Among the many admirable accolades that the late Margaret Thatcher accumulated over 30 years in public life, perhaps none looms larger or longer in memory than her nickname. In January 1976, a Soviet military officer used the phrase “Iron Lady” to profile Thatcher. But words intended only to alarm old men in the Politburo instead captivated audiences around the world to a broader fact – here was a woman who could (and eventually would) defeat a Cold War adversary, and wouldn’t shy away from acting on beliefs that never wavered with the latest popularity polls.
The Church has had its fair share of iron ladies long before Thatcher. The 14th century, for example, found Christians and Christendom suffering on the outside from the deadly diseases of the Black Plague, and on the inside from the Great Western Schism. St. Catherine of Siena, whose feast day the Church celebrates on April 29, helped remedy both through bold public witness nourished by deep prayer, humble penance, and steadfast charity. She proved provocative by speaking fearlessly both to supporters and critics about the sure way, genuine truth, and everlasting life offered in service to Christ.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once observed that Catherine had a “gift of tears” which contained “an exquisite, profound sensitivity, a capacity for being moved and for tenderness.” Such words add even more depth to her title “Doctor of the Church.” According to historian Robert S. Gottfried in The Black Death (1983), Siena lost half its population to the Black Plague in the spring and summer of 1348 alone. Yet Catherine literally doctored the sick through it all. She assuredly lost close friends and family, but that never stopped her from kneeling to care for the surrounding sick and suffering. In hindsight, pestilence never stood a chance before a tireless practitioner of the Beatitudes, who saw the face of Christ behind the black boils of the afflicted.
Catherine also wept and cared for the Body of Christ she loved during the Great Western Schism. A sad chapter in history, the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church grew increasingly divided during the early 14th century over personal jealousies and national rivalries. Today it is hard to imagine a world where popes struggled against antipopes, but the Schism tore Christendom to the core as clerical factions poured more energy into securing earthly riches and less time shepherding poor souls.
It took Catherine to arouse Pope Gregory XI from spiritual stupor with beautiful bluntness: “Up, Father, like a man! For I tell you that you have no need to fear. You ought to come; come, then” from Avignon, France, back to Rome.
Forged by the purifying fires of the Holy Spirit, an iron lady from Siena galvanized the medieval Church with a divine love that brimmed beyond hateful rivalries. Catherine found the source and summit of that love, like all the saints before and after her, in treasures of heaven worth far greater than any earthly treasures (cf. Mt 6:20-21). It is a Love that still summons Christian men and women to act courageously by faith.
In our difficult days, we need her witness more and more. St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!
Jason Godin teaches United States history at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas. You can find him on Facebook here.