St Catherine of Siena
1347 - 1380 AD
|1347(March 25) birth
1378 She wrote Dialogue of Divine Providence
1380 (April 29) death
1492 Dialogue published in print for the first time
1970 Doctor of the Church
1999 Patroness of Europe
When Catherine was 16 years old she became a Dominican tertiary. She was involved in an active apostolate, but was also a mystic who received the stigmata in 1371.
In 1376 she traveled to Avignon and persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. After writing her Dialogues, she died in 1380.
Catherine of Siena, the Conscience of a Church-in-crisis
by Theresia Saers
When their 25th child was born to wool-dyer Jacopo Benincasa and his wife Lapa, no one could have expected that the infant was going to play a prophetic role. Nor could anyone have thought that she would be honoured in later centuries as a Doctor of the Church and Patron Saint of Europe. Born in 1347 in the city of Siena Catherine did not even learn to write properly. However, this was never to be a problem, since her education lay elsewhere and was due to a life of constant and deep prayer. When the call came for her to write down what she was seeing and hearing in her extasies, there were often three official secretaries taking turns, because her high dictation speed was way beyond the capacities of any writer.
The age in which Catherine was living was marked by many catastrophies. Our own world is not exactly without life-threatening disasters for millions of people, nevertheless it is probably beyond our imagination how people in her days, especially the poor and disadvantaged, were a prey to terrible circumstances. The Black Death made tens of thousands of victims and the Benincasa family lost a number of sons and daughters. In a later epidemic the bubonic plague led to the death of seven of Catherine’s nephews and nieces, whom she buried with her own hands. For decades Europe also experienced warfare with the inevitable results of pillaging and arson, with rape, treason and blackmail, famine and bitter poverty that went hand in hand with the sickening pomp and splendour of local authorities and Princes of the Church, a Church-in-crisis. The Popes had long had their residence in Avignon and had lost all authority over cardinals and over many bishops. Nepotism was rife. The poor of many cities and villages, in fact of large regions, were at the mercy of arbitrary authorities and mercenary armies. They needed champions to take up their case. They needed prophets.
Saint Catherine could be characterised in her early youth as a girl of exceptional devoutness. From a very young age she was moved by the love of God and, strong-willed and disciplined, she led a life of mortification in her small room as if in a hermit’s cell. In later years she would advise others not to indulge overmuch in those practices. At 23 she felt a call to give up this hermit’s life and from that day she lived in what she liked to describe as ‘the cell of selfknowledge’, the realisation of being a grain of dust facing its Creator. By that time she already had an exceptional source of strength deep down in herself, and her education from then on was completed when she moved among people and came close to their sufferings. Her dedication to the poor and the sick, in a word to all that found themselves in whatever need, provided her with a very clear view of the world in which she lived. It made her realise how cruel were the political forces and how the behaviour of the Church that had been instructed differently by Christ, was one of the determining factors of the ills of her society.
Catherine took up arms, not so much against the political order as against the politicians, essentially Christians who terribly misbehaved. She addressed kings and emperors, popes, cardinals, bishops, city authorities and all the rulers of the world, whom she judged responsible for the sorry state of the world. There is no way of calling Catherine progressive, for instance she appeared not to sense that the papacy was in need of drastic reform. She did, however, point out to the popes that they needed great changes in the way they behaved. She visited very unlikely places, among them what we would nowadays call Death Row. We know from at least one individual the great comfort she radiated, when she accompanied a young man who had been condemned to death, all the way to the gallows. The young man let go of all fear as Catherine knelt beside the block to receive his head in her hands.
Over 360 of her letters have come down to us, proof of how greatly they had been appreciated by the addressees, even when they contained serious reprimands concerning their actions. Catherine’s letters were always very clear in their remonstrations, but at the same time so full of love and humility were the actual words that her correspondents hardly ever turned into enemies.
Our contemporaries must find it hard to imagine how Catherine managed the travels of her ‘public life’ that took her to Avignon and the court of the Pope. The journey from Florence to Avignon with the Mantellates, a kind of Dominican Third Order to which she belonged and to whose members she became a spiritual leader, took two months. They would travel on foot, on donkeys, in carriages. They had to take up qaurters and would use the occasion to give religious instruction and nurse the sick. The women took turns in the household duties. The scene is reminiscent of the group of women around Jesus of Nazareth. In this case, the central figure of the group was Catherine of Siena.
Although many people think that it was Caterina who made the popes move their courts from Avignon to Rome, N.G.M. van Doornik, to whom I am indebted for most of what is in this article, provides evidence that this is not so. The popes had themselves felt for some time that it would be the best thing to do. Catherine gave the plan a final push. [Cf. Een vrouw die niet zweeg in de kerk, Caterina van Siena by N.G.M. van Doornik, Nijmegen 1980]
Catherine’s love encompassed all the world, all humans, friend and foe, Christian and non-Christian. And when she feels called upon to preach a crusade, she encourages kings and noblemen not to kill the enemy but to be prepared to lay down their own lives for the salvation of the opponent. She herself was not at all afraid to die. Soldiers out to get her were met by Catherine the way Jesus approached those that came to lead him away in the Garden of Gethsemane: “If you are looking to take me prisoner, here I am, but let my people go unharmed.”
Beside her letters, we owe to Catherine the mystical work of Dialogue of Divine Providence, a classic, whic was a must in many a library, even of those that were not very religious. Her own mother, who survived her to die only in het ninetieth year, came only rather late to understand what great mystic she had brought into the world.
