The Catholic Church honors the memory of many saints, especially martyrs. They are celebrated in Mass throughout the world including the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. A great many martyrs came from the first three centuries of the Christian era. Though it would seem the offerings of women in those early days were often ignored by the holy fathers, they were certainly known to the growing number of faithful. Some were written about, and some evolved into legends. Occasionally such a tale bears repeating because of their power and message, if not for its basis in truth.
Such is the story of St. Catherine, most notably appearing in The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine, written in the thirteenth century. Her story circulated in the early days of the church’s formation, but during the Crusades, she became an important icon of faith, is considered one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers
and was reportedly a voice heard by Joan of Arc.
Catherine was born in Alexandria, the daughter of Costus, the brother of Roman Emperor Constantine, and Sabinella, daughter of the king of Egypt. As a young child, Catherine was given a fabulous education and by the age of fifteen could converse with the foremost teachers and wisemen in the land about the philosophy of Plato and the Ancient Greek scholars. It was also at this time that, following the deaths of her grandfather, then her father, who had become king, she became the Queen of Egypt, although there is no indication that she ever assumed a throne. What she did do was continue to study despite the protests of the royal family, who preferred her to be married and not so talkative about things most people didn’t understand. The events of her life are not gathered in any one original form, but are retold in several tales.
An unnamed hermit living in the desert near Alexandria had an astonishing vision. The Blessed Mother appeared to the man and told him to carry a message to Catherine. He went to the palace and informed her that Jesus the Lord would come to her as a bridegroom.
As the young woman continued her education, uninterrupted by the hermit’s story, Maxentius became the emperor in Northern Africa including Alexandria. His persecution of Christians up until the time he was defeated by Constantine was atrocious. Catherine was disturbed by the noises of animals being sacrificed and the cheering laments of the crowd outside. She took her guard and ventured to the scene. Christians being threatened with torture and death were throwing off their Christianity, praying and making holocaust offerings to the pagan gods. She was outraged and took her case directly to the emperor.
Catherine debated Maxentius at the doors of the temple, telling him that she would gladly pay him due respect if he would acknowledge one God, rather than idols. She argued with him in a language and with an intelligence that seemed to escape Maxentius, so she spoke to him in simpler terms. The young woman informed him that she had made every rational point and that she believed he, being a man of intelligence, would see that idols and ornaments pass like dust in the wind, but the Creator of life remains. She told the Roman: he should spend more time wondering in awe about the amazing things of creation, such as the stars in the sky, the creatures in the sea, and why night and day disappear in the west and return unweary in the east day after day and will until the end of time.
It was obvious that the emperor could not keep up with her philosophy as it got deeper and deeper into her understanding of God. He asked that she wait for him at his residence until he finished sacrificing according to his beliefs. She did just that. When Maxentius returned, he told her that he admired her great learning and ability to declare it, but he had been too busy to understand or even listen to her before and wanted to begin again, asking her first about her family. Catherine told the emperor that she would not speak of herself, only that she was the daughter of King Costus and had been born a Roman citizen in Alexandria, adding that she was a devout follower of Jesus Christ.
In a sense, Catherine spent time teaching Maxentius. She told him that his worship of false gods would bring him no relief, as having faith in the real God would do. He argued that the whole world worshipped idols, and if she was right, they were all wrong. Further, there was no one to verify her beliefs, so why, he asked, would anyone believe her, just a young girl?
The sovereign invited the fifty best philosophical orators to the palace, and offered them great rewards if they were to convert the girl and bring her to worship the pagan gods. Catherine prayed and was visited by an angel, who assured her that she would convert the elder men instead.
She challenged them, asking what fairness it was that fifty of them be assembled to oppose one girl for big rewards, when she was offered nothing to defeat their claims. Her reward would be the Christ she defended before them. They argued that God could not come to earth and suffer like a man, but she reminded them that even Plato had predicted such a thing. In the end, one by one, they all came to believe in Jesus the Lord, and so informed Maxentius. In his anger he had the orators burned. Intending that Catherine see what he was doing, he kept her in their midst, and she became a great inspiration as they became Christian martyrs.
The emperor was smitten. He invited Catherine to live in the palace and be second only to his queen. She took the moral high ground and berated him for even suggesting such a thing. Having his advances rejected infuriated Maxentius even more and he determined that she should die in a unique way.
The man who was responsible for creating devices of torture approached the emperor with a new design. He offered a set of wheels with ‘iron saws and razor-sharp nails.’ The machine was designed to lower two wheels onto the victim while two more rose from below compressing and shredding the helpless sacrifice, sort of like a Waring blender. Such a thing would not only kill Catherine, but its horrible method would frighten all the Christians who might be thinking of holding out against the emperor. The future saint was not without resources as she continued her fervent prayer. The legend says that an angel of the Lord came and destroyed the machine before the girl could be dispatched, and it flew into so many pieces that it killed all 4,000 pagans who had been assembled to witness the event.
Maxentius’ queen saw what happened and verbally attacked her husband for even permitting such a horrid device. In response, he told her to sacrifice and worship to him, and she refused. The angry emperor ordered his advisor, Porphyrius, to take her away from the palace, where his men would cut off her breasts and then behead her. Along the way, the queen and the advisor were accompanied by Catherine, and both became servants of the Lord. After her execution, Porphyrius gave the queen’s body a Christian burial. Maxentius’ men reported that the body was gone, and a search began. Outraged when she was discovered buried, Maxentius questioned the advisor, who confessed at his feet, telling the ruler that he, too, was a Christian. The emperor summoned his imperial guard, and they advised him that they, too, had become Christians.
The Roman made one last plea for Catherine to come to her senses, sacrifice to the gods, and come to live with him in the palace. She refused, and was ordered beheaded. The girl prayed out loud as she was prepared for execution, and before the sword could be swung, a voice was heard in the sky, saying: Come, my beloved bride. See heaven’s gate open for you and all who celebrate your martyrdom. Your prayer is answered with heaven’s protection. Catherine was beheaded and milk flowed from her rather than blood. The legend ends when angels carried her body to Mt. Sinai, where she is believed to remain even today. The site has been considered as a place of blessed miracles. The term ‘Catherine Wheel,’ which is a pinwheel type of firework, is named for this saint, and she is the patron of philosophers and preachers.