“O Catherine, Sweet Catherine” is what I call this very powerful saint. She has captured my heart like no other. Born in 1347 in Siena, Italy she was the 25th of 26 children of Giacomo and Lapa di Benincasa. Many of her siblings—including her twin, Giovanna, died at a few months old. Her father was a dyer of cloth; his business was on the ground floor of his great big house with his family and employees living upstairs.
From age six, Catherine began to receive many mystical graces and made a vow of virginity to her Beloved Jesus at age twelve. When her older sister Bonaventura died in childbirth, the sixteen-year-old Catherine greatly upset her parents’ plans for her to marry Bonaventura’s widow by cutting off her hair and staging a massive fast. She had been sent by her parents to meet with a male cousin whom they greatly liked but, unbeknownst to her parents, he was sympathetic to Catherine’s desire to belong only to Jesus—it was he who urged her to cut off her hair as a sign of her love for Jesus for such an act would make her undesirable to male suitors in those days.
Catherine became a Tertiary of the Order of St. Dominic after having been denied twice and bears the initials of T.O.S.D. after her name. After a three-year self-imposed time spent almost entirely in her bedroom as a form of a “novitiate” (not her novitiate for the Dominicans but a private formation), she was sent out in the world by God to do good. She was known for her great devotion to caring for the sick — she was born during the time of the great plague in Europe; she would go into homes and hospitals and care for others that no-one else would. She would wash their hideous wounds and bandage them. When they died, Catherine would bury them with her own hands.
Catherine’s greatest gift, however, was in her ability to teach and preach the Faith and her love of the Eucharist. In Catherine’s day it was very unusual to receive the Eucharist on a daily basis — one really had to have permission in order to do so and most times it was denied. Catherine, however, received very many mystical graces in the Eucharist — so great was her profound love of Jesus in the Eucharist. Visions and ecstasies often lasting 3-4 hours took place at Communion…many priests later attested to it. In fact, her spiritual director/confessor, Fr. Raymond of Capua, tells the following of this powerful and holy woman in his biography of her:
“Pope Gregory XI…to content this longing of hers, published a Bull that granted her the right to have a priest at her disposal to absolve her and administer Communion to her and also to have a portable altar, so that she could hear Mass and receive Communion whenever and wherever she liked” (Capua, the Life of St. Catherine of Siena, p. 284).
“For the seven year period prior to her death, Saint Catherine of Siena took no food into her body other than the Eucharist. Her fasting did not affect her energy, however. She maintained a very active life during those seven years. As a matter of fact, most of her great accomplishments occurred during that period. Not only did her fasting not cause her to lose energy, but became a source of extraordinary strength, she becoming stronger in the afternoon, after having received our Lord in His Eucharist.
It was Catherine’s tremendous love of Jesus in the Eucharist that allowed her to go out to the poor and especially the very ill and to minister to them as she did. Wasn’t this the Eucharistic spirituality that Mother Teresa of Calcutta lived out, too — so that she could pick up the dying from the gutters of the slums, carry them to one of her clinics and care for them until they either got better or died with dignity? Love and devotion to Jesus in the Eucharist does that. They took very seriously the words of Jesus in Matthew 25: “Whatever you do to the least of my brethren you do unto me” (v. 40).
In The Dialog of St. Catherine of Siena Jesus tells her two things about love of neighbor:
“They love their neighbors with the same love with which they love me” — Dialog 60
“The soul, as soon as she comes to know Me, reaches out to love her neighbors” — Dialog 89
But it was the very heart of Christ that touched Catherine most deeply. Catherine had a very powerful devotion to the Heart of Jesus — the wound in His side. She used to long to spiritually drink of the graces that flowed freely from His side as a child suckled milk from its mother and she used this imagery as a wellspring to nourish and increase her devotion to him.
In her book The Secret of the Heart (A Theological Study of Catherine of Siena’s Teaching on the Heart of Jesus) author Sr. Mary Jeremiah, O.P. says, “Although Catherine of Siena lived in the 14th century she is still very relevant today”. Catherine herself once wrote a letter to a religious stating that the heart of Christ is “an open storehouse, full of spices with a wealth of mercy which bestows Grace” (p. 97).
We are called to live out our Baptism to love others with the heart of Christ who himself said “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 13:34-35). It is not enough to love others with a warm fuzzy kind of love but as He has loved us — that is, he loved us unconditionally and unto death. To love them is not just to have feelings for them. Catherine and all of the great saints took this command of Christ to go forth and to do for others, often at the risk of their lives. When Catherine volunteered at the local hospital to care for a woman named Tecca who was suffering from leprosy, Catherine’s mother Lapa had great concern that she, too, would catch the hideous disease.
Indeed Catherine’s hands did develop leprosy but love for this woman (who often had an ungrateful heart for Catherine’s care) did not stop the virgin from caring for her. When at last the woman died, Catherine herself washed and dressed the disease-ridden body, prepared it for burial, placed it tenderly in a casket, said the prayers and covered the casket with her own hands. Whereupon, Catherine’s hands were miraculously cured and her hands appeared as more youthful than they had been. Such is the love and faith in God that the great saints had.
Our love for Jesus in others, too, is what brings us to Heaven. The Eucharistic Prayer II of the Liturgy implores God to bring us to “the fullness of charity” for that is where heaven is. St. Paul urges us in his Letter to the Romans (12:1) to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice”. It is what St. Catherine did when she cried out in prayer: “O Eternal God, accept the sacrifice of my life for the Mystical Body of Thy Holy Church.” For indeed we who are baptized “are the true Israel which springs from Christ, for we are carved out of His heart as from a rock” according to St. Justin Martyr (d. 165) in his Dialog With Trypho the Jew.
The graces of our baptism must be nourished as often as possible with the Holy Eucharist — True Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, along with frequent reception of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and time spent in Holy Adoration contemplating the one who has loved us so. We are called to bring hope to those among us whom society considers as spiritual lepers — not only by way of our words but in our deeds as well.
Let us rise, then and “be on our way” (Jn 14:31); let us “rise from our slumber” (Rm. 13:11) to do all the good we can to those whom the world despises and who “count for nothing” (1 Cor. 1: 27). Let us pray for the intercession of this great saint, Catherine of Siena who found more joy in ministering to the poor than in all of the heavenly ecstasies, visions, miracles and other mystical phenomena that Jesus was pleased to bestow on her. Let us show our love of Jesus and ask him to use us according to his mind and purpose for the poor and those who have hurt us.
Author’s note: For prayers, devotions and other information on Catherine go here: http://www.drawnbylove.com/. To read the great encyclical of Pope Pius XII on Devotion to the Sacred Heart, Haurietis Aquas, go here.