Without a formal education, or a governing position in the Church, Saint Catherine of Siena accomplished great things for God by her great faith and love for Him, being receptive to the gifts He gave her, and living only for Him, and not for herself.
Catherine Benincasa was born in Siena, Italy on March 25, 1347, the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children of Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa. Only thirteen of her siblings lived to be adults. Catherine was very devout as a young child and at age six, experienced her first vision of Jesus, which increased her piety. She made a vow of virginity at age seven, but did not tell her parents about it at the time. When Catherine was twelve, her parents began to make plans to find her a suitable husband, and her mother and an older sister encouraged her to focus more on her appearance. She later felt guilty that she had submitted to her mother and sister’s wishes and after her sister’s death, she renounced all worldliness, and told her parents that she would never marry. Her family, angry at her refusal to marry, made her share a room with a sibling, treated her as a servant, and kept her busy with housework until evening. She performed the hard work without complaining, and stayed close to God in prayer while she worked. Although she could no longer spend time alone in her room praying, she realized she could make a room, a cell, in her heart, for God and remain close to Him there. This was a practice she did all her life and recommended to others. Her spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua, wrote in his biography of Catherine that she often told him, “Build yourself a cell within your heart, and never put a foot outside it.” Throughout her life, in the midst of work, or while surrounded by many people, she lived continuously recollected in God.
After having a dream in which Saint Dominic invited her to join the Third Order Dominicans, Catherine told her parents of her vow of virginity. Her father respected her vocation and she was allowed to have her own room again and devote herself to prayer. At age sixteen, Catherine became a member of the Sisters of Penitence, the Third Order Dominicans in Siena, also known as the Mantellate because of the black cape they wore. The community included women who were married and widows; they all lived in their own homes but prayed together. For the next three years, Catherine stayed in her room, prayed and did penance, and did not speak to anyone unless it was necessary; she only left her room to attend Mass. During this time, Catherine began to have the mystical experiences which continued throughout her life. Catherine was given many mystical experiences, including frequent visions of Jesus, mystical marriage in which Jesus placed a beautiful ring on her finger which only she could see, being in ecstasy every time she received Holy Communion, and receiving the stigmata, which she felt, but was not visible until after her death
Catherine finally left her room after Jesus told her to join her family at dinner, talk to them, return to an active life and work for the salvation of souls. Catherine began a new life, still spending many hours in prayer, but also giving food and clothing to the poor, doing housework for her family, and taking care of patients in hospitals. Catherine was completely available at all times for service to God and her neighbor. She was especially committed to taking care of people that others did not want to look after, such as patients with cancer and leprosy. Not every sick person appreciated her help. Some were unkind and even told lies about her, but Catherine continued to care for them with kindness and forgave them. Despite being frequently in poor health, God always gave Catherine the strength to care for the needs of other people. In 1374, Catherine assisted the victims of the Plague, without fear of becoming ill herself.
Although Catherine did not have biological children, she was a spiritual mother to many men and women. She was a spiritual mother to popes, priests, religious, and laity; to people her own age, people who were younger, and people who were much older; to leaders in society, the poor, the sick, and her own family members. She practiced spiritual motherhood by her prayers, her service, and her words–encouraging people to repent and live as faithful Catholics.
Catherine’s reputation for holiness drew many people to her; some followed her as their spiritual leader and they became a community. Her relationship to them was that of a mother and the members of her community called her “Mamma.” While still very young, Catherine became renowned for her saintliness and many people wanted her to advise them in their spiritual life. Through her example and her spiritual guidance, she helped bring about many conversions. The Pope appointed even three priests to accompany Catherine in order to hear the confessions of the numerous people who were inspired to confess their sins after seeing her or hearing her speak. In his biography, Blessed Raymond wrote: “But if I were to keep on like this recounting the marvelous deeds which the Lord wrought through Catherine, only a whole series of large volumes would contain them all: all the sinners converted, all the good or well-disposed people helped to new and greater perfection, all the sick in spirit made well, all the sad and grief-stricken comforted, all the endangered souls rescued.”
The adulation of so many people and her extraordinary mystical experiences could have tempted Catherine to pride, but she always remained very humble and aware of her own sinfulness. In one of her early visions, Jesus told her, “Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth, and the Enemy can never lead you astray; you will never be caught in any snare of his, nor ever transgress any commandment of mine; you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fullness of grace, and truth, and light.” This message from Jesus gave Catherine a great awareness of her own limitations as a human being. She knew it was only by God’s grace that she was given spiritual gifts and mystical experiences. She was always conscious of her own imperfections, and advised people not to judge others or feel superior. “Whenever you think God has shown you other people’s faults, take care: your own judgment may well be at fault. Say nothing. And if you do attribute any vice to another person, immediately and humbly look for it in yourself also. Should the other person really possess that vice, he will correct himself so much the better when he sees how gently you understand him, and he will say to himself whatever you would have told him.”
