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Mary Catherine Hilkert, O.P. Foreword by Suzanne Noffke, O.P.,
Paulist Press, 2008

Some years ago, on a big foundation anniversary of Dominican sisters in Kentucky, I was invited to share the speakers’ platform with Sr. Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP and Sr. Suzanne Noffke, OP. I was very much acquainted with their formidable theological and historical scholarship and felt somewhat “mere” in their company, even as enjoyable and informative as it was! Now, my Dominican brother, Jude Siciliano, OP, the author of this website thrown me back on the speaker’s platform in the very “mere” position of reviewing a work in which both these women are featured. The book is a revision of an earlier publication of Hilkert’s 2001 Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana. Noffke supplies the foreword in which she says: “Hilkert’s approach…is not confrontational.. Like Catherine herself, she is very obviously a love of the church, loyal in the truest sense. Yet, like Catherine, she is acutely aware of that church’s shortcomings and is fearlessly and frankly, but constructively critical - “unflinching in her passion for the truth,” as she writes of Catherine, “but equally convinced that genuine truth can be spoken only with love.” Hilkert succeeds in doing that wonderfully in this book.

The book (lecture) is divided into three major parts with an introduction (worth alone reading) which outlines the areas in which women’s voices today are able to find inspiration from the life of Catherine of Siena “to speak the truth in love:” the Authority of Vocation, the Authority of Wisdom: Speaking the Truth in Love, and the Authority of Compassion. This is no work of pious hagiography. Hilkert is not blind to Catherine’s deficits in her writings, preaching and extreme asceticism, nor is she blind to the some of the same deficits in the church not just in the 14th century but the 21st century as well. There is plenty to challenge in both cases. But Catherine’s achievements, which make her a major figure in 14th century church and political history, still stand forward. She has been proclaimed a Doctor of the Church and her life, outlined in the first part, testifies to courage, wisdom and compassion on many levels.

The Authority of Vocation speaks to Catherine’s preaching on many different levels, whether in her letters, her mystical DIALOGUE or direct speaking to religious and political authorities of her day. It is her very baptismal vocation to speak and make her voice heard. The Authority of Wisdom: Speaking the Truth in Love speaks to what the Holy Spirit says through the voices of women of wisdom and discernment. Catherine was not afraid to “call a spade a spade” but she did it always with a view to loving and calling the church and its leaders to fidelity to their own vocation. The Authority of Compassion speaks to Catherine’s exhortation to “embrace the cross” of suffering, not just of women but on all levels. Catherine’s images of blood and darkness are vivid and challenging to modern sensitivities but can lead to identifying those forms of suffering that afflict us and the church in our own day. (I recall my own reaction when seeing Fra Angelico’s fresco of St. Dominic embracing the foot of the cross with Jesus’ own blood falling on him.)

This book can appeal to so many levels of interest from one who is seeking an introduction to Catherine’s life and achievements to one who is seeking a re-acquaintance or re-assessment of her life. I can only hope that this review will lead to a reading and discernment, especially of the multiple roles of women in the church that are yet unrecognized. The Vatican has just announced a forthcoming document on the subject. I can only hope it does justice to the subject in as wonderful a manner as Mary Catherine Hilkert, OP has done.

—by R.B. Williams, OP

Book Review Archive

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