Pope Benedict continued his recent theme of reflecting on women saints during his weekly audience, highlighting St. Catherine of Genoa and her insights on Purgatory.
The Pope said that St. Catherine – a 15th century Italian mystic – didn't focus on the “torments” of purgatory but rather called it an “interior fire” that purifies and inflames our hearts with God's love.
The Pope gave his remarks to 9,000 people in the Paul VI Hall at the Vatican on Jan. 12.
He opened his talk by explaining that St. Catherine was born into a wealthy family and was married at the age of 16. Although she received a Christian education at home, she initially lived a worldly existence and experienced difficulty in her marriage, which caused her great bitterness, coupled with a profound sense of emptiness.
The Pope said, however, that a unique spiritual experience in which she realized her own sin but also the goodness of God, made her decide to change her life. She then began what the Pope called a journey of purification and mystical communion with the Lord.
“The period between her conversion and her death was not marked by extraordinary events,” he said, “but two elements characterized her entire life: on the one hand, mystical experience, profound union with God and ... on the other, service to others, especially the most needy and abandoned.”
Pope Benedict said that the “place of her ascent to the mystical heights” was the hospital of Pammatone, the largest in Genoa, of which she was director. During her life, St. Catherine would also write two books, “Treatise on Purgatory” and “Dialogues on the Soul and the Body.”
The Pope reflected on the saint's writings, saying that “in her mystical experiences, Catherine never received specific revelations on Purgatory or on the souls being purified there.”
St. Catherine, he underscored, did not see Purgatory “as a place of transit in the depths of the earth” or as “an exterior fire.”
Rather, she saw it as “an interior fire.”
Her insights do not “recount the torments of Purgatory and then show the way to purification and conversion,” he added. Instead, “she began from the interior experience of man on his journey towards eternity.”
For St. Catherine, the soul in Purgatory “is aware of God's immense love and perfect justice; as a consequence, it suffers for not having responded to that love perfectly, and it is precisely the love of God Himself which purifies the soul from the ravages of sin,” he said.
Pope Benedict recalled that St. Catherine used the image of a thread of gold linking the human heart to God as a depiction of the relationship between a soul in Purgatory and God.
“In this way the heart of man is inundated with the love of God, which becomes his only guide, the only driving force in his life.”
“This situation of elevation towards God and abandonment to His will, as expressed in the image of the thread, is used by Catherine to express the action of divine light on the souls in Purgatory, a light which purifies and raises them towards the splendor of the dazzling rays of God,” he said.
“In their experience of union with God, saints achieve so profound an 'understanding' of the divine mysteries, in which love and knowledge almost become one, that they can even help theologians in their studies,” the Pope noted.
"St. Catherine's life teaches us that the more we love God and enter into intimate contact with Him through prayer, the more He makes Himself known and inflames our hearts with His love.”
“By writing about Purgatory, the saint reminds us of a fundamental truth of the faith which becomes an invitation for us to pray for the dead, that they may achieve the blessed vision of God in the communion of the saints,” he said.
In his closing remarks, Pope Benedict highlighted the saint's “lifelong humble, faithful and generous service” in the hospital of Pammatone, calling her life “a shining example of charity towards everyone.”
He also said that St. Catherine's work at the hospital is “a special encouragement for women who make a fundamental contribution to society and the Church with their precious efforts, enriched by their sensitivity and the care they show towards the poorest and those most in need.”