St. Catherine of Siena: Soul on Fire
Patronage: Siena, against fire
Feast: April 29
Catherine of Siena was a mover and shaker, and a veritable game-changer for the Church of the late Middle Ages. She altered the course of the papacy, worked miracles, helped plague victims, and wrote treatises. Her early life however, did not single her out for anything special, much less to become a Doctor of the Church. Her life showing, once again, that God often works through "littleness" instead of greatness.
Alessandro Franchi, 19th century
Catherine was born a twin, but in an era of high infant mortality, she was the only one to survive. Her family welcomed her as the youngest—of 25 children!
Hers was a happy family, and Catherine was the happiest of them all. Her cheerful heart and good disposition won her the nickname Euphrosyne, the Greek word for “joy.”
As it was in those days, people married young and it wasn’t long before Catherine’s mother was thinking towards the future and angling for her youngest daughter to make a good match. She urged her daughter to take care of her appearance, and Catherine responded by dressing herself in the trends of the day, wearing pretty gowns and jewelry, and styling her beautiful brunette hair. She was in the process of becoming a model young lady, but soon the fine fashions lost their luster. Catherine didn’t find peace in chasing the pleasures of the world. She repented of vanity, and to the shock of her parents, she announced she would never marry.
Thinking this was just a phase (as she was an early teen), her parents continued to push her towards marriage. In defiance, Catherine cut her long brown locks to show disregard for the world, saying:
”I am already wedded to a most noble spouse [Christ] and shall never bestow my love on a human being.”
This didn’t go over well, and to set her straight, her parents assigned her the lowest house work—and lots of it. Catherine was introverted and enjoyed time to herself, so as an additional punishment, her family would never leave her alone. Instead of Catherine turning bitter, she grew ever sweeter, and advanced in interior self-discipline. She described it as creating a private “cell” in her heart where she could offer her works to God.
"Be who you were made to be and you will set the world on fire.”
As time wore on, Catherine’s dad gave in and allowed her to live the lifestyle of solitude and austerity that she longed for. She began to live in an extremely small cell, spending her days in prayer and fasting, and her nights sleeping on a hard board. Her penance was extreme, ranging from flogging herself with an iron chain, to wearing a hair shirt (imagine scratchy wool, but worse), and using an iron spiked girdle. Do not try this at home! Her goal in all of this was to become a Dominican tertiary (third order), which was reserved for matrons and widows, of which she was neither. Finally her prayers were answered, and she donned the Dominican habit, redoubling her efforts in prayers and penance.
Catherine had a very gifted spiritual life that came with great consolations as well as tribulations. When she was 19, she was praying in her room when Christ appeared to her along with the Blessed Virgin. Our Lady took Catherine’s hand and joined it to the hand of Jesus, who put a ring on her finger to symbolize their spiritual marriage. This would be a salve to Catherine during times of temptations as she was always able to see the ring, although others could not.
She experienced serious temptations of the flesh, and at times felt God had abandoned her. Eventually these trials came to an end, and she began to serve in the out- side world. She chose to take care of the sick in the hospital, and sought out the least desirable patients with the worst diseases. During her time there, she befriended a myriad of different people from all walks of life: religious, artists, poets, widows and even a hermit, who left his cell to be near Catherine, as he saw an increase in his own virtue by following her example. She took these people on as her spiritual children and added them to her “prayer chain” which was the list of all those she cared for through her prayers.
Yet, as is the case with many saints, Catherine received opposition. A women who she faithfully and lovingly cared for defamed her character. This was a great heart wound for Catherine. At this time Christ appeared to her and offered her two crowns, one that looked like it was made for a royal, all bejeweled and golden, while the other was made of harsh thorns. He asked,"Which of these two do you desire?" She replied:
"Lord, I desire to resemble Thee in this life, and it is a joy to me to suffer as Thou didst.”
Then she took the crown of thorns and pressed it onto her head.
This experience spurred Catherine on to continue her good works for God. She converted sinners, worked miracles, and nursed those who were stricken with the deadly plague, even burying them with her own hands, when most people—even religious—fled the city.
Catherine’s life was to become even more extraordinary, as she received the wounds of Christ in the stigmata. The wounds, like her wedding ring, remained invisible to all but her until her death.
Catherine also engaged in political matters. It was a time when the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy were locked in a power struggle. Florence and surrounding Papal States sought to extricate themselves from the power of the Holy See. Pope Gregory XI sent an emissary to quell the rebellion. It was a success and followed with severe sanctions that many deemed unreasonable. Catherine had been responsible for keeping Siena and a few other states from rebelling, so the Florentines implored that she be the one to go and intercede for them before the pope.
In order to have an audience with the pope, Catherine travelled to Avignon, France, which is where the popes of that era had been residing for over 70 years. She arrived and began with the words:
"I desire nothing but peace.”
In a strange turn of events, Florence reneged on the very terms they had given Catherine to negotiate, and nullified their connections with her. Later, Catherine worked tirelessly to establish peace be- tween the papacy and Florence, and eventually succeeded.
Despite all this, it was destiny for Catherine to meet with the pope, but for a different purpose.
Catherine had built a relationship with Pope Gregory XI through previous correspondence, as she had been a great campaigner for his crusade to rescue the Holy Sepulchre (the tomb in which Jesus was buried before his Resurrection) from the Muslims. She had also beseeched his return to Rome, and so they naturally spoke of this when they met. He had been dissuaded from returning to Rome by the Papal Curia (administration of the Church) which was predominantly French.
Gregory had secretly vowed to God that he would return to Rome, but had not told anyone of this. Catherine spoke to him of his return and said, "Fulfill what you have promised.“ He believed it was a sign from heaven and made plans to leave for Rome posthaste.
After the Pope returned to Rome, Catherine focused her energies on four treatises, titled, “The Dialogue of St. Catherine.” People felt she was guided by the Holy Spirit in her works, which she dictated, as she could neither read nor write.
Toward the end of her life, her time was consumed with trying to heal the schism within the Church that rent western Europe in two. After the death of Gregory XI, Urban VI was elected pope by the Roman Cardinals, whereas Clement VII was chosen by the Avignon sect. The Schism lasted 40 years, and would not be resolved until after Catherine’s death, but she composed innumerable letters to Pope Urban, European leaders, and royals regarding the matter. Catherine specifically extorted Pope Urban to curb his temper - he had quite a strong one - and instead of rejecting her sound advice, he re- quested her presence in Rome as advisor. This was unheard of for a woman at that time.
Through the years, Catherine’s health had been in rapid decline, and she was in constant pain, although she never showed it. She suffered a stroke that paralyzed her from the waist down, and died eight days later, speaking her last words:
"Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit."