Unity in Diversity

Catherine: Cause Newsletter #4 — Fall 2002

Unity in diversity is really the perfection of unity…. We who are truly dedicated to ecumenism must remember the prayer of Christ: “That they all may be one, Father, as You and I are one.”

The following succinct and gracious letter from the new bishop of Pembroke assures the Lord’s and the Church’s continued blessing on Catherine’s Cause. Please keep Bishop Smith in your good prayers.

5 August 2002

Dear Father Wild,

Re: The Cause of Catherine Doherty

In a meeting held today, you and Father Pelton of Madonna House in Combermere informed me of the steps taken to date in the process established by my predecessor, Bishop Brendan O’Brien, for the cause of the possible canonization of Catherine Doherty. You came to me, the new Ordinary of the Diocese of Pembroke, to receive my permission for the cause to continue. I am pleased to grant this permission.

With warm personal regards, and the assurance of my blessing upon your good work, I am,

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Bishop Richard W. Smith
Bishop of Pembroke

From the Postulator’s Desk

Dear friends of Catherine,

Through the kindness of a benefactor I was able to attend the canonization of Padre Pio in Rome. I had never attended a canonization before. It was probably my most profound experience of the Church: hundreds of thousands of people around the Pope, celebrating the victory of Christ in the holiness of Padre Pio. I hope this doesn’t sound presumptuous, but I couldn’t help visualizing a huge picture of Catherine in St. Peter’s Square some day!

In the last newsletter I spoke of Catherine’s love for the Church, and said that she was one of the pioneers in the lay apostolate of the last century. In Christifideles Laici (1988), Pope John Paul II’s magna carta on the mission of the laity, he described this lay movement:

In recent times 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, and movements. We can speak of a new era of group endeavors of the lay faithful. (No. 29)

Not all of these “endeavors” have become communities. If they have, it is usually because of a very charismatic person whose charisms influenced the growth of a community and gave it its character. This is the theme I’d like to explore in this issue.

Charisms of Founders and Foundresses

When the Lord desires to create a new community, he usually speaks to an individual—rather than to a committee! Since the Second Vatican Council a theology of founders and foundresses has developed.

“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 Church, and by his continual coming nourishes and distributes gifts to all its members.

A number of charisms are listed in the New Testament. St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 12, is an example; but there are many other charisms besides those mentioned there. 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)

Sometimes attempts are made to pinpoint one special gift in order to distinguish one founder or foundress from another. “What is the charism of St. Francis which distinguishes him from St. Dominic?” one might ask. Such questions have some validity, but concentrating on one particular aspect of a founder can obscure the fact that what we are really encountering is a charismatic person.

At the very end of his valuable study, Foundresses, Founders, and Their Religious Families, Father John Lozano states what I wish to make my overall approach in presenting the charismatic dimension of 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. (92)

Theologically, this may be broadening the concept of charism somewhat. However, a consideration of Catherine, or any founder or foundress, as a charismatic person, and an understanding of charism as a many-faceted reality instead of a single specific grace, is both more accurate and helpful.

Relevant to this understanding is the best imaginative definition of a saint I ever read, offered, not surprisingly, by a child: “A saint is somebody in a colored glass window, and light comes through him.” Light shines through the whole person, not just one part of him.

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)

In other words, trying to see how the Holy Spirit communicated graces to founders in and through their history, character, upbringing, and so on, is a more accurate way of understanding them, and how the Lord came to them with his grace. (I’d like to suggest this approach for anyone writing about Catherine, or seeking to present her life.)

Another essential aspect of presenting Catherine’s life is what the present Holy Father, in an address to members of the ecclesial movements gathered 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-fulfilment and as facets of the one Church. (Pontifical Council of the Laity: # 2, Movements in the Church, p. 222)

When people are attracted to a certain Order or community, it is usually because there is some kind of spiritual resonance in their hearts with the founder/foundress and with 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 that binds them together in a specific way.