Catherine had a great love for Jesus and true agape love for other people. She greatly desired people’s salvation and would pray intensely and sacrifice for anyone who needed conversion as well as for her spiritual children. Catherine was very committed to praying for the sanctification and the salvation of priests. She also encouraged priests to live holy lives in her letters and in her conversations with them. In her last letter to Blessed Raymond, written shortly before she died, she gave him the following advice: “You will be able to have the actual cell little; but I wish you to have the cell of the heart always, and always carry it with you. For as you know, while we are locked therein enemies can do us no wrong. Then every act you shall do will be guided and ordered of God. Also, I beg you that you ripen your heart with holy and true prudence; and that your life be an example to worldly men by your never conforming to the world’s customs. May that generosity toward the poor and that voluntary poverty which you have always practised, be renewed and refreshed in you with true and perfect humility. Do not slacken in these, for any dignity or exaltation that God may give you, but descend more deep into that Valley of Humility, rejoicing in the table of the Cross. There receive the food of souls: embracing the Mother, humble, faithful, and continual prayer, and holy vigil: celebrating every day, unless for some special reason. Flee idle and light talking, and be and show yourself mature in your speech and in every way.”
One of Catherine’s great achievements for the Church was in persuading the Pope, Gregory XI to return to Rome. The Popes had been living in Avignon, France since 1305.
She wrote to him before meeting him, asking him to be courageous, to appoint good bishops and rulers, to work for peace, to move to Rome, and for a crusade to liberate the Holy land. She wrote with affection and respect for the office of the papacy, while strongly advising him to be a great leader for the Church. In one of her letters to Pope Gregory, she wrote, “I will, then, that you be so true and good a shepherd that if you had a hundred thousand lives you would be ready to give them all for the honour of God and the salvation of His creatures. O “Babbo” mine, sweet Christ on earth, follow that sweet Gregory (the Great)! For all will be possible to you as to him; for he was not of other flesh than you; and that God is now who was then: we lack nothing save virtue, and hunger for the salvation of souls.”… I wish and pray in truth that the moment of time which remains be dealt with manfully, following Christ, whose vicar you are, like a strong man. And fear not, father, for anything that may result from those tempestuous winds that are now beating against you, those decaying members which have rebelled against you. Fear not; for divine aid is near. Have a care for spiritual things alone, for good shepherds, good rulers, in your cities–since on account of bad shepherds and rulers you have encountered rebellion. Give us, then, a remedy; and comfort you in Christ Jesus, and fear not. Press on, and fulfil with true zeal and holy what you have begun with a holy resolve, concerning your return, and the holy and sweet crusade.” he Pope accepted her advice because of her holiness; he realized Catherine’s wisdom came from God. Before the Pope’s return to Rome, Florence and its allies began a war against the Holy See; the Pope then placed Florence under an interdict. Catherine intervened, asking the leaders in Florence for an end to the war, and then at the request of government officials, she traveled to Avignon to meet with the Pope. Her efforts to bring about peace were unsuccessful, but Pope Gregory XI agreed to return to Rome, and in September 1376, three months after meeting with Catherine, he began his journey. Catherine continued to work for peace, even risking her life to do so. In March 1378, Pope Gregory XI died, and Urban VI became the next Pope. The war with Florence ended in July 1378. Unfortunately, a schism developed in the Church when a group of French cardinals rejected Pope Urban’s papacy and elected another man as Pope. Catherine then wrote letters to encourage the real Pope and to ask for support for him from Church and government leaders. Pope Urban came to depend on Catherine and asked her to go to Rome to be one of his advisors. She went, and remained there for the rest of her life. She died, after great suffering, on April 29, 1380. Catherine was canonized as a saint in 1461. Pope Paul VI named her a Doctor of the Church in 1970.
Saint Catherine’s teachings are found in her 382 letters, her prayers, and in her book, The Dialogues, which she dictated in 1378 while in ecstasy. It is her account of private revelations given to her by Jesus.
According to her biographers, Catherine imposed extreme, harsh physical penances on herself, but we are not meant to imitate her in this way. Instead, we can emulate her dedication to prayer, her faithfulness to Jesus and His Church, her love for Jesus in the Eucharist, her humility, her charity to the poor and the sick, her concern for the salvation of souls, and her efforts to bring about peace.