On Thursday we remembered Catherine of Siena. She died young, only 33, but she made such an impact on the Church by her writing and that she was one of the first women to be made a Doctor of the Church. In the 2pm SLT service we heard her story and used some of her prayers as part of the liturgy. The readings were Psalm 19:1-11, Proverbs 8:1, 6-11, John 17:12-end. Learn more about Catherine below.
Catherine was born at Siena on 25th March 1347. She was the 25th child in a family of 26, half of whom died young. She was one of premature twins, her twin sister dying while still an infant being cared for by a wet nurse. Catherine was cared for by her mother. At the time of her birth, the black death was rife in Siena. Her father was Giacomo di Benincasa, a clothdyer, and her mother, Lapa Piagenti, was a poet’s daughter.
Catherine saw visions from a very early age and spent a long time in prayer. At the age of five or six, Jesus appeared to her and blessed her. By the age of seven she had vowed chastity. This was common among young girls but was normally only kept until they were of an age to be married, at around 12 years old. Unlike most other girls of her age, Catherine began to live a very austere life. Most girls were interested in wearing make-up and generally beautifying themselves. Catherine took no interest in this until convinced that it was not a sin by her elder sister Bonaventura.
Bonaventura died in childbirth and Catherine blamed herself for taking care of her looks and taking an interest in earthly pleasures. She believed that as a result God had taken her favourite sister from her. Within a year, her youngest sister had also died. Catherine’s parents wanted her to marry Bonaventura’s widower. This man had not been considerate of Bonaventura, who had brought about a change in his manners by refusing to eat. Catherine decided to do the same to protest about being given in marriage to him. She was subject to threats and even violence by her brothers and parents in an attempt to sway her but she retreated to a ‘cell in her mind’. She had her hair cut off and was required to do menial tasks in the household. Catherine decided to see Jesus in the members of her family and to serve them to the best of her ability. Eventually this behaviour changed the mind of her parents, first of her father and later of her mother.
At the age of 16 she was allowed to become a member of the Third Order of St Dominic. This involved living at home but belonging to a community of women, until that time all widows. She lived for the first three years in a small room in her parents’ house, remaining silent. She had previously worn a hair shirt but changed this for a chain which dug into her hips, which she wore for the rest of her life. Her bed was a wooden bench and her pillow was a stone. This was a time of being in the desert like the anchorites. She lived on only the Blessed Sacrament for months at a time and often went without sleep.
During these first three years, Catherine had many visions. One was a vision of the Infant Jesus who gave her a wedding ring to wear. Only she could see the ring, which she continued to wear for the rest of her life. She called this her mystical marriage. After this she began to serve Christ by caring for the sick and poor. Despite the serious way she lived her faith, Catherine was remembered by her friends as a person with lively black eyes and a wonderful sense of humour. She demonstrated love to everyone she met. She was calm, wise and charming. She had practical wisdom to share as well as spiritual insights. This attracted many people to her as disciples, both men and women, but the local clergy were against her and even some members of the Dominican order.
In 1370 Catherine had several visions which ended in an extended trance. During this she saw Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. She heard a command from God which told her to get involved in the public life of the world. She began to take an interest in the political life of Italy, writing to the princes of the various republics in Italy, working to overcome the damage caused by civil war. She was consulted by papal legates about the state of the Church and worked to overcome religious factions in her country.
In 1374 Catherine was called to Florence by the Dominican Order which had heard of her gathering of disciples and was concerned that she was teaching heresy. She was cleared of this charge and began to travel to many places in the north and centre of Italy with her followers. Through her letters and advice when she visited him in 1376 she managed to persuade the pope, St Gregory XI, to return to Rome from Avignon in January 1377. She worked also to persuade him to reform the clergy and to call for a crusade to Jerusalem. Her purity of life convinced many of the corrupt clergy to change their ways and some even became her disciples.
During her travels, on the fourth Sunday of Lent in 1375, when she was in Pisa, she received the Stigmata. She prayed that the marks would not show during her lifetime as she did not want to draw attention to herself. This request was granted, with the marks only showing once she had died.
Catherine died in Rome on 29th April 1380. She was 33 years old. There is some suggestion that as Jesus died at this age and Mary Magdalene, her idol, Catherine’s death was suicide from lack of food. She had eaten less and less as time had gone on until, even when persuaded to try, she vomited although she received Holy Communion virtually daily. Her confessor and biographer, Raymond of Capua suggested she stopped drinking and this caused her death.
Miracles began to happen by Catherine’s grave soon after her death. Her body was moved into the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and is still there. Her head was separated from her body and eventually smuggled to Siena where it still remains. Her body was found to be incorrupt in 1430.
In 1461 Pope Pius II canonised Catherine. On 5th May 1940 Pope Pius XII named her as joint Patron Saint of Italy with Francis of Assisi. Although said to be uneducated, Catherine’s letters and her work called The Dialogue are considered to be some of the greatest spiritual writing in the Catholic Church. As a result of this, in 1970 she, along with Saint Teresa of Avila, was named as a Doctor of the Church. These two women were the first to be accorded this honour. Pope John Paul II named her as one of Europe’s patron saints in 1999.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor