Throughout the Jewish Scriptures, but especially in the Book of Hosea, God’s people are called his Bride. The word appears again in the writings of St. Paul and St. John the Evangelist. The authors of Christian Scriptures also began using a word we now translate as “Church,” but which in their day referred to loosely organized groups of individuals who believed in Christ. Paul describes these believers as members of Christ’s own body. Their unity as “Church” arose from their common Eucharistic experience of Christ.
As the number of Christian believers grew, ordinary people began to use the word “Church” to refer simply to the religious hierarchy that was developing to maintain communication and unity between these far-flung groups of believers—the visible face of a new religious institution. With the word used increasingly for the governing structure of the institution, and less and less for the groups of believers the hierarchy governed, notions once connected with God’s people were eventually applied to something neither Hosea or John the Evangelist would have recognized as Bride.
By the Middle Ages, believers St. Peter had called a chosen and royal priesthood were subservient to an elaborate religious hierarchy. The man who had once simply presided over the community of believers in Rome had assumed complete control of Christendom and was calling himself Pontifex Maximus and the Vicar of Christ. He humbled secular rulers and amassed great wealth. He sent and sometimes even led armies to slaughter unbelievers and dissenters. He sired children by his mistresses and placed them as spiritual leaders over believers.
Catherine of Siena was born 44 years after Boniface VIII ended his scandalous life. By this time the bishops of Rome had abandoned that city and were living in southern France. To pay for their lives of luxury, they sold religious offices to the highest bidders. “If the King of England wants his donkey made a bishop,” said Clement VI, “he only has to ask.” While the Inquisition tortured dissenters in one part of the palace in Avignon, popes were often cradled elsewhere in the palace in the laps of the loveliest women of Provence.
Catherine gave herself entirely to God from early childhood. She firmly clung to her decision, despite her parents’ strenuous attempts to push her towards marriage. She became a Dominican tertiary instead of a cloistered nun and lived three years as a hermit. When she was 20 years old Christ appeared to her and betrothed her to himself. Shortly afterwards, he led her from her solitary life and told her to find him and love him in others.
Miracles of all sorts accompanied her prayers. A group of disciples gathered around her. As she traveled through Italy, crowds came to meet her, and many changed their lives for the better. As a bride of Christ, she was a catalyst for true “Church” wherever she went.
The last years of her life were spent re-establishing peace in the institution governing the Church. She helped convince Gregory XI to return from France to Rome, and then spent her last two years trying to restrain Urban VI, one of the most spiteful and vile-tempered popes in history. Several weeks before her death, as she was praying before a mosaic in the old basilica of St. Peter, she saw Peter’s fishing boat leave the mosaic and land on her shoulder. It crushed her to the ground and she had to be carried home. She remained virtually paralyzed until her death on April 29, 1380.
In this icon, the boat from the mosaic is a medieval ocean-going vessel with the papal coat of arms on its sail, in sharp contrast to Peter’s simple fishing boat. May the holy woman who bears this monstrous ship on her back help us see ourselves once again as St. Peter saw us, a chosen and royal priesthood, Hosea’s Bride of God.