As often happens in the history of the Church, Catherine’s awareness of being a foundress grew over a period of time. Not until the early 1940’s does she begin to refer to herself as foundress of Friendship House. By 1970, after more than 30 years in the apostolate, she clearly saw herself as having been called by the Lord to found a new family in the Church. At that time she began writing to the community a series of letters called “Letters From the Foundress.” Shortly afterwards she wrote a Constitution or Way of Life. Her voluminous writings gave Madonna House its spirit and direction.

Not everything in Catherine’s life is equally essential for the community’s identity and mission, or able to be communicated to the community. Some graces, such as her sufferings, the depth of her prophetic gift, her degree of sanctity, are personal to her. But some dimensions of her life were particularly destined by the Holy Spirit to be ingredients in the ecclesial community she founded.

Catherine’s “Two Lungs”

I would like now to give one example of what I have described above. Catherine, from a very early age, breathed with the “two lungs of the Church”—East and West—an expression often used by the Holy Father. (Significantly, it was a Russian, the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov, who originally coined the phrase.) I’d like to describe, briefly, the life situations in which this grace was communicated to Catherine; and then relate how the Madonna House community is presently attempting to assimilate this charism into its own experience.

Catherine’s father, Theodore Kolyschkine, was born in the Russian-occupied section of Poland in the mid-19th century. His own father, a Russian officer, was stationed there. Theodore’s mother was Polish, and a Roman Catholic. There is a possibility that Theodore was secretly baptized a Catholic. Since his father was Orthodox Russian, it would have been illegal at the time for him to baptize his child Catholic on Russian territory. If he was so baptized, then it might be said that Catherine began breathing with the two lungs of Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the very womb of her mother.

Emma Thompson (her mother) was of purely European descent, her ancestors being part of that professional class whom Peter the Great invited in to westernise Russia. But although Emma was western European, her deep soul had been russified.

Catherine was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church. She probably did not have much of a formal, religious education in Orthodoxy, as we would understand it in the West. What she did receive was a formation in the Orthodox sense: the experience of the liturgy, home customs, pilgrimages, and service to the poor.

Her book, My Russian Yesterdays, gives a vivid picture of the sacred world in which she grew up, and which contrasted sharply with the secularised West into which she was propelled by the Revolution. She recalls the long pilgrimages to the holy monasteries. In another of her books, Not Without Parables, she recounts—not without her own imaginative flavour!—the miraculous stories she heard while sitting at the feet of the holy pilgrims who were given hospitality in her home. She remembers carrying the Easter fire home through the darkness, and the magic of that holiest of all nights:

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 neighbour, 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)

Significantly, Catherine’s patron saint is not Catherine of Alexandria but Catherine of Siena. Someone had given Emma a book about the latter, and Emma was drawn to her. (She probably chose the name “Catherine” in honour of her husband’s first wife who had died.) But that her patron was the mystic of Siena is another indication of the two strands of Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the family.

Theodore’s openness to Catholicism was evidenced when the family moved to Alexandria, Egypt, in connection with Theodore’s work, at which time Catherine was put into a Roman Catholic school run by the Sisters of Zion. A strict Slavophile Orthodox Russian (that is, one who believed Russia had a unique destiny and opposed Westernization) would hardly have placed his young daughter in a Catholic school, where she was exposed to the Mass, received some instruction in the Catholic faith, and experienced the full panoply of Catholic devotions. Some of Catherine’s most fundamental graces were implanted at that time.

In the summers Catherine’s family often went to visit her Catholic grandmother in Poland. She said she learned a great deal about Catholicism from her. The following quote from the introduction to 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 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 neighbours, 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)

When Catherine came to England after escaping from Russia, she made a profession of faith in the Catholic Church. We know how and when it happened, but the ‘why’ is still shrouded in mystery. Several possible motives come to mind.

As briefly described above, she had been raised in the two worlds of Catholicism and Orthodoxy. As a young woman, not very educated in doctrinal matters, she really might not have seen much creedal difference between the two faiths.

Also, throughout her childhood, her father used to read to the family from the works of Vladimir Soloviev, whom many people consider the greatest Russian philosopher/theologian. Soloviev taught that Christ could not really be divided. In his book, Russia and the Universal Church, he showed that the Church had to have a visible head, and that historically this was the Pope of Rome. He called the latter the “wonder-working icon of Christian unity.” He made a public profession of faith in the Pope as head of the Church. His thinking very probably had an important influence on Catherine. She placed Soloviev’s picture in a prominent place in the main house of our center in Combermere.

