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St. Catherine of Siena: A Feisty Role for Sister Nancy Murray
By Barbara Beckwith
Brother Bill Murray may be the more famous actor, but his real-life sister Nancy Murray, O.P., gets rave reviews for her portrayal of a saint who spoke boldly to popes and princes.

Q U I C K S C A N

Catherine's Life of Highs and Lows
Catherine's Love for the Church
Nancy Murray's Call and Career
Passionate Soul Sisters
Catherine's Spirit Lives On
More About St. Catherine

 

Sister Nancy Murray as St. Catherine of Siena

Photo by Mark Bowen

WITH A HEARTY VOICE, AN over-the-top Italian accent and old-fashioned Dominican habit, Sister Nancy Murray, O.P., strides up the aisle from the back door into the Cincinnati church named for St. Catherine of Siena. She greets everyone with “Buon giorno!” and instantly draws her audience into Catherine’s life story. Dramatizing vignettes from Catherine’s life, Sister Nancy uses minimal props, but somehow in the magic of theater, she conjures a believable Catherine who understood that love of God is love of neighbor: “On two feet you must walk my way; on two wings you will fly to heaven.”

Sister Nancy’s one-woman, bravura performances enchant, inform and inspire adult parishioners and schoolchildren as part of the parish’s 100th-anniversary celebration last year. The Dominican sister has performed this play 280 times all over the world.

Catherine Benincasa’s life is both thoroughly medieval and surprisingly modern. She became the “Mamma” of a band of friends and disciples, including some saints in their own right, such as Blessed Raymond of Capua. She was a nurse, a mystic and one of the most influential women of her—or any other—time. Through her letters and visits, she advised princes and popes on social and political issues, and is credited with ending the Avignon “captivity” of the papacy in the 14th century.

Catherine’s story speaks to Sister Nancy’s audience. They throng around her for nearly half an hour after each performance. People might think of AIDS when Catherine is talking about her approach to patients suffering from Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) and bubonic plague (the Black Death). Parishioners connect the fractured Church and civil unrest of Catherine’s time to our own politicized Church and terrorized world. They see a strong woman, standing up to power, speaking out against injustice, in a time which did not appreciate forthright women.

At the end of the performances, Sister Nancy’s Catherine assures everyone that God is not blind and hears all prayers. “If you could only believe how much God loves you, you can change many things.” She received standing ovations.

Besides her impressive dramatic skills, Nancy uses her teaching and pastoral skills with her admirers. One learning-disabled young man who has attended the play with his mother is going to be part of the crowd in a passion play a week later and approaches Sister Nancy for advice. “Breathe deep,” she says, “before you say, ‘Free Barabbas.’ And say it strong.” And then she smiles.

I jumped at the chance to interview Nancy Murray. She’s part of a famous acting family. Her brothers include Bill Murray (Saturday Night Live, Groundhog Day, Ghostbusters, Scrooged, Rushmore, Lost in Translation, The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Broken Flowers, the voice of Garfield in the 3-D movie of the same name), Brian Doyle-Murray, John Murray and Joel Murray, with many credits to each of their names, too. Their brother Andy now runs the brothers’ restaurant in St. Augustine, Florida, named for Caddyshack (1980), the movie that four of the brothers, including Ed, worked on together.

Nancy is also a schoolmate of mine: She was a sophomore when I entered Regina Dominican High School in Wilmette, Illinois. (Her sisters, Peggy and Laura, also went there.) Nancy and I participated in Sodality activities together and shared a journalism class. I had not seen her since her graduation in 1965, but did know through the alumnae newsletter that, in 1966, she had joined the Adrian Dominican sisters, the congregation that sponsors our high school.

Catherine's Life of Highs and Lows

Sister Nancy was naturally attracted by the feisty Italian saint, one of the shining lights of the Dominican Order.

