RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–She was born 660 years ago into a world tormented by fear, chaos and death.
Her mother wanted her to be a “normal” daughter, to marry and rear a family behind the relatively secure walls of middle-class Italian society. But Catherine Benincasa — later to become known as Catherine of Siena -– wanted something more: to love God completely and serve Him without reservation.
The 23rd of 25 children, Catherine was walking home from church at age six when she says she had a vision of Christ smiling and blessing her. “The sense of affirmation that God was calling her to ministry was powerful and permanent,” write James D. Smith and Kimberly Dawsey-Richardson in a profile of Catherine in the spring edition of “Christian History and Biography.”
She persuaded her family to allow her to join a religious order at age 16, but continued living at home, retreating to solitude and self-denial in her room. “Seeking purity, humility and communion with God, she wrestled for three years to gain dominion over her heart and fleshly impulses,” Smith and Dawsey-Richardson recount. “Hers was a total surrender….”
Catherine’s spiritual retreat didn’t lead her to a cloister, however. Instead, it led her to a “fervent awakening to the needs of the world outside…. [T]he supreme test of her Christian character was her response to the most devastating pandemic in human history –- the Black Death -– and its aftermath.”
Carried from Asia by fleas on the hides of rats in sailing ships, the Black Plague (or Black Death) was devastating medieval Europe. It eventually killed some 20 million people on the continent -– including many of the residents of Catherine’s home city of Siena –- and traumatized the survivors. Society and church began to collapse. Terror and despair stalked the land. The rich locked themselves behind castle walls, entertained themselves and pretended the horror outside wasn’t happening. Others declared impending doom and God’s judgment upon the land.
“She faced the grim realities and found hope in God as the greatest Reality of all,” write Smith and Dawsey-Richardson. “The result was a courageous, compassionate and creative path of ministry. Catherine’s devotion to the sick was as contagious as the Plague itself, charismatically drawing others to touch lives and transform situations. In the midst of poverty, terror and stench, she and her entourage spread the aroma of Christ through selfless service.”
As her notoriety grew, Catherine began dispatching letters to powerful people in the sacred and secular realms, appealing for political peace. She challenged the corrupt and divided Roman Catholic Church of her day to return to Christ.
God is looking for new Catherines in our own age of fear, chaos and death. And He is finding them. Jessie Hock is one.
The Kansas college student recently spent a semester as a short-term missionary in Kenya, becoming Christ’s hands and feet among the street kids of Nairobi. International Mission Board correspondent Sue Sprenkle described a typical day for Jessie:
“[She] steps gingerly through piles of trash on the streets of downtown Nairobi. As she reaches down to shake a pile of rags and cardboard, out pops the head of 3-year-old Michael. He smiles and extends grubby arms to hug her.
“Jessie Hock hugs Michael, a boy who knows life only on the street. She softly sings ‘Jesus Loves Me’ in his ear and gives him a kiss, despite his overwhelming odor.
“‘You can’t really call this a job,’ she said. ‘I mean, we get to hang out all day and talk about Jesus. I can’t think of a better way to spend a semester!'”.
Donna Gose of Oklahoma is another, although her path to surrender has been a longer one.
The 58-year-old mother of three (and grandmother of eight) left a high-paid job as administrative assistant to the CEO of a major corporation to become a Southern Baptist missionary with her husband, Jim. Now in their second assignment, the two have coped with health problems, culture shock in several Latin American nations — and the extreme difficulty of learning a new language in late middle age.
Their latest task: to make friends and start churches in greater Buenos Aires, Argentina, a cavernous megacity where fearful people retreat behind locked doors and gates to shut out crime and strangers. Donna welcomes the challenge.
“It took 25 years for God to get us ready,” she admits. “I had to learn to let go of things as a woman, because I used to be materialistic. It’s not giving up anything. God changes the way you look at things. When you fall in love with Jesus, it changes your whole perspective.”
Catherine of Siena would wholeheartedly agree. What about you?
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