What can our contemporaries learn from Catherine? She gives encouragement to all those women married or single, in or outside convents, who are forever feeding the hungry, give drink to those that thirst, clothe the poor, nurse the sick, welcome and help asylum seekers, bury the dead and never leave off denouncing social or Church evils. She encourages us, too, to delve into our own hearts for the strength to grow in love and persevere in service.
St. Catherine felt a vocation to the priesthood, as is clear from two passages from Raymund of Capuas biography of her: The Life of St Catherine of Siena, ed. Harvill Press, London 1960. Raymund had been Catherines spiritual director.
Part One. Chapter 5, pp. 34-35
"Having made her vow of virginity, the holy maid grew holier every day. The little disciple of Christ began to fight against the flesh before the flesh had begun to rebel. She determined to give up eating meat, as far as she could, at least, and when she was obliged to sit down at table she usually either passed any meat on to her brother Stefano or threw it to the cats on the sly. As regards the discipline she practised upon herself, either alone or with the other children of her own age, she now endeavoured to increase its severity; and, believe it or not, she began to glow with a zeal for souls and with a specially strong love for saints who had laboured for the salvation of their fellow-men.
About this time it was revealed to her by the Lord that holy Father Dominic had formed the Order of Preaching Friars out of a zeal for the Faith and the salvation of souls, and she suddenly developed such a high idea of this Order that whenever she saw any of the Preaching Friars going past the house she would watch where they put their feet and then as soon as they had gone by go and kiss their footprints in a spirit of great humility and devotion. Hence arose within her an unquenchable longing to become a member of the Order and to join in the work of helping souls.
Then, remembering that she was a woman, she many times (as she confessed to me) thought of imitating St. Euphrosyne, whose name she had been given, who had gone into a monastery dressed in mens clothing, so that she could go into distant parts where no one knew her, pretending to be a man, and so enter the Order of Preaching Friars and help towards the salvation of souls. But Almighty God had infused this zeal into her soul for other ends and intended to satisfy her desire in quite a different way, and He did not will that this scheme, which she had in mind for a long time, should ever be put into practice.
Meanwhile the holy maiden was growing up in body and especially in spirit. Her humility was strong, her devotion was increasing, her faith was growing more enlightened, hope was strengthening, charity becoming increasingly ardent, and with all these virtues her wisdom was plain to all eyes. Her parents were full of amazement, and her brothers full of admiration; at home they would all look at each other in wonder at finding so much wisdom in so young a child.
In confirmation of this I will repeat something solemnly told me by her mother.
Round about this time, when Catherine was between seven and ten, Lapa wanted to have a Mass said in honour of St. Anthony; so she called her daughter and said, Go to the parish church and ask the priest to say a Mass in honour of St. Anthony, or get some other priest to say one, and leave the offering of so many candles and this money on the altar. When she heard this, the young girl, always delighted to do anything to honour God, went running off to the church as fast as she could go, found the priest, did what her mother had told her to do, and was so delighted with any celebration of Mass that she stayed in the church until it was all over.
Meanwhile Lapa, who had wanted her to return home as soon as she had left the offering, had begun to worry, and she no sooner set eyes on the girl than she started scolding her, saying, as was thecustom in those parts, Cursed be the chatterers who said you would never come back! (This is a way some people have of describing people who are a long time turning up.) When she heard her mother say this the wise little maiden was silent for a while, then, taking her aside, she said, humbly, Lady mother, when I dont do what you tell me to do, or go too far, beat me as much as you like so that next time I shall take more care, because this is meet and just; but I beg you not to let my failings make your tongue run away with you and make you start cursing the neighbours, whoever they may be, because this doesnt suit anyone of your age and it causes me very great pain.
Her mother was rather taken aback by this sage reproof from her little daughter and for a while she hardly knew how to answer, seeing such great wisdom in such a tiny person, but, determined not to show her real feelings, she simply said, Why have you been so long? Because I stayed to hear the Mass you had told me you wanted said, Catherine replied; as soon as it was over I came straight home.
Her mother was even more highly edified by this, and when Giacomo came in she told him all about it in great detail, saying, That daughter of yours said this to me, and this. And her father, giving thanks to God in his heart, pondered on what had happened.
From this little incident, unimportant as it is amongst so many others, you can see, reader, how the grace of God went on increasing in the holy virgin during her marriageable years, of which the next chapter is to speak.
And here I stop. The facts I have described in this chapter I learned for the most part from Catherine herself; the rest I got from her mother and others who were at home with her at the time."
Part Two, Chapter 1, pp. 108-109.
[The Lord exhorted Catherine to live a less eremetical life:]
And Catherine, somewhat comforted by this reply, would say, as once Blessed Mary had said, How shall this thing be?
And the Lord said: According as my goodness shall ordain.
And Catherine, like a good disciple imitating her Master, would answer: Let your will, not mine, be done in all things, Lord, for I am darkness and you are light; I am not, whereas you are He who is; I most ignorant, and you the wisdom of God the Father. But I beg you, O Lordif it is not too presumptuous of mehow can what you have just said come about; that is to say, how can I, wretched and frail as I am, be of use to souls? My sex, as you know, is against it in many ways, both because it is not highly considered by men, and also because it is not good, for decencys sake, for woman to mix with men.
To these words the Lord would reply, as once the Archangel Gabriel had replied, that nothing is impossible to God, for He said:
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