotion. I think of such persons as Dr. Herbert McKnight (one of the four black students from Harlem of whom I spoke earlier), Betty Schneider (the Chicago Friendship House) and Father Peter Nearing. She was a flame that ignited others—for life! 

Rev. Godfrey Diekmann, O.S.B. 

Saint John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota”

Favours Received

“My visit with Catherine was short and to the point. I asked her about starting a house of prayer. She took my hand, closed her eyes, and prayed for a few minutes. When she opened her eyes she said, ‘Do it!’ I was so excited and elated that I ran all the way to the chapel and thanked the Lord wholeheartedly. A great joy. Soon after that I got a call from the Bishop who said, ‘I have a house for your house of prayer.’” — C.C., New Jersey, USA, 6/17/2001

“I write today, almost lightheartedly. Two months ago when I was put into prison on remand, denied bail for weeks, and then released and kept in illegal custody, things were grim. Grim! Well, I lost 99.9% of my faith. I came close, so close, to suicide, that it is frightening for a Catholic, a Christian.

“Then one of the young men who knows me came to the prison. From a collection of papers from an organization he works for, he gave me a copy of Restoration [the monthly newspaper published by Madonna House].

“Twenty-five years ago I started to read Catherine’s books, and enjoyed them on many levels, related to them in many ways. When I read that she is recognized as a Servant of God, I was not surprised. I recognize her as a Saint even now. It might take the Church time to process that, but I believe I do not stand alone in my belief.

“I prayed for light, His light. I prayed for justice and freedom. I prayed for the peace I needed to have the courage to battle through what I know will be a court case that could drag on for years considering the red tape and corruption. I used the prayer of intercession as suggested. Did I get a miracle? I was not at death’s door physically, but I was close to death mentally and spiritually. I was so close to committing a real sin.

“It was almost incredible that in the end I had to spend extra days in prison because of the Court’s and the Judge’s holidays. I was angry at God over that! It all seemed so unfair after 6 weeks! On Sunday afternoon, knowing that I would be released on Monday, I sat quietly, giving praise to God.

“Then a total non-Christian came up to me and asked me about my Christian faith. It was just too uncanny. I had found a secluded spot in the prison yard and while reading my Office this man (who had had 6 weeks to ask me about my faith) picked the day before I left! I got such a spiritual lesson out of that that I nearly mentally fainted!

“A miracle? I’ve no idea. I know one thing, though: Catherine’s spirit was there with me in that prison. No question about it, no doubt at all. An ageless Catherine, a presence that didn’t have age, but had personality, and the person was her, no question. Our small community is aware of this and we are aware that somehow she is with us in our prayers of intercession.” — P., Visakhapatnam, India

“I had clipped out of Restoration the prayer to ask for favours through Catherine’s intercession. In 1998 I had a diabetic condition. Believe it or not, I no longer take insulin, or pills; and two weeks ago my doctor told me I no longer had to do glucose testing daily. All that I needed to do was see him once a month to check how things were. A miracle? I think so, even though there was work on my part and guidance by the right doctor. It doesn’t seem like an accident that this could come about after having to take 52 units of insulin daily.” — B.P., Ontario, Canada

“My sister-in-law was visiting. She asked if she could use Catherine’s relic on my ear, and some prayers were said. I felt my ear pop and was getting relief. After a few days I am feeling better.” — C., Ontario, Canada

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