Friday, March 26, 2021

Lenten Book Club Final Week: Of mobs and antipopes...


My goodness, this Lent just flew by, did it not?! I can hardly believe that we are at the end of our Lenten Book Club for 2021! This Book 5 was pretty quick and speedy, yes? And I'm soooo excited to chat about the conclusion to our adventures with St. Catherine of Siena!

We pick back up with lots of action ongoing. The pope is miserable back in Rome, afraid for his life, and feels like the country is against him. Fra Raymond is requested by the pope to lead a different community (maybe in Rome? I was confused about this), and Catherine is crushed. The pope is no longer responding to her letters (ingrate ;-)), so she sends Fra Raymond with a note to include within one of his correspondence to the Holy Father. Based upon this, the pope agrees to let Catherine (but no priests, fearing for their lives) go to Florence to try and work with them further on ending the war. Florence, meanwhile, is ignoring the Interdict and generally distancing themselves more from the pope. 

Oh boy, things aren't good. And THEN... the pope dies. 😭 And things go from bad to worse. There is chaos with regard to the papal successor. I definitely found this part interesting, so much historical information that I did not have the details of: the first man elected was an Italian (Urban VI), and apparently this was because a mob broke into the Vatican demanding that it be so? 😳 eeeeekkkkksssss. But then the cardinals announced that the new pope was French, leading to the very first antipope in Avignon (Clement XII)! This is referred to as the Western Schism. Who knew?

While in Florence, a mob goes after Catherine, and she is unafraid to meet martyrdom, thus her quiet and powerful witness convinces them to leave without harming her. Catherine had actually desired to be martyred and was disappointed!

Meanwhile in Rome, the new pope is a bit abrasive. Catherine begins to write to him, too, trying to develop a rapport and do her part to keep the papacy in Rome. She gives her last will and testament to her priestly advisors, which is her Dialogue

An even bigger war develops, between those loyal to the pope, and those loyal to the antipope. The new pope likes Catherine and respects her opinion. Catherine goes to Rome to do whatever she can to support the pope and change the people's hearts back to loyalty to him. 

Unfortunately, Catherine has an attack of some sort and becomes gravesly ill. She dies at age 33, her mother by her side to give her her blessing. 

In the conclusion, we find out that her good friend and sister Alessia dies only a few months later. Fra Raymond becomes Master General of the Dominican Order, and wrote the very first Life of St. Catherine of Siena. Pope Urban VI holds the papacy for 9 years before he dies, but never becomes well liked amongst the people of Rome. The schism continues for 35 years, but the papacy never left Rome again.

Wow. I mean, WOW! What a story! I learned so much from this book about history, and about Catherine. I admired her firm faith, developed in mere childhood, and her sweet but powerful presence. She had charisma, people were so drawn to her, but she wasn't a showy person. She channeled it all back to Christ and His Church. Great stuff!

What were your thoughts on the ending to Lay Siege to Heaven? I would love to hear them in the comments!

P.S. Since next week is Holy Week, and I usually post on Fridays, I'm anticipating taking the week off from blogging to focus on the Triduum liturgies! I'll be back the first week of Easter to revel in all the liturgical details, and make plans for the spring!

Friday, March 19, 2021

Lenten Book Club Week 4: Of papal audiences and sea voyages...

Hello everyone, and happy Friday! We're past the halfway point of Lent, and I can hardly believe it. It seems to be flying by this year! 

I worked quite steadily through Book 4 of our St. Catherine saga this week, and we're now 85% of the way through the book! This section was also pretty dense, lots of political doings and voyages between Italy and Avignon. I'm enjoying it, but definitely the intricacies of the historical context are eluding me a bit, so I'll sum up as best I can!

We have our dear, brave Catherine writing a lot of letters to the pope. She has become much more well respected throughout her community and amongst men in the Church. Some of the cardinals, though, are a bit mystified at how the pope seems to quite heavily consider and weigh Catherine's opinions.