An additional reason for her move towards Catholicism might simply have been a realization that she would never be able to return to Russia. Perhaps she felt an impelling urge to identify, now, with the new world in which she was going to live the rest of her life. Protestantism would not have had any appeal for her, and Catholicism was already in her bones. Personally, she retained some Orthodox customs all her life: bowing before the Sacrament instead of genuflecting; venerating icons. But she seemed to be determined to be seen as a Catholic.

Surprisingly, her early diaries give very little indication of any Orthodox spirituality until the 1960’s. At that time a Melkite priest, Father Joseph Raya, who had become associated with Madonna House, walked into the dining room of Madonna House with one of his parishioners, carrying two huge icons as gifts for the community. Something happened, then, in Catherine’s heart. All the memories of Holy Russia flooded back into her. It was as if the Lord said, “Now is the time to breathe with the two lungs I have given you.”

From that time on, that is, during the last 25 years of her life, she began writing her Russian books: Poustinia, Sobornost, Strannik, Molchanie, Urodivoi. Their spirituality is neither Orthodox nor Western, but something like an interweaving of both. Ever since her arrival in the West, she had tried to assimilate Western Catholicism. These books now expressed the flowing together of these two currents, both of which were in her very blood, and which had been mingling in a hidden stream throughout her whole life.

The Two Lungs of Madonna House

Firstly, then, charisms are given, and grow, in and through a person’s life experiences. Secondly, something of the charisms is communicated to the members of the community who have been “mysteriously attracted” to the charismatic founders and foundresses.

If you were to come to our main center in Combermere, Ontario, Canada, or to any one of our smaller houses—knowing nothing about us—for the first few hours you might wonder if we were Catholic or Orthodox. Seeing the icons on our walls and in our chapels, noticing the many books on Eastern spirituality, hearing that our foundress was Russian, and then explaining how people come to use our “poustinias” for prayer and solitude, your confusion would be understandable.

Many years before the Pope first used the phrase of the two lungs, Catherine had been led by the Spirit to begin integrating, in our personal spiritual lives and in our community customs, the two great traditions. She saw this as part of her mission, and it is part of the apostolate of Madonna House. Catherine wanted us to know and understand Orthodoxy—she said understanding was the first step—while at the same time remaining Catholic.

We are not involved in great projects or programs to foster this unity. We strive, first of all, to breathe with two lungs ourselves. I think it’s true to say that many people are beginning to do so. The two lungs are not, of course, two different sets of doctrines: they are two ways of relating to the mysteries of the faith, to worship and devotion.

Father Raya eventually became Archbishop Raya—the archbishop of Akka, Haifa, and all Galilee. When he retired to Combermere and became a full member of the community, he deepened his teachings and, most importantly, regularly celebrated the divine liturgy for us, helping us to imbibe the spirit of the East through its most essential medium—worship. It is through praying and singing and worshipping that we have come to begin to breathe with both lungs. More could be said about this, but I simply wish to indicate how the East/West charism of Catherine originated in her life, and how Madonna House now shares in this charism.

— Father Robert Wild, Postulator for the Cause

Publications featured in this issue:

My Russian Yesterdays, by Catherine Doherty

Madonna House: People of the Towel & Water, video

Madonna House Classics, by Catherine Doherty


Most Rev. Remi De Roo :

I think Catherine’s life warrants the opening of a cause with a view to possible canonization.

Having herself known persecution and marginalization, Catherine was very conscious of the alienation brought about by ideologies which do not respect the sacredness of the human person. Her dedication to the cause of the poor was a sterling example of a leader who with total trust in divine Providence could call and lead others to heroism in the transformation of society. We need more lay women of her caliber as role models in a time of great cultural upheaval.

