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BOOK REVIEW: Speaking with Authority—Catherine of Siena and the Voices of Women Today

Speaking with Authority—Catherine of Siena and the Voices of Women Today
by Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP (foreword by Suzanne Noffke, OP) Paulist Press, New York / Mahwah, NJ, 137 pages, 2008, $15.95.

Reviewed by Carl B. Trutter, OP (St. Martin)

The wonderful stream of media productions on our Dominican sister, St. Catherine of  Siena, continues.  In 2008 Thomas McDermott, O.P., published Catherine of Siena—Spiritual Development  in her Life and Teaching; (cf. Dominican Life / USA, Dec. 2008).  At about the same time, our Mission San José Sisters produced the DVD entitled Catherine of Siena—Woman of the Church / Woman for the World

And the third recent work in English is Speaking with Authority by Mary Catherine Hilkert, Ph.D., currently professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.

In the introduction, Dr. Hilkert states that Catherine “fits no clear stereotype and her work fits no clear category of the ’vocation of women’.”   She goes on to say “as we ponder what it means for women in our own day to speak with the authority of the Spirit…the witness and words of our fourteenth-century sister can offer insight and challenge.”

The first chapter describes the authority of her woman’s vocation to become a “public preacher, papal advisor and negotiator, and recognized spiritual counselor” so long ago in the 14th century.

The next section describes how she was able to speak the truth with love—flowing from the authority of her wisdom.  This wisdom led her to make courageous statements, even directly to Pope Gregory XVI, that if he didn’t intend to use his power and strength, it would be better for “the good of your soul to resign.”  Because of her ability to speak the truth with love, with the authority of wisdom, that she was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970.

In “The Authority of Compassion” (the third chapter), Dr. Hilkert helps us “see how women’s speech about God today remains fundamentally tied to the authority of compassion.”  She brings Catherine’s witness to bear upon women’s lives in the contemporary world, lifting up the 1980 martyrdom of the four Church women in El Salvador and Oscar Romero’s statement before his own martyrdom that “I don’t believe in death without resurrection.”

In the final pages we read “Women today can indeed take hope and courage from Catherine of Siena, who embraced a mission that was not of her making, nor even within her imagination.”  “Her memory remains a source of power and hope, of energy and challenge, for women, for men, and for the church.”

For many years I had difficulty appreciating Catherine’s spirituality, because writers seemed to emphasize aspects of her life which seemed quite bizarre to us in the 21st century.  I truly appreciate this present work, Speaking with Authority, because it relates Catherine to life in the Church today (especially the role of women).  As women today continue to become more public in the Church, it is certainly inspiring to realize that this is not an entirely new phenomenon, but a path with a tradition reaching back to the days of our St. Catherine of Siena.

This book challenges today’s women and men to continue exploring the rights and the role of women in the Christian community to speak the truth with love, with wisdom and with compassion.

Since the time of St Dominic, more than 800 years ago, Dominicans have been living and sharing the message of the Gospel. Today thousands of sisters, nuns, priests, brothers, associates, and laity serve in more than 100 countries around the globe.
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