There is a lengthy, and somewhat amusing scene, of negotiations between emissaries from Florence with the pope, and that does not go well, at ALL. Here I had to do a little online encyclopedia background research:

Eight of War (War of the Eight Saints) - a coalition of Italian city states led by Florence that objected to the expansion of the Papal States into territory Florence considered it's own. The Avignon popes insisted on this expansion as part of their conditions of return to Rome. This ultimately leads to the end of the Avignon Papacy (which lasted for 67 years!). Ends in 1378 with return of Gregory XI to Rome, but interestingly, his death soon thereafter spurs the infamous antipopes back in Avignon.

Interdict - This is imposed by the pope on Florence, and is a ban on ecclesiastical functions, so no mass for them!

Catherine ultimately travels to Avignon and goes to see the pope. There is some intrigue here involving a group of snooty ladies, one of whom is the pope's niece, who try to thwart Catherine and expose her as a "fraud" by stabbing her with a needle during one of her ecstasies 😱, but they are unsuccessful. During her papal audience, Catherine convinces him to return to Rome, which is HUGE. It is an arduous journey for them both, separately, back to Italy, and they both stop over in Genoa. The pope actually sneaks out at night dressed as a regular priest to see Catherine. He's worried about the rebels killing him, but is convinced by Catherine to press on, and the papacy officially returns to St. Peter's as we complete Book 4.

Wow. Even though I continue to struggle a bit to totally follow the political situation, I still grasped the larger point and significance of the major events, and am sooooo glad we chose to read this book this Lent! What did you all think? We finish up next Friday with Book 5!

Friday, March 12, 2021

Lenten Book Club Week 3: Trials of many kinds, including the dreaded Plague...

Happy Friday, everyone! Wow, Lent is really moving right along, isn't it? We're getting our first fish fry tonight, and I'm really looking forward to it. :) I'm also midway through my teaching commitments for the spring semester, and feeling quite relieved about that. Vaccination rates are ramping up nicely here, the sun is out more, and I'm generally feeling more hope for the future!

And so here with are in our third week with St. Catherine of Siena and our book club for Lent 2021! I have to admit that this part took me by surprise a bit in that it was the longest so far, so I didn't budget my time for it well at the outset. I literally just finished reading it prior to opening my laptop and starting this post, LOL! I also found this part a bit harder to follow with all of the political stuff ramping up, and I am *terrible* with names, so I was getting confused quite easily with the sheer volume of new names introduced in this section. I'm only finally remembering Fra Raymond and Fra Bartolomeo, her Dominican friar friends. But I digress, overall the content was just as interesting as it's been all along!

We start out with Catherine's trial before the Master General of the Dominican order over these accusations that Catherine has acted in an untoward manner with the townspeople of Siena. Catherine is patient and humble throughout the proceedings, and many priests come to her defense. I thought it was touching how she mentioned that of the two possible outcomes, neither was a bad one: she will either be totally exonerated, or she will be found guilty, and if so, it must be the Will of God, thus how could that ever be a bad thing? In the end, she is fully acquitted!

Back in Siena, the plague has struck, and I have to admit, given the current global pandemic, this brought on a fresh set of chills. Lots of Catherine's family fall prey, including many of her nieces and nephews, which is heartbreaking. Catherine is unafraid and right out there in the field, aiding the sick and dying in their last moments. We have some quite dramatic things occur here in which Catherine is a part of God's plan to heal two priests who contract the plague. The entire experience softens the heart of Catherine's mother, now a widow, and she joins the Mantellates. So sweet! We also have Maria Gambacorti, the young daughter of a very important man in Siena, entering the Dominicans as a postulant, a real boon in the religious life here!

The next major part addresses Catherine visiting the cell of a condemned man awaiting his death sentence to try and save his soul. This scene goes on for a lot longer than I expected, and I have to say that I found it very had to read. The man is young, and Catherine takes an immediate shine to him as a brother. It's quite touching, and ultimately he repents and receives confession and the Eucharist, and Catherine is there for him every step of the way at his request, including at the execution site. I was in tears by the end, thinking of my own son, given this man's age. This was so, so tough, but very moving.