Most Rev. Donat Chiasson :

I met Catherine for the first time in 1979. She invited me to a meeting with her Staff and I was much impressed by her teaching. She talked about the breakdown of our North American society and the call of God to be witnesses of his divine love. What struck me very powerfully was the realization that here was a woman who seemed to me to love those two realities at a new depth. The weight of evil in our society pierced my heart in a way I had not experienced before. I also felt that when she spoke about the love of God it carried all the qualities of personal experience. I believe she had the grace of a foundress.

Father John T. Catoir :

It was in Combermere that I first met Catherine nearly 30 years ago. When I first came to Madonna House I was deeply moved by the spirit of love and holiness I found there. The spirituality of Catherine is the inspiration behind this amazing community. The people of Madonna House are deeply moved by the spirit of love and holiness. It was Jesus who said, “By their fruits you will know them.” My own opinion is based on the fact that Catherine’s life is still bearing rich and abundant fruit, and will probably continue to do so for many years to come.

Brother Paul Pavivaraj :

It is a joy and beauty to know of the life and work of Catherine in this day and age. She is a woman who had the courage to act as she was instructed in the Gospel. It took sheer guts and courage, but she did it. We may not be able to do it as powerfully as she did, but it is an example, and we too can follow. Every time we go out to speak to a lonely person, or give food to the hungry, or meet the needs of the poor—we honour her work and memory. We help to perpetuate the truth that people can live the Gospel and be Christians even in 2002.

Teresa de Bertodano :

With regard to my inclusion of Catherine Doherty in the anthology Treasury of the Catholic Church, I believe Catherine to be one of the inspirational figures of the twentieth century—inspirational not only for the Roman Catholic Church but for the world. I believe that a book such as Treasury would not be truly representational of the riches of Roman Catholicism if Catherine’s name was omitted.

You ask how I came across Catherine. I think that I originally heard of her from members of the communities of l’Arche and I recall that Poustinia made a great impact when it was first published. I regard her as inspirational in the same way that Brother Roger of Taize, Mother Teresa, Jean Vanier and Dorothy Day are inspirational. All have had a tremendous effect upon the young (and not so young!) in terms of giving them a vision to which to aspire, and a viable and demanding way of life in which to follow Jesus. Catherine has been very important in terms of the inspiration to build viable Christian community.

Favours Received

Four years ago I was called to help in the parish of St. George here in the U.S. I am West Indian but had been working in England. Afraid and unsure of American immigration, I turned to Catherine. I intended to return to the West Indies but the need here in the U.S. was desperate. My request was that she take care of my arrangements with immigration. If it was God’s will that I stay in the U.S., then all would work out well. She worked fast.

Before the appointed time for final proceedings for Permanent resident, an unheard of thing happened. Immigration actually called me by telephone, asking me to bring my passport in to be stamped as Permanent Resident as soon as I could get there, since they wanted to complete my case before a certain date. They requested only one letter which I could not get at the moment since our parish priest was away. I was told to come without it. All went well. To the amazement of all who know of the struggles of immigration. Thanks to Catherine. — Sister M.V., Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

My son had his tonsils removed this year. It is a normal part of recovery to develop ear aches 3 or 4 days after. The pain in his ears was terrible. He was using Tylenol #3 every 4 hours with little relief. About noon he was in great discomfort. I offered to pray for him with Catherine’s relic. He agreed, and within 15 minutes the ear aches and pain were gone and did not return, and he recovered completely. — anonymous

I was visiting a patient in the hospital. His wife was with him and she told me about this terrible pressure headache she had. I offered to pray with her with Catherine’s relic. She placed the relic on her head while I prayed to Catherine. Within minutes the pain was gone. Catherine guides me in my daily life. My cry for help in many different situations is placed in her care and she always comes to my assistance. I feel a very deep and personal bond with her as my “spiritual mother.” — M.Y., Ontario, Canada

Many friends and family have been out of work since September 11th, 2001. Of the eight people for whom I prayed to Catherine, seven have gotten work: my brother, a teaching job in a university; my sister-in-law, a position assisting a pediatrician; and five friends who lost their jobs were miraculously employed within five months. Also, my brother was having difficulty with his advisor, which delayed his being able to set up a defense of his dissertation. He got to defend it in March and received his doctorate in April. — R.M., New York, U.S.A.

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