Ursuline – Blog

Saint Catherine of Alexandria – Ursuline foundation day

Feast day: November 25th

Ursuline Foundation day: November 25th, 1535

The influence of St. Catherine can be found in many spheres of life. The annual St. Catherine’s Day Hat Parade takes place on the 25th of November in New Orleans. The parade followed an earlier French tradition in which young unmarried women of 25 years, known as Catherinettes, wore handmade hats using the colours of yellow and green – the former represented faith and the latter wisdom, and would  “cap” St. Catherine’s statue in the hope of getting a husband.  Besides being patron saint of milliners, St. Catherine  was also patron saint of philosophers, educators, navigators, wheelwrights, young women, to mention a few of the many occupations that she  was invoked  and prayed to as patron saint.

St. Catherine’s fame was not confined to various trades and occupations. November the 25th heralded the beginning of winter in Estonia. Her name is  found in places as far apart as Santa Catarina state in Brazil, the Santa Catalina Mountains in Arizona to the Catharina crater on the moon. She is also well known by the Catherine wheel fireworks, which captures the spiked wheel of her martyrdom. St. Catherine Colleges in Oxford and Cambridge bear the spiked wheels on their crests. Many churches from the grandeur of Se Cathedral in India to the modern church in Nairobi, Kenya are dedicated to her. Ireland is pockmarked with holy wells, churches, stain glass windows and tomb effigies of St Catherine. By far the most impressive site dedicated to her is the 6th century Monastery of St. Catherine, at the foot of Mount Horeb (Sinai) where her bones are enshrined in a marble coffin. An icon depicting six scenes of her life can also be seen there.  Scenes from her life can be visited as well in the Chapel dedicated to her in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome painted by Masolino da Panicale .

The story of St. Catherine captured the imagination of many of the artists of the middle Ages, since she was the most painted saint of that time.  The most famous of these artists would be Caravaggio, Raphael, Hans Memling to mention but a few. The latter with many others, painted The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine to The Christ Child. For Ursulines, Romanino’s depiction of The Mystic Marriage painted in 1536 and exhibited in the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, gives us a glimpse of what Angela would have looked like, prior to her death. St. Angela expresses her sense of mystical marriage succinctly, “You have Jesus Christ as your one and only treasure”. (5th Counsel)

St. Catherine was interwoven in St. Angela’s life before choosing her feast- day as the foundation day for her Company. Angela’s mother was called Catherine, she would have heard her story in The Golden Legend  read to her by her father and it was on St. Catherine Day that she arrived back safely from her perilous journey from the Holy Land.

So, what do we know about St. Catherine?

According to The Golden Legend, her father was King Costas of Egypt. She was born in the 4th century and received her education in the great schools of Alexandria, famous for their learning. According to the booklet published in the monastery of Sinai (where I had the privilege to visit) “A Syrian monk taught her about Jesus Christ, the bridegroom of the soul and converted her to Christianity; she was baptised Catherine.” (p.13) One story tells us that after her baptism she had a dream in which she was praying in front of an icon of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus.  The child offers her a ring as sign of espousal promising that she would be his bride for all time.

A persecution of the Christians followed under Maximinus. Catherine outwitted him in her arguments, much to his chagrin. He gathered fifty philosophers to continue the debate and she not only converts them to Christianity, by her faith, erudition and persuasive words, but gave them the courage to suffer martyrdom, through being burned by fire, by order of Maximinus. The Sinai booklet tells us that “Under torture she succeeded in converting members of the Emperor’s family and of the Roman aristocracy to Christianity…After Catherine’s execution her body vanished….About three centuries later, guided by a dream, a monk of the Monastery …found her body, brought it down from the mountain and placed it in a golden casket in the Church”. (p.13)

Echoes of Catherine’s life are found in St. Angela’s prayer; “My Lord…give me the grace to die rather than offend your Divine majesty …willingly I would shed my blood (if I could) in order to open up the blindness of…minds”. She ends the chapter on Virginity with these words, “Furthermore, let each one be willing to be ready to die sooner than ever consent to stain and profane such a sacred jewel”. Like Catherine, Angela used persuasive words right through her writings, words that build up and encourage, such as exhort, recommend, endeavour, strive, persevere, embrace, urge and learn. Perhaps her attitude to learning is best summed up by her words in the second counsel, “You will gain more by showing affection and kindness than by harshness and sharp reproofs”.  

We can appreciate the deep link between Catherine and Angela and why the latter choose the 25th of November, Catherine’s feast- day to gather 28 women in the room in St. Afra’s to sign their names to the book of the Company, the beginnings of the Company of St. Ursula.

Let us pray with Angela in evoking St. Catherine for her protection and care.

Moya OSU


Have you ever looked at the word LISTEN…really looked and taken notice?

The same letters moved around create the word SILENT…

I wonder is there something in this?!?  A message for each of us…

In order to listen we have to be silent.  Listening is more than just hearing the words of the other person in a conversation. Listening requires time – effort – energy – openness to the other – a willingness to participate in the encounter and above all patience.  Only when we employ all of these attributes are we really listening to the other – only when we engage fully with the other are we open to being surprised…changed…transformed by their words and thoughts spoken aloud to us.

Ask yourself…HOW do I listen?

Do I listen to respond or do I listen to understand?

Often we listen with the intention of responding.  This means when the other is speaking I am not listening fully…listening deeply with all my attention. Rather I am busy in my head formulating a response to their thoughts.  To listen requires silence…it is in the silence that I can then formulate my reply to the other. It means I am listening to understand. It means I have paid attention to their words…their thoughts…their expression and their body language as they are speaking.  My response to them then is fuller…it is a response that may ask questions…seek greater clarity…before I offer my own thoughts.

Listening is never easy…sometimes it is easier to “play deaf”. Listening means paying attention, wanting to understand. It means I value and respect the speaker and want to ponder their words.  Listening involves sacrificing something of myself to allow the other to take the centre.  In allowing them space…time…to say what they want/need to say to me I am respecting them as a person. Listening is more than just hearing, it is a movement of the heart – an openness to the encounter with the other. It is a dimension of love received and love given. 

Communication grows and develops when we notice how we listen…to whom we listen…to what do we listen.

It is a challenge to always notice how we listen…it takes time…it asks us to be aware of ourselves in each encounter of each day…

So let us not be afraid of the silence that allows to listen…

Sr Karen OSU

November…we remember…

November is not my favourite month. The landscape all around us is becoming bare and bereft of colour. The days are shortening, the temperature is dropping, the last leaves are falling, leaving the trees bare and stark.

So, it is only natural that our thoughts turn to those we have loved and who have completed their journey on this earth and have now entered God’s timelessness.

During November, the call is to remember them, give thanks for them, honour their memory and celebrate the many ways they have blessed our lives:

“Everyone loves to be remembered. But if we want to be remembered, it is fitting that we also remember. Memory is a powerful thing. Wrongly used it can bring death rather than life. Rightly used, it is a form of immortality. It keeps the past alive.

Those we remember never die; they continue to live and talk with us. Their influence is still felt among us. There is nothing stronger or more helpful than a good remembrance. We remember all who have died, and their memory brings life to us today.”

                                                                                                  Flor McCarthy

Having reflected on Flor McCarthy’s words, you might like to spend some time remembering your loved ones.

We are all journeying through life. That journey begins at birth. But death is not the end of the journey, but a Departure for our Heavenly Home where we will live forever in the visible presence of God, as the Kerry mystic John Moriarty said:

“Death is not the end, the adventure has just begun.”

And Rabindranath Tagore reminds us that:

“Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because the dawn has come.”

St. Paul wrote:

“No eye has seen nor ear heard the great things God has prepared for those who love Him” (1 Cor. 2 : 9)

May our loved ones who have experienced their earthy journey experience those great things in abundance, especially as we remember them during these November days.

The leaves are falling, falling as from afar,

As though above were withering farthest gardens;

They fall with a denying attitude.

And night by night, down into solitude.

The heavy earth falls from every star.

We are all falling too –

All have this falling sickness none withstands.

And yet there’s One whose gently-holding hands

the universal falling can’t fall through.

Rainer Maria Rilke

B. O ‘S.

Saint Ursula

Ursula’s life is shrouded in legend; the facts we have about her are scant. However, we do know that she was strong and courageous woman – a woman for others, who had a deep understanding of the human person. She had the ability to relate to others, especially in times of crisis and turbulence. And of course, she was the woman Angela chose as patron of her Company.

What is the relevance of Ursula for us today? Well, her courage knew no bounds. She welcomed the challenge to move beyond the confines of her beloved Brittany and was ready to go wherever the Spirit led. She did not fear the unknown or the dangers ahead. She was open and willing to let go. Her inner attitude was her guiding star. What an inspiration for us at this time in our story as we embrace our vulnerability and welcome newness with hope and trust, supporting one another through our commitment to Angela’s charism and to our world.

The picture I have of Ursula is of a strong and energetic woman, who protected defenceless women from the marauding Huns who were spreading terror across Europe – a woman who united her companions so that they were of one heart and one mind. Could this be the inspiration for Angela’s Last Counsel?

“See how important is this unity and concord. So long for it, pursue it, hold onto it with all your strength.”

Ursula and her companions did!

Ursula’s faith sustained her to the end and she remained faithful to the Lord’s call no matter what the cost. What audacity and fearlessness!

So Ursula inspires us and encourages us to ask ourselves some important questions. Let us take time with her to deepen our awareness of the riches with which we are gifted and the challenges we face as we journey towards New Life.

Someone once said that Ursula started the first Women’s Movement in history!

B. O’ S.

Synodality…Gathering of the Peoples

We gather here today mirroring the gathering in St Peter’s Square in Rome, and gatherings across the world – to pray, to pray together for the synod, its members and its work…

To pray is not just to speak words to God, or even at God – making demands to suit my desires…to pray is firstly to listen to God…listening to the still voice in the silence of our hearts.

Prayer is a moment of grace…the spirit entering ever new into the minds and hearts of all who are willing and open to listen…to be moved…to be changed…to be transformed…

So today we invoke the Holy Spirit…asking to be guided where God wants us to be…at this time in history…

In our opening we gathered around the cross…and embraced the tent…we are invited to “enlarge the space of our tent”…

A tent offers us a place of meeting and gathering, a place that protects us from the weather, hot or cold, storm or sunshine…

it is a place where we can feel safe…

but it can also confine us, close us in, keep out others who may disturb or frighten us.

So the call of synodality is to enlarge the space of our church…to reach out…to go out…to invite in…to open the doors…open the windows…to enlarge our space…to embrace…to be open to new horizons…

The tent is the echo of our hearts…Pope Francis is inviting us to enlarge the space of our hearts…to make room for one another…to invite others to join us on this journey…

So as the synod opens in Rome this week…you may still be wondering…what has it got to do with me…other than to pray for those who are attending…

This synod is not just about what may or may not happen in Rome…it is about each one of us…it is a call to us to look at ourselves…at our parishes…our diocese…how are we becoming a synodal church here…today…

Synodality is about walking a journey together…with friends and with strangers…with those who think…pray…understand church as I do…and with those who don’t think and pray as I do.  This journey will not be easy…it will call us to deep listening to one another and to the Holy Spirit…to being open to be changed by the other and by the movement of the Spirit among us….

This time calls us to open our heart to ever wider horizons…

to not come with fixed ideas but to be open to hear and to move in new directions as a church…walking together and working together as God’s pilgrim people…

The Holy Spirit in his freedom knows no boundaries…puts in place no test for admission to the tent of the Church…

the Holy Spirit will not be caged up and kept in a safe place…

the Holy Spirit is moving freely throughout the world and will always make his voice heard, sometimes in the most extraordinary ways and through the most unlikely people. 

So if our parishes and diocese is to allow the Holy Spirit to move among us…

we need to keep the sides of our tent open to let everyone come in…

to be welcomed…to be free to participate…to ask their questions…and for us to allow their questions to become our questions…

this synodal journey we are making together with the whole church needs us and needs everyone to come, to share their wisdom, to offer their gifts into the space…and we all need to be prepared to be surprised by God…

The synod in Rome is not just about changing structures…or changing rules or giving instructions to us…

but at its heart it is each one of us widening the space of our thoughts…

our way of doing things in our parishes…

our way of understanding the Gospel…

to be open to the new…to the different…to the exciting journey that the Gospel calls us to make together…allowing ourselves to be changed by each encounter with the other

so let us from today open our hearts to our synodal church…and to remember as Pope Francis says to us “without prayer there is no synod”…without the Holy Spirit…there will not be synodality

(This reflection was given on Saturday 30th October, 2023 – Saint John’s Parish, Tralee at the Gathering of the Peoples – Praying for the Synod on Synodality)

Karen OSU