I feel a connection with Catherine of Siena, even though she lived in the 14th century. The first inkling I had that we might be kindred spirits was through a “Holy Week Personality Type” chart that imagined how the saints would fall on the Myers-Briggs personality test. Whoever put this chart together decided Catherine of Siena was an INFJ like me. That was just enough to make me curious to know more about her.
Through my research, I found we had yet more in common. She, like me, was a youngest child, although she had quite a few more siblings than I did—some sources say she had 24!
Remarkably, when she was still a young child, Catherine had a vision of Christ in heaven, surrounded by some of his disciples. That made me curious about visions and how they differ from dreams. The consensus seems to be that a dream happens while you’re asleep and a vision while you’re awake. Many of the Old Testament prophets had visions, as did Peter and Paul.
Catherine’s vision launched her into a lifetime devoted to prayer and meditation, and she joined the Third Order of St. Dominic (“third order” meant she was a layperson). In doing so, Catherine defied her parents’ attempts to marry her off, causing them to punish her severely. Unfortunately, this experience led her to pursue unhealthy self-torture and extreme attempts at controlling her fleshly desires, something many saints from the Middle Ages pursued.
In the Third Order of St. Dominic, she became a nurse to severely ill patients, such as those with leprosy and advanced cancer. She cared for people other nurses didn’t want to care for. This selfless way of life made people seek her out and ask her advice on spiritual matters. Some came to her in person, but many more sought her wisdom by letter. This is especially fortunate for us because around 400 of these letters survived, and we can read them today in book form. She also wrote a book that she called simply “my book.” Today, you can find it under the title The Dialogue, a volume that presents a series of questions to and about God that she attempted to answer.
Her influence was widespread and profound. She convinced many priests who were living wealthy lives to give away their riches and to learn to live simply. She even influenced the Pope, who had been living at Avignon in France under the political control of the King of France. Catherine visited Avignon in 1376 and told Pope Gregory XI that he needed to remove himself from the king’s influence. He heeded her advice and moved to Rome, and Catherine continued to use her influence to smooth over differences the Pope had with the leaders of Florence. Her influence on the Pope is especially interesting as she lived in a time with clear gender boundaries in the church.
So, what can women leaders in the church today learn from Catherine?
Look out for the “least of these.”
You most likely are involved in ministry because you want to serve others. Catherine’s life, though, reminds us not to forget those who are neglected by others. She reached out to those even others in ministry ignored. As we serve in our churches, we must remember to look over our congregations and notice those who are being left out and marginalized. How can we make life better for such people? How can we help them connect more closely with Christ and reassure them of his love?
It’s also interesting that what made others seek out Catherine for wisdom was the fact that she gave herself so selflessly to others. When we serve those who need it, others will notice our countercultural efforts, and that will give us influence.
Warn and correct others we serve with in church leadership.
Often as women, we live with things that bother us in the church. Perhaps, it’s insensitivity on a leader’s part, a policy that seems damaging to people, or lack of humility. Just as Catherine confronted the Pope, we need to be brave enough to confront those we believe aren’t leading in Christlike ways. We don’t want to be in opposition to those who are in leadership, but we do want to be honest and forthright.
Lead out of your freedom in Christ.
Catherine can also teach us what not to do. We should not follow Catherine’s example in how we think about our sin and guilt. Although she loved Christ, Catherine evidently did not believe she was truly forgiven because she failed to live in the freedom he came to give. As she chastised herself, she placed a burden on her shoulders that she wasn’t meant to bear. As Galatians 3 so eloquently assures us, we are set free in Christ from the burden of trying to be perfect. As you lead, resist the urge to beat yourself up over your sins and failures. Instead, live out of the freedom that he has given you.
Take time to commune with Christ.
Catherine’s commitment to Christ was all-inclusive and dominated her waking hours. She longed to commune with him and to help others do so as well. As church leaders we can surely learn from this. Although we serve in ministry to help others, we must keep our relationship with Christ front and center. We need to connect with him regularly at a deep level and set aside time to be with just him. And that practice makes my INFJ soul extremely content.