Theology Professor Mary Catherine Hilkert delivers second game day series lecture on Saint Catherine of Siena

Since 1999, Europe has had no fewer than five patron saints.  The most recent addition, Saint Catherine of Siena, was the subject of the latest Saturdays with the Saints lecture, delivered by Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P., Professor of Systematic Theology.

As Hilkert noted, St. Catherine was named the first female Doctor of the Church in 1970, and she remains the only laywoman (a third order Dominican) with that title.  Most famously, she worked towards Church unity throughout her life (1347-1380), especially through her negotiations with Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from Avignon.  The title of Hilkert’s talk, “Catherine of Siena as Woman of the World: ‘It is Silence that Kills the World,’” emphasized the saint’s dedication to proclaiming the truth boldly, in accordance with the lecture series’ theme this year.

To begin, Hilkert took her audience on a “tour of Siena … [to] situate Catherine in her own context.”  She presented several photos of the Tuscan city, including a picture of Catherine’s family home, as well as artistic renditions of the saint herself.  With these images, Hilkert described the plague, war, and conflict within the Church that pervaded 14th century Italy.  When she identified Catherine Benincasa as one of 25 children in a prosperous family, the audience reacted with an audible murmur of amazement.

Hilkert proceeded to examine “three main things that empowered her to be a saint who spoke out.”  The first, “a clear sense of vocation,” stood as the “root of her freedom,” for she recognized that it was God’s wisdom and power, not her own, that directed her life.  According to Hilkert, this ability to, in the saint’s own words, be “drawn into the life of the God who is mad with love” led Catherine to dedicate her life to God, much like the first disciples.  In addition, while a powerful example for women in particular, Hilkert affirmed that “her life and writings testify to the fact that the Spirit’s gifts don’t fall into neat categories distinguished by gender.”

The second main topic of Hilkert’s talk focused on Catherine’s “particular gift for wisdom [and] charism for exhortation.”  She recounted the saint’s boldness throughout her life, especially in her authoritative letters to Pope Gregory XI and negotiations with civil leaders.  At the same time, she handled every encounter with affection and respect, never defying Church authorities.  As Hilkert made clear, one of Catherine’s most admirable qualities was her ability to balance efforts for peace with bold outspokenness.

Hilkert’s third topic reflected on the saint’s “compassion that was rooted in her own share of the life of Christ crucified.”  She proceeded to clarify that Catherine’s desire for suffering did not stem from masochism but penitential love.  She also acknowledged that throughout history, people have had skewed perceptions of the “wisdom of the cross,” and even Catherine herself advocated endeavors, such as the Crusades, which people today should not necessarily emulate.

At the same time, Hilkert argued that while we must view parts of Catherine’s life with “reservation,” her example remains relevant today.

“Women from around the world today who recognize and oppose these false appropriations of the cross have raised their voices to speak of their own experiences of finding courage and power in identifying their struggles with the passion and death of Jesus,” Hilkert said.

“This radical fidelity in a world of sin comes much closer, I think, to Catherine’s exhortation to join one’s wounds with the wounds of Jesus,” she added.

Hilkert concluded by connecting Catherine’s suffering and fight for justice with people today who experience similar trials.  “Like many faithful men and women around the globe,” she said, “this woman handed on wisdom in her living and in her dying,” making her a powerful example.

The next “Saturdays with the Saints” lecture will take place on September 26 in Geddes Hall.  Lawrence S. Cunningham, Emeritus O’Brien Chair of Theology, will present “Thomas Merton:  The Contemplative as Activist.”

Sophia Buono is a sophomore majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and minoring in Education, Schooling, and Society.  She lives on the fourth floor of her dorm, thus making her journey to do laundry in the basement quite a workout.  If you have any tips on creative ways to carry laundry down four flights of stairs, contact Sophia at