Catherine the Great of Siena

Saint Catherine of Siena, born in 1347, and who died on this day in 1380, was in no uncertain terms a remarkable woman.  She was the 22nd child of Lapa, the daughter of a local poet, and Giacomo di Benincasa – a cloth dyer; Catherine, who developed into a healthy child, had a twin, Giovanna, who died soon after birth. The Benincasas ended up with 25 (!!) children – this was well before the controversy over contraception, when children, large families and ‘multiplying’ were seen as a ‘great blessing’. Alas, half of Catherine’s siblings died in infancy, and many more across Europe in the Black Death that was soon to come.

Catherine showed signs of her uniqueness at an early age, eschewing the normal activities of young people, not least any interest in romance and marriage.  Interiorly, at the tender age of seven, as recounted by her contemporary biographer, as well as her spiritual director, the Dominican priest Raymond of Capua (since beatified), she dedicated herself to Christ in a vision as his ‘bride’, and never looked back.  As she advised ‘build a castle within your mind, from which you can never flee‘.

Her inner locutions with Christ continued throughout her relatively brief life, culminating  with

As a teenager, her parents insisted marry she marry her sister’s widower, but Catherine refused, praying and fasting, even cutting off her long hair. Her father relented, recognizing the will of God, and Catherine became a Dominican tertiary, still a laywoman, but living a life more rigorous than most religious, first in secluded prayer, then, at the command of Christ, in active good works. Spiritual, intelligent, charismatic, her followers were soon many, and she influenced the troubled Church of the 14th century more than most of the high-ranking churchmen of her age. If we think the Church troubled now, try the era of what has come to be known as the ‘Great Western Schism’, with the Pope living in the scandalous court in Avignon in southern France. Technically, this was papal territory, but put the Pope under the effective control of the King of France, and led eventually to what is known as the ‘Great Western Schism’, with three rival claimants to the papacy.

Catherine was an early example of speaking truth to authority, sparing no pains nor ‘standing on ceremony’ in urging the Holy Father, Gregory XI, that he must return the papacy to Rome, replete with dire threats she heard from God if he refused.  Catherine showed that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with ‘criticising’ the our pastors, Pope and bishops included, so long as it is done respectfully, with charity, good will and a healthy dose of prayer, as the current Code of Canon Law states, quoted the Catechism:

In accord with the knowledge, competence, and preeminence which they possess, [lay people] have the right and even at times a duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church, and they have a right to make their opinion known to the other Christian faithful, with due regard to the integrity of faith and morals and reverence toward their pastors, and with consideration for the common good and the dignity of persons. (CCC, #907; CIC, 212, #3).

Moved by her urging, the Pope did return to the Eternal City, the centre of Christendom, which began the process of regaining his authority and healing the schism, completed at the Council of Constance in 1415.

Saint Catherine was one of the greatest of mystics in the history of the Church, and her revelations, the Dialogue on Divine Providence, (from a woman who could neither read nor write), dictated in 1377-38 not long before her death, is a masterpiece of spiritual and theological insight. Her letters are a model of beauty and intelligence, as well as masterpieces of early Tuscan.

Catherine’s life, as are the lives of all God’s saints, brief in its Christ-like 33-year span, is too full for a brief article, and I would highly recommend the classic and unsurpassed biography by Sigrid Undstet. Our Church could use more than a few more Catherines of Siena, steeped in prayer, chaste, pure, humble, obedient to Christ and His Church in the deepest sense.

Right away, hailed as a saint, Catherine was canonized in 1461, and eventually declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Saint Paul VI in 1970, along with Theresa of Avila, just after the Second Vatican Council, the first women to receive this honour, which only 36 saints hold.

She is a powerful example and intercessor for women, as well as men, throughout the ages.

Saint Catherine of Siena, ora pro nobis!