Catherine was canonized in 1461, a mere 81 years after she died. In 1939, as the Second World War was breaking out in Europe, she was named co-patron saint of Italy (with St. Francis of Assisi). And in 1970, at the start of the women’s liberation movement, she was declared a Doctor (exemplar and teacher) of the Church, one of the first women (with St. Teresa of Avila and later St. Thérèse of Lisieux) to be accorded that honor. Her feast is April 29 (formerly April 30).

Catherine was born on another feast day, the Annunciation (March 25) in 1347. She was the 24th of 25 children (her twin sister died at three months), born to Lapa di Puccio di Piacenti, the daughter of a poet, and Giacomo di Benincasa, a prosperous wool dyer. The year after she was born, the plague descended upon Tuscany and the region was plunged into a severe economic depression. Walled, hilltop cities like Siena endured constant military and political struggles during these years.

As a child, Catherine was merry, playful and joyous, and her good humor stayed with her throughout her life. At age six or seven she had a mystical experience. Over the Dominican church in Siena she saw a regally dressed Jesus sitting on a throne, together with Sts. Peter, Paul and John the Evangelist. Jesus had smiled upon her and held out his hand to bless her. She decided to vow herself to the service of God as a virgin, at a time when young women married to improve the financial or social status of their families.

She had to convince her parents that she did not want to marry (by cutting her golden brown hair) and endured their displeasure, which relegated her to servile duties within her family. Finally, her father allowed her a room at home for meditation and prayer. Here she began the austere fasting and ascetic practices that marked the rest of her life.

Catherine sought spiritual direction from the Dominican friars. She also endured long periods of feeling abandoned by God. She reportedly once prayed, “O Lord, where were you when my heart was so vexed with foul and hateful temptations?” A voice answered her, saying, “Daughter, I was in your heart, fortifying you by grace.” At the age of 20, while praying in her room, she saw herself being “mystically espoused” to Jesus, who gave her a ring only she could see.

After three years she was allowed to leave her family home and physically live with the Mantellate. These women (mostly widows) devoted themselves to charitable work among the poor in town and followed the Third Order Rule of St. Dominic. From age 21 until her death at 33, she nursed in the primitive hospitals, distributed alms to the poor and visited prisoners.

She attracted followers (Caterinati) and wrote copious letters to her spiritual “family.” Until the last three years of her life, she didn’t even know how to read or write, as was often the case for women in the 14th century. But she dictated hundreds of letters. Her letters grew to encompass popes and princes, priests and soldiers, religious men and women. More than 400 of her letters still exist.

At one point, however, Catherine was denounced as a fake and summoned to a General Chapter of Dominicans to answer charges of hypocrisy and presumption. All were disproved.

Like St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine received the stigmata (the wounds of Christ). While praying in front of a crucifix in a church in Pisa in 1375, she received these signs of her identification with Jesus’ suffering and fainted from the pain. The wounds of Christ remained invisible to others until after her death when all could see them.

In 1376 Catherine went to Avignon to make peace between the people of Florence and Pope Gregory XI, but failed. She did succeed, however, in ending the 74-year-long papacy in Avignon by convincing the pope to return to Rome.

Returning to Siena, she wrote her great spiritual classic The Dialogue, an account of her conversations with God. She calls God “first Gentle Truth” and the “essence of Charity,” a God in love with humanity. She regards Jesus as the bridge between heaven and earth, “a lifeboat to draw the soul out of the tempestuous sea to conduct her to the port of salvation.”

When a rival pope was set up in 1378, initiating the Great Schism, Catherine wrote letter after letter asking European princes to recognize Urban VI in Rome as pope. She also wrote Urban to bolster him in his trials. The pope eventually told her to come to Rome that he might have her advice close at hand.

But she died soon afterward of a stroke in Rome in 1380. She said she was offering herself to God as a victim for the pope and Church unity. The Great Schism did not end until 1415.

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Catherine's Love for the Church

In her religious formation, Sister Nancy Murray admits that she had studied more about Dominic, Thomas Aquinas and other Dominican saints than about Catherine of Siena. She began to wonder why Catherine was always referred to as “great Kate.” She wanted to know: “What drew people to her? How did she get to be strong enough to go talk to the pope?”

