The legend of St. Catherine of Alexandria is unsupported by solid historical authority. Devotion to her began in the West about the Eleventh Century and was widely spread by the Crusaders. We have still much to learn about the personality of St. Catherine, but although the particulars of her life are uncertain, God has been pleased to glorify his saint on Mount Sinai, where her tomb is still venerated by pilgrims. St. Gertrude, who from childhood had had a great devotion to St. Catherine, once asked of Our Lord to be allowed to see the heavenly glory of her patron. Her prayer was heard, and she beheld the virgin of Alexandria on a golden throne surrounded by the sages whom she had led to a knowledge of the faith, and who formed her brightest crown in Heaven.
A virgin and martyr whose feast is celebrated in the Latin Church and in the various Oriental churches on November 25, and who for almost six centuries was the object of a very popular devotion. Of noble birth and learned in the sciences, when only eighteen years old, Catherine presented herself to the Emperor Maximinus who was violently persecuting the Christians, upbraided him for his cruelty and endeavoured to prove how iniquitous was the worship of false gods. Astounded at the young girl’s audacity, but incompetent to vie with her in point of learning the tyrant detained her in his palace and summoned numerous scholars whom he commanded to use all their skill in specious reasoning that thereby Catherine might be led to apostatize. But she emerged from the debate victorious. Several of her adversaries, conquered by her eloquence, declared themselves Christians and were at once put to death. Furious at being baffled, Maximinus had Catherine scourged and then imprisoned.
Meanwhile the empress, eager to see so extraordinary a young woman, went with Porphyry, the head of the troops, to visit her in her dungeon, when they in turn yielded to Catherine’s exhortations, believed, were baptized, and immediately won the martyr’s crown. Soon afterwards the saint, who far from forsaking her Faith, effected so many conversions, was condemned to die on the wheel, but, at her touch, this instrument of torture was miraculously destroyed. The emperor, enraged beyond control, then had her beheaded and angels carried her body to Mount Sinai where later a church and monastery were built in her honor.
So far the Acts of St. Catherine. Unfortunately we have not these acts in their original form, but transformed and distorted by fantastic and diffuse descriptions which are entirely due to the imagination of the narrators who cared less to state authentic facts than to charm their readers by recitals of the marvellous. The importance attached throughout the Middle Ages to the legend of this martyr accounts for the eagerness and care with which in modern times the ancient Greek, Latin and Arabic texts containing it have been perused and studied, and concerning which critics have long since expressed their opinion, one which, in all likelihood, they will never have to retract. Several centuries ago when devotion to the saints was stimulated by the reading of extraordinary hagiographical narrations, the historical value of which no one was qualified to question, St. Catherine was invested by Catholic peoples with a halo of charming poetry and miraculous power.
Ranked with St. Margaret and St. Barbara as one of the fourteen most helpful saints in Heaven, she was unceasingly praised by preachers and sung by poets. It is a well-known fact that Bossuet dedicated to her one of his most beautiful panegyrics and that Adam of Saint-Victor wrote a magnificent poem in her honor: “Vox Sonora nostri chori”, etc. In many places her feast was celebrated with the utmost solemnity, servile work being suppressed and the devotions being attended by great numbers of people. In several dioceses of France it was observed as a Holy Day of obligation up to the beginning of the seventeenth century, the splendour of its ceremonial eclipsing that of the feasts of some of the Apostles. Numberless chapels were placed under her patronage and her statue was found in nearly all churches, representing her according to medieval iconography with a wheel, her instrument of torture.
Whilst, owing to several circumstances in his life, St. Nicholas of Myra, was considered the patron of young bachelors and students, St. Catherine became the patroness of young maidens and female students. Looked upon as the holiest and most illustrious of the virgins of Christ, it was but natural that she, of all others, should be worthy to watch over the virgins of the cloister and the young women of the world.
The spiked wheel having become emblematic of the saint, wheelwrights and mechanics placed themselves under her patronage. Finally, as according to tradition, she not only remained a virgin by governing her passions and conquered her executioners by wearying their patience, but triumphed in science by closing the mouths of sophists, her intercession was implored by theologians, apologists, pulpit orators, and philosophers. Before studying, writing, or preaching, they besought her to illumine their minds, guide their pens, and impart eloquence to their words. This devotion to St. Catherine which assumed such vast proportions in Europe after the Crusades, received additional eclat in France in the beginning of the fifteenth century, when it was rumoured that she had appeared to St. Joan of Arc and, together with St. Margaret, had been divinely appointed Joan’s adviser.
Although contemporary hagiographers look upon the authenticity of the various texts containing the legend of St. Catherine as more than doubtful, it is not therefore meant to cast even the shadow of a doubt around the existence of the saint. But the conclusion reached when these texts have been carefully studied is that, if the principal facts forming the outline are to be accepted as true, the multitude of details by which these facts are almost obscured, most of the wonderful narratives with which they are embellished, and the long discourses that are put into the mouth of St. Catherine, are to be rejected as inventions, pure and simple.
