The Church Where Popes Take a Back-Seat

In one of the countless churches that one encounters in the center of Rome lies one of the greatest women of all time. The uneducated daughter of a businessman, St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) singlehandedly convinced the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon, Catherine of Siena tombFrance, where Popes had been living for decades. An intense mystic, Catherine didn’t eat a thing or sleep a wink for years, received direct communications from both Christ and God the Father, and miraculously learned to read and write overnight–because Our Lord declared that He would teach her how. Catherine was named Patroness of Italy in 1939, Doctor of the Church in 1970, and Patroness of all Europe in 1999. Not too shabby, for a girl who never went to school!

Catherine lies under the main altar, in the very center of the church, in a stone sarcophagus. Interestingly, there are two other, very different tombs behind her, to the right and to the left. They don’t get anywhere near as much attention as Catherine does, and so the irony of the whole situation is often lost.

To the left of St. Catherine is the grandiose tomb of Pope Leo X, who reigned from 1513 to 1521. Leo was a member of the super-wealthy de Medici family, which means he wasLeo X tomb born with a silver spoon in his mouth–and when he was elected Pope, he declared famously,  “God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it!” Leo proceeded to party so hard and so often that he quickly emptied the Vatican’s coffers of all the cash that his predecessor had left behind. And meanwhile, a certain Augustinian monk named Father Martin Luther was up in Germany, nailing his 95 Theses to the church door. Leo X doesn’t deserve complete credit for causing the protestant reformation… but he certainly merits his share.

Clement viiOn Catherine’s right lies yet another de Medici Pope. Clement VII (1523-1534) had been an advisor to his cousin Leo X, and lobbied hard for his own election after Leo’s death. Don’t think for a second that he hadn’t attended all those wild parties thrown by his relative–he knew exactly what had been going on and didn’t exactly make any strenuous efforts to stop it.

Note the irony of the placement of these three tombs! The unlettered woman from Siena is the center of attention, while two Popes from an ultra-wealthy, elegant family lie ignored and forgotten behind her. It just goes to show that as the Church has always taught, in the Kingdom of Heaven nobody cares about your pedigree, your bank account, or your title. The only thing that matters is the degree to which you live your life in accord with God’s plan for you.

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