And finally, in the last part of Book 3, I was struggling a bit to understand fully who was who and what was going on. From what I could tell, Florence and other nearby cities are beginning to rebel politically, wanting a new government, and are also aligning against the pope. Catherine wants to visit some troops who have encamped near Florence, whose leader is this well known successful, but extremely brutal guy, to try and convince them to fight for the side of the Church, but she is denied permission by the archbishop. So she sends her two Dominican priest friends instead, and this part is quite endearing and humorous with their talk amongst themselves of their presumed upcoming martyrdom. When the leader reads Catherine's letter, he is swayed to her side. This is good (ish?) news, but then Siena also decides to align with the rebels.

At the very end of this section, the new list of cardinals comes out, and includes only 1 Italian, the rest are all French save for a single Spaniard. Catherine then decides to write to the pope in Avignon.

OK, so I have peppered my summary with my main commentary on my overall feelings regarding this section. I found it very poignant, some real pearls of wisdom in here about faith, that I know will stick with me long after I finish this book. At the same time, I found other parts a little harder to move through and easily keep track of what was happening. What were your thoughts? I would love to hear them in the comments!

My Kindle tells me I'm about 65% of the way through the book, and I know Book 5 is somewhat shorter than the others. Thus, I'm expecting Book 4 to be comparable in length to Book 3 and will plan accordingly. ;-)

Friday, March 5, 2021

Lenten Book Club Week 2 - Shenanigans and hospital corners...


Hello all and happy Friday! I hope you are all doing well this second week of Lent. I'm hanging in pretty well. The weather is still quite cold in my part of the world, but the sun is out a whole lot more, and we're seeing a lot more daylight in the evenings now, increasing all of our levels of Vitamin D, which is really important these days. My teaching has started up, and I have 4 of my regular weekly sessions (6 to go) behind me, which feels good. I still have those 2 crazy weeks ahead of me where I'm teaching like 25 Zoom classes 😂, but I feel better prepared for them this semester, so that's a plus. We're really getting there!

This week once again, I raced right through Book 2 of our time with St. Catherine of Siena, and I am so in love with this style of Catholic historical fiction based on the life of a saint. It has me thinking all sorts of fun thoughts for a Summer Book Club, so be prepared to chat about that over Easter. ;-)

When we last left off with Catherine, she felt called to move away the home monastery model of living in her bedroom within her parents' house as if it were a cell, coming out only to worship with the other Mantellates. Instead, she is now working in the hospital, caring for critically ill patients in dire need of TLC. She does return home to be at the deathbed of her father, whose time in purgatory is taken on by Catherine, and she rejoices when he is called to our Lord, and she has the solace of knowing that he is in heaven. 

Catherine is also now encountering members of the local community who are not exactly living their lives in accordance with their faith. We have amusing and endearing anecdotes in this section of a curmudgeonly falconer who has developed a scathing hatred of the Church and the priesthood, that after an encounter with Catherine goes to the parish church to apologize, receive the sacrament of Reconciliation, and gift the priests with his favorite falcon. A local Franciscan who was living a bit too richly off-handedly asks Catherine to pray for him, and suddenly has a revelation that he is not living out his vocation in a way that is pleasing to God, and consequently donates all of his lovely possessions to the poor. There is also a town ladies man having an affair with a married woman who repents and goes to confession, and highly learned British hermit (with a bit of a superiority complex) that Catherine puts in his place. She's discreet, but not exactly shy, our Catherine. 

But her obvious sanctity and calling out of others on their bad behavior ruffles some feathers, to be sure, especially the married woman who has now been cast aside by her former beau. As well, while many of her sister Mantellates adore her, there are some that have not been won over. The rising tide of the gossip mill within their town causes the Prioress to advise Catherine that she is going to be brought before the Master General to face allegations that her time with various townspeople has had a scandalous element to it.

What did you all think of this part?! I really felt for Catherine being on the receiving end of others' jealousy and insecurity. I really admire her spunky personality, and her commitment to her faith. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!