In 1347, on the Feast of the Annunciation, Saint Catherine was born in Siena, Italy. Along with her twin sister who died at birth, they were the youngest of twenty-five children born to Giacomo Benincasa, and his wife, Lapa. Catherine was described as a very holy young girl who was always happy. At the age of six years old, she had a profound mystical experience. It was through this experience that she would consecrate herself as a virgin to God and which also defined her vocation.
As she was entering her pre-teen years, her family desired her to dress more like a woman. To appease her mother and one of her sisters, for some time, Catherine became interested in fashion, but in the end, had no desire to live the life her family sought for her. Her family pushed her to find a husband and to get married, but Catherine decided as a child that her love and virginity would always be for Jesus Christ. Not following her families wishes, she was often punished all day long and was never permitted to have any leisure time. After years of enduring such displeasure from her family, at the age of eighteen, Catherine was given permission by her father to receive the Dominican habit and she became a Third Order Dominican.
The night before Ash Wednesday in 1366, Catherine was praying in her room when she had vision of Our Lord Jesus accompanied by the Blessed Virgin Mary and a host of angels. During the vision, Our Lady took Catherine’s hand and placed a ring on it. This ring, which was only seen by Catherine, symbolized the spiritual betrothal she so desired with Jesus Christ. The ring also gave her great strength and courage to overcome assaults by the Devil. As she began to grow in courage, a group of disciples began to develop around her, they were her Fellowship or Family, and each called her ‘Mamma.’
Because of the many wonderful things happening in Catherine’s life, she was summoned to Florence to appear before the Dominicans General Chapter. The opinions of Catherine varied from person to person. Although charges her brought against her, in the end, they were quickly removed and proven false. The Dominicans appointed her a confessor, Blessed Raymund of Capua, who oversaw her spiritual life. The two would become good friends and he would at some point be listed as one of her followers as well as her biographer.
As she continued to mature in age, she became known as a woman filled with God’s grace, was known to be very holy, and had a delicate yet strong touch when it came to healing the wounds of those feuding. She became known as a great mediator between parties who were at odds with one another. Her mediation skills were so great that she was able to unite the many groups of Christianity and through the assistance of Pope Gregory XI, ask that another crusade be sent to Jerusalem to fight the Turks.
In 1375, one of her most striking mystical appearances would occur in the city of Pisa, Italy. While gazing upon a crucifix in St. Christina’s church, just after receiving Holy Communion, she was in meditation when five rays of blood came forth from the crucifix. They pierced her hands, feet and heart. The pain was so great that she cried out. Known as the Stigmata of Christ, the wounds Jesus received on the cross at Calvary – would be with her till the day she died. Although no one but Catherine could see them, in her death, they were very visible.
While still residing in Pisa, she received word that the people of Florence and Perugia formed an army to stand against the Holy See and the French Papal diplomats, who had now been residing in Avignon, France. After much mediation between the Italian cities, Catherine eventually traveled to Avignon to assist there, but Pope Gregory sent an army to Florence placing the city under siege. Realizing that they were in trouble, the town of Florence asked Catherine to be their mediator between the Pope and the city. Although she tried her best to calm the situation at hand, the Pope and his ambassadors ignored Catherine’s terms of peace. In the end, nothing could be done.
Although Catherine’s initial purpose of traveling to Avignon was a failure, she is credited as the one who told Pope Gregory XI that his place as Holy and Supreme Pontiff was not in Avignon, but in Rome, where the Chair of St. Peter was first established. At this time in history, the Avignon Papacy or ‘captivity’ where the Popes were absent from Rome had lasted for seventy years. Not only was the Pope French but the entire curia was French as well. Most Christians outside of France deplored this situation. Many of the great saints of the time spoke against it with vigor. It was difficult time in the history of the papacy.
At the request of St. Catherine through a series of letters, although he was opposed by many of his fellow French Cardinals, Pope Gregory XI hastily decided to bring the Papacy back to Rome on September 13, 1376. When they met face-to-face, Catherine told the Pope to remain true to the vow he made to return to Rome.
Once she returned to Siena, Catherine continued to write letters to the Pope asking for him to bring peace to Italy. Although peace did not calm quickly and her life was often threatened with the sword, at the request of the Pope, Catherine went to Florence to offer the Pope’s terms. Peace would come eventually but not under the reign of Pope Gregory XI.
After returning to Siena from Pisa, St. Catherine focused her life on prayer and study. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Catherine wrote her magnificent work of mystical theology, the Dialogue, which was written in four treatises.
The Avignon ‘captivity’ was a great scourge on the Catholic Church, but no one had a clue what was to come next. At the death of Pope Gregory XI in 1378, two years after the Papacy returned to Rome, the Church found herself divided into two camps. Pope Urban VI was elected to precede Gregory XI, but certain cardinals in Avignon elected their own Pope to rival Urban VI. Thus began the forty years of the “antipopes” known as the Great Western Schism.
Catherine feverishly prayed and wrote many letters to European churchmen asking them to show allegiance and obedience to the rightful leader of the Catholic Church, Urban VI. She also wrote to Urban himself telling him to embrace the trials that he was asked to endure. After enduring all he could, St. Catherine was asked to assist and mediate the situation in Rome by the Holy Father himself. Obediently she moved to Rome and continued to assist the dire ordeal, however, her health began to decline.
In 1380, she had a strange seizure where she saw the church as a ship crushing her body to the earth. From this moment on, she would never recover. On April 21, 1380, St. Catherine endured a stroke that paralyzed her body from the waist down. Eight days later, at the age of thirty-three years old, Saint Catherine of Siena entered Heavenly Glory.
In 1461, Pope Pius II canonized her a Saint of the universal Church. Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Church in 1970. Her feast day is April 29. She is the Patroness of Fire Prevention.
This blog post on Saint Catherine of Siena is dedicated to the Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Hoever, Rev. Hugo. Lives of the Saints. Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1989.
Walsh, Michael. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.