In the 1990s the Dominicans updated their foundational texts. In our interview Sister Nancy explained that previous accounts of Catherine’s life had centered on her penances and sufferings. But new translations, like those of Giuliana Cavallini, showed more of Catherine’s personality: “She was sassy. She was funny. She was courageous. She was feisty but lovable, direct but gentle. She knew the power of God’s love.”

Nancy shared her desire to present this view of Catherine with Sister Kathy Harkins, a fellow Dominican and drama teacher. Kathy had traveled to Italy to research Catherine’s life, and together they wrote a script which is the basis of Nancy’s performances. (The play is adapted somewhat to each audience.) Sister Kathy was invited to be part of an international Dominican panel on great preachers through the ages, but she died of cancer not long after working on the script and before the 2000 event. Nancy took Kathy’s place on the panel, and first performed the play at Sister Kathy’s funeral.

Nancy performs for parishes and schools, hospitals and nursing homes. She has taken the play to groups throughout the United States, as well as in Rome, Peru, Ecuador, Trinidad, the Philippines, Taiwan, East Timor and Santa Lucia in the Caribbean. Last summer she was part of World Youth Day in Germany, and this year from August through October she has engagements in Australia, New Zealand, the Solomon Islands and New Guinea. She can do the play in English or Spanish, and it is now her full-time ministry.

“Catherine’s voice is needed more than ever today. The Church is in a time of struggle. The flock has been scattered and people are confused and in doubt. God is purifying us in a way that calls us to new life,” suggests Sister Nancy. “She saw the power of God working all around her.”

Catherine lived during the end of the Middle Ages and beginning of the Renaissance. It was a time of change and uncertainty—like today. “As I’ve traveled around, I’ve seen that people are hungry for a voice of truth, like Catherine’s, something that makes their faith relevant.”

Catherine had her enemies and even survived assassination attempts. But she preached a message of peace and forgiveness. “I feel that she has a voice that says, ‘Don’t give up on the Church. Believe in it, its struggles and pain, and be a part of making a difference.’”

Catherine’s message is one of hope, especially for a Church in the wake of the sex-abuse scandals. “She would tell Catholics today, ‘Stand up; don’t be afraid.’ That’s what she said often. She would say we need to bridge evil with goodness and be part of the healing, draw from our own well of prayer, respond with compassion and be faithful to God’s word. We need to be signs of hope for each other.”

One of Catherine’s letters that resonates strongly with Nancy stresses the value of speaking out against injustice: ‘No more silence! Shout with a hundred thousand tongues! I am seeing the world going to ruin because people are not speaking out.”

Nancy Murray's Call and Career

Born in 1947, Nancy is the third oldest of nine children and grew up in Wilmette, Illinois. With so much creative talent around, she admits there was lots of healthy competition for the limelight in her family. Her brothers, especially, knew when to tease, she says, but influenced and affirmed each other. There were “stars and devils.” Being the oldest daughter in a large family sharpened her sense of the absurd, Nancy says.

She confesses she stole the Italian accent she uses for St. Catherine from an Italian family who lived up the street from them.

The Murray family is still very supportive of one another. They gathered to watch the Academy Awards the night Bill was up for his role in Lost in Translation (2003). He had already won a Golden Globe, but lost out on the Oscar. Nancy says, “The family had a great party, anyway.”

The Murray family saw Nancy’s performance as Catherine at St. Thomas Aquinas College in Sparkhill, New York. All of the family liked it, but Bill’s son, Cooper, who was six at the time, was critical, saying, “Even though you had those clothes and talked different, I always knew you were my Aunt Nancy.”

Directly after college, Nancy worked as a dental assistant and then for Rotary International. She had put her name in for the Peace Corps, but hadn’t heard from them. In the end she decided to join the Adrian Dominicans.

Her high school teachers, she says, impressed her because they were all such individuals. “I was really aware that each one had a different personality, even different handwriting on the board,” she says. She concluded that they did not come out from some cookie cutter. (I agreed, and we reminisced a bit about some of our favorite teachers.) Key phrases of the congregation these days are: “Seek truth. Make peace. Reverence life.” Nancy has served as the congregation’s director of vocations.

Her father, Edward, was a lumber salesman. Before opting for the married life, he had been in the seminary and had supported Nancy’s decision to enter the convent. When he died in 1967, a year after Nancy entered, she was devastated and didn’t know what to do. Her brother Joel was only five at the time. But her mother, Lucille, assured her that she could manage and would get a job, that Nancy should go back to the sisters at Adrian, Michigan. (Nancy’s mother died in 1988.)

Her brothers and sisters thought she would get kicked out of the Order because “I talked too much and silence was part of the strict rules in those days.” But she persevered, realizing “an important part of religious life was the call to love God and all of God’s people.”

At Barry University in Miami, Nancy was a drama major. She’s fond of saying that, of all her acting family, she’s the only one with a degree in theater. She later earned a master’s degree in pastoral studies from Loyola University in Chicago, and has taught there. (She was one of those briefly profiled in our May 1998 article, “Passionate Preaching,” because of her conviction that women preach all the time, even at the laundromat.)

For 13 years she was at our old high school, teaching drama, dance and theology, and being campus minister. Then Sister Nancy worked as a catechist and youth minister in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago, based at St. Sylvester Parish on Fullerton. She’s also been involved in jail ministry.

With kids, she learned, ‘If you don’t have their eyes, you don’t have their hearts.” Fluent in Spanish, she wrote some “raps” that the kids did. Snapping her fingers for the rhythm, she can still bark out her version of “The Lord Is My Shepherd” in mesmerizing, syncopated fashion.

Passionate Soul Sisters

Pulling off the old habit she wore for the role of Catherine, Nancy Murray says she can’t imagine how in her early days as a nun she coped with the binding wimple and the stiflingly hot material.

Nancy says that no one was more surprised than she was that she became a nun. But it was no surprise to those of us who knew her in high school. She was passionate, energetic, compassionate and enthusiastic, a sucker for the hard, unsung jobs, like library work and sacristan. She had the spark, the fire, the dramatic turns that drew others to her. She loved talking, teaching and caring for others. She may not always have had her blouse ironed and her homework may have often been eaten by the dog, as she points out (I never noticed), but her path was clearly set before her even then.

And she’s still the same passionate, energetic, compassionate and enthusiastic person I remember. That’s why this petite, blue-eyed woman can so easily re-create St. Catherine of Siena, her vision and passion. The Irish might call Nancy and Catherine soul-friends; they are definitely soul sisters.

For Sister Nancy Murray’s performance schedule, click on the Catherine of Siena icon on the “What’s Happening” page of www.adriansisters.org.

 

AT THE VOICE OF THE FAITHFUL (VOTF) convocation in Indianapolis last July, Justice Anne Burke received the organization’s first Catherine of Siena Distinguished Lay Person Award. An original member of the National Review Board appointed by Catholic bishops to coordinate their response to the sex-abuse scandals, Burke served as the board’s chairperson from 2002 to 2004.

“Anne Burke has provided a model of leadership for all lay Catholics to follow,” said James E. Post, VOTF president. “She courageously spoke the truth about clergy sex abuse to cardinals at the Vatican, U.S. bishops and to countless groups of lay Catholics across the country. We are so pleased to have this opportunity to recognize her tireless and inspirational effort to bring accountability and responsibility to the Catholic Church.”

In her acceptance speech, Justice Burke said: “...[K]now how humbled I am by the courtesy of your recognition and the extraordinary honor you show to me in bestowing this award named for that irascible Tuscan, Catherine of Siena. What a remarkable ideal she offers to each of us, even today. Her frank, unvarnished commitment to the truth was always an expression of a mystical faith and a savvy medieval sense of pragmatism. She is a powerful model for mature Christian living, one any Appellate Court jurist would do well to emulate. I am touched, sincerely, by your generosity and fortitude in bestowing this award. And I accept it warmly on behalf of myself and all my colleagues on the National Review Board [NRB].

“I must admit I take a certain personal delight in the character and holiness of Catherine. Her influence has been profoundly emotional for me.

“In December of 2003 and January of 2004, I traveled to Rome with Bill Burleigh and Bob Bennett to meet with curial cardinals for NRB investigation. None of us knew what to expect in those visits, as we had secured our invitations to the Holy See simply by faxing the cardinal prefects cold, because of the refusal of the papal nuncio in Washington to meet with us.

“We had booked ourselves into one of Rome’s great hotels, the Grand Palazzo Minerva, just yards from the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. As you may know, this is one of the few Gothic-designed churches in Rome, and the final resting place of the great Catherine of Siena herself. Before making our way to the curial offices of the cardinals, we galvanized ourselves with early Mass there, and a curious visit to the grave of Catherine beneath the main altar. Her tomb was energy-filled for us. As we knelt in prayer beneath the frescoes...her spirit did stir in us. I believed we were emboldened for our trek up to the Vatican Hill....

“We met three cardinals on our first visit—two courteous and welcoming, willing to dialogue with us; and one prickly, antagonized South American annoyed at the very presumption of our visit. He had little to say and appeared uninterested in the issue that brought us to Rome....In my own exasperation, I thought of Catherine and the reception she must have received at the papal court in Avignon.

“I thought again of Catherine on the second Roman visit in January 2004. We returned because the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith [Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger] had not been present in Rome during our first visit....

“The morning of our meeting, we rose early and crossed the Piazza to Santa Maria and the spirit of Catherine of Siena. Her presence was there—powerful, resourceful and inspiring....She helped us get our Irish up, so I knew she was in our corner.

“At the Curia...[when Cardinal Ratzinger entered the room,] his presence and posture, not to mention his electric blue eyes, drew everyone in the room together. He was engaging and direct; expressive and in a deeply listening posture. It was his meeting and he came with both ears open. He engaged us in assertive dialogue and had lots of questions of his own....We broadened his perspective and he reinforced ours. Not a bad day’s accomplishment. And of course, now that the prefect sits on the chair of Peter himself, as Benedict XVI, our visit now has an added patina of mystical presence to it. I think Catherine was working overtime with us shaping the perspective of Cardinal Ratzinger in regard to the issue of clerical sexual abuse....

“So you can see why Catherine has such an appeal for me. She and I have worked together. And as usual, there was a woman setting a pope, or at least a pope-to-be, straight. Now if we could only stretch that to a few more issues. But, as Catherine knew, it’s one step at a time....”


To learn more about St. Catherine of Siena, her life and times, her mysticism and accomplishments, check out the following:

Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue, translated and introduced by Suzanne Noffke, O.P., and Giuliana Cavallini (The Classics of Western Spirituality, Paulist Press).

Catherine of Siena: Passion for the Truth, Compassion for Humanity: Selected Spiritual Writings, edited, annotated and introduced by Mary O’Driscoll, O.P. (New City Press).

Catherine of Siena: To Purify the Church, by Catherine M. Meade (Alba House).

The Life of Catherine of Siena, by Raymond of Capua, translated by George Lamb (Tan Books).

The Letters of Catherine of Siena, volumes 1 and 2, translated under the auspices of the PARABLE Conference for Life and Ministry, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies in Tempe, Arizona (Cornell University Press Services).

A Retreat With Catherine of Siena: Living the Truth in Love, by Elizabeth A. Dreyer, Ph.D. (St. Anthony Messenger Press).

Saint Catherine of Siena, by Alice Curtayne (Tan Books).

Sermon in a Sentence: A Treasury of Quotations on the Spiritual Life: Volume 3: St. Catherine of Siena, selected and arranged by John P. McClernon (Ignatius Press).

Speaking With Authority: Catherine of Siena and the Voices of Women Today (Madeleva Lecture in Spirituality, 2001), by Mary Catherine Hilkert (Paulist Press).


Barbara Beckwith is the managing editor of this publication.


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