An example will illustrate. Although all these texts mention the miraculous translations of the saint’s body to Mount Sinai, the itineraries of the ancient pilgrims who visited Sinai do not contain the slightest allusion to it. Even in the eighteenth century Dom Deforis, the Benedictine who prepared an edition of Bossuet’s works, declared the tradition followed by this orator in his panegyric on the saint, to be in a great measure false, and it was just at this time that the feast of St. Catherine disappeared from the Breviary of Paris. Since then devotion to the virgin of Alexandria has lost all its former popularity.
INTROIT Psalm 118. 95, 96
I spoke of Thy testimonies before kings, and I was not ashamed : I meditated also on Thy commandments, which I loved. (Ps. 118: 1) Blessed are the undefiled in the way: who walk in the law of the Lord. V.: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.
O God, Who didst give the law to Moses on the summit of Mt. Sinai and by means of Thy holy angels didst miraculously place there the body of blessed Catherine, Thy virgin and martyr, grant we beseech Thee, that, by her merits and intercession, we may be able to come unto the mountain which is Christ.Who with Thee livest and reignest, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, Forever and ever. R.Amen.
Com. Octave of St Edmund
O God, whose mercy is beyond all telling, and who didst give the blessed King Edmund strength to overcome his enemy by dying for Thy sake, in Thy loving kindness grant that by his intercession we, Thy servants, may have grace to conquer and extinguish in ourselves the promptings of our ancient foe. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who with Thee liveth and reigneth in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. R. Amen
EPISTLE Wisdom 51: 1-12
Lesson from the Book of Wisdom. I will give glory to Thee, O Lord my king, and I will praise Thee, O God my Saviour. I will give glory to Thy name: for Thou hast been a helper and protector to me, and hast preserved my body from destruction, from the snare of an unjust tongue, and from the lips of them that forge lies; and in the sight of them that stood by, Thou hast been my helper; and Thou hast delivered me, according to the multitude of the mercy of Thy name, from them that did roar, prepared to devour. Out of the hands of them that sought my life, and from the gates of afflictions which compassed me about from the oppression of the flame which surrounded me, and in the midst of the fire I was not burnt; from the depth of the belly of hell, and from an unclean tongue, and from lying words, from an unjust king, and from a slanderous tongue; My soul shall praise the Lord even to death: because Thou, O Lord, our God, deliverest them that wait for Thee, and savest them out of the hands of the nations.
GRADUAL/ALLELUIA Psalm 44: 8
Thou hast loved justice, and hated iniquity. V. Therefore, God, thy God, hath anointed thee with the oil of gladness. Alleluia, alleluia. V. (Ps. 44: 15, 16) After her shall virgins be brought to the King, her neighbors shall be brought to thee with gladness. Alleluia.
GOSPEL Matthew 25: 1-13
At that time, Jesus spoke to His disciples this parable: ‘The kingdom of Heaven shall be like to ten virgins, who taking their lamps went out to meet the bridegroom and the bride. And five of them were foolish, and five wise; but the five foolish having taken their lamps, did not take oil with them: but the wise took oil in their vessels with the lamps. And the bridegroom tarrying, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made; Behold the bridegroom cometh, go ye forth to meet him. Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise: Give us of your oil, for our lamps are gone out. The wise answered, saying: Lest perhaps there be not enough for us and for you, go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. Now, whilst they went to buy, the bridegroom came: and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage, and the door was shut. But at last came also the other virgins, saying: Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answering said: Amen I say to you, I know you not. Watch ye therefore, because you know not the day nor the hour.’
OFFERTORY ANTIPHON Ps. 44: 15, 16
After her shall virgins be brought to the King: her neighbors shall be brought to Thee with gladness and rejoicing: they shall be brought into the temple of the King, the Lord.
Graciously receive, O Lord, the gifts which we offer on the solemnity of Thy virgin and martyr, Catharine by whose patronage we trust to be delivered from all evil. Jesus Christ Thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God Forever and ever. R.Amen.
Com. Oct. St Edmund
Look graciously, we pray Thee, almighty God, upon this redeeming sacrifice, and at the intercession of Thy blessed martyr King Edmund, accept it as a peace-offering on behalf of Thy servants here. Through our Lord Jesus Christ Thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God Forever and ever.
PREFACE of the Common
It is truly meet and just, right and for our salvation, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God, through Christ our Lord. Through whom the Angels praise Thy Majesty, the Dominations worship it, the Powers stand in awe. The heavens and the heavenly hosts together with the blessed Seraphim in triumphant chorus unite to celebrate it. Together with them, we entreat Thee, that Thou mayest bid our voices also to be admitted, while we say in lowly praise:
COMMUNION ANTIPHON Psalm 118: 78, 80
Let the proud be ashamed, because they have done unjustly towards me: but I will be employed in Thy commandments and in Thy justifications, that I may not be confounded.
May the mysteries we have received, help us, O Lord, and, by the intercession of blessed Catharine, Thy virgin and martyr, may they cause us to rejoice in everlasting protection. Through the Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God
For ever and ever. R. Amen.
Com. Oct. St Edmund
May the tribute of our homage be pleasing to Thee, almighty God; and, at the intercession of Thy blessed martyr King Edmund, may this sacrament which we have taken help us to lay hold of the rewards of everlasting life. Through the Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God For ever and ever. R. Amen