Saint Catherine, originally named Caterina Benincasa, was born in Siena, a city in west-central Italy south of Florence. She was born on March 25, 1347, the feast of the Annunciation. She had a twin sister who did not live long after her birth.
Catherine was the youngest of twenty-five children. Her father, Giacomo Benincasa, was a wealthy dyer. He lived with his wife Lupa, the daughter of a then famous poet, in a spacious house which is still standing today. Catherine is described as having been a happy child.
She learned to read at an early age, although she could not write until she became an adult. Catherine led an extremely pious childhood, devoted to prayer and penance, despite her parents’ strong but intermittent opposition. Sometimes on her way up or down the stairs she would kneel on every step and say a Hail Mary. Catherine was six or seven years old when she had a remarkable experience.
She was returning with her brother Stephen from a visit to the home of her married sister Bonaventura when she came to a stop. She stood spellbound in the middle of the road with her eyes to the sky. When Stephen noticed she was not next to him, he called out to her. Catherine was oblivious to his calls.
Stephen went up to her and seized her by the hand, awakening Catherine as if from a dream. Upset that he had awoken her, she burst into tears and told him she had a vision in which she saw the Lord seated with Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint John. He smiled upon her and extended his hand to bless her. When Catherine reached the age of twelve, her parents urged her to pay more attention to her personal appearance in hope that she would soon consider marriage.
She agreed to dress in the fashion and dress her hair only to please her mother and Bonaventura, however, she firmly refused to marry. When they insisted she marry, she cut off her golden-brown hair, her chief beauty. Her family was then determined to change this resolution. They attempted this by petty persecution.
They obligated her to do all the housework and, knowing she valued privacy, took away her bedroom. Finally her father realized that further opposition was useless and decided to give her back her room and allow her to lead the life to which she felt called. Catherine kept the room shuttered and dimly lit. She dedicated herself to prayer and fasting and slept on boards.
With some difficulty, she obtained permission from her parents to receive the habit of a Dominican tertiary at the age of sixteen and joined the Third Order of Saint Dominic in Siena. Catherine often had visions. At times they were of loathsome figures tempting her. In these instances she felt God had abandoned her.
On Shrove Tuesday in 1366, however, Catherine was in her room praying when God appeared accompanied by the Blessed Virgin Mary. He took Catherine’s hand and placed a ring on her finger. The ring was visible to her, although invisible to others. Shortly after, Catherine began to dedicate her time to helping the less fortunate.
She comforted the diseased and those in prison sentenced to execution. At this time God began to appear to Catherine in public, often when she received Holy Communion at mass. In 1375 she accepted an invitation to visit Pisa. Once there she attended mass at the Church of Saint Christina.
While praying by the crucifix, there suddenly came five rays which pierced her hands, feet, and heart. The wounds remained visible only to her, until her death when they became visible to everyone. Also while in Pisa, she received word that the people of two cities, Florence and Perugia, were revolting against the Papacy. Catherine wrote letters to neighboring cities such as Lucca urging them to remain under the papacy.
Catherine then went to Avignon to have a conference with Pope Gregory XI. She arrived there on June 18, 1376. She strongly urged the Pope to make peace with the people, however, peace was not accomplished. She did not give up.
She urged the Pope to return to Rome in hopes to please the people, thus ending their revolt. The Pope agreed and started for Rome on September 13, 1376. That same day Catherine returned to Siena, which was now plagued with violence. On the way she became ill.
She did not let this stop her. She continued to write to the Pope, in order to encourage him in his attempt to bring peace to Italy. Peace was not established during Pope Gregory’s reign, rather under his successor, Pope Urban VI. Upon her return to Siena, Catherine began to write a book now referred to as the “Dialogue of Saint Catherine,” though not titled this during her lifetime.
At this time she became so ill that she was never free from pain, despite the ever content expression on her face. She knew well her work was not yet completed. In 1378, it was declared that the election which won Urban VI the papacy had been illegal. A rival pope was chosen and set up in Avignon.
This executed the Great Schism. At this time the Church was divided into two parts; the Eastern Church and the Western Church. Catherine strongly campaigned for Urban VI. Urban, inspired by her letters and words, invited Catherine to come to Rome and become his advisor.
She accepted and took up residence there. In early 1380, Catherine experienced a strange seizure. She never really recovered from this. On April 21 she suffered a paralytic stroke which disabled her from the waist down.
Eight days later, on April 29, 1380, Catherine died at the age of thirty-three. She died in the arms of her most beloved follower, Alessia Saracini. Her body is buried in the Church of Saint Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. Catherine was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461 and made a doctor of the Church in 1970.
Her feast day remained April 30 until 1969 when it was changed to April 29. There are several reasons why Catherine of Siena can be considered an extraordinary saint. She played a significant role in the public affairs of her day. She was greatly involved in the politics associated with the development of the Church in the Middle Ages.
This is especially noted because during her lifetime it was not considered proper for women to involve themselves with political affairs, especially those which affected the Church. However, she persisted in her appeal to unite the Church. She often did this through letters. Even before she learned to write, she dictated letters to popes, princes, and religious men and women.
These letters usually addressed religious and spiritual matters, as well as political and social changes. They were a complete expression of Catherine’s many-sided personality. Many of these letters are still in existence today. Catherine also played a role in the reunification of Italy under the Papacy by advising the Popes themselves.
For example, she urged Pope Gregory to move to Rome in order to lessen the conflict within the Church. Catherine was valued by religious leaders such as Pope Gregory and Pope Urban for her impeccable advice. Throughout her life Catherine showed compassion for others. She spent most of her time visiting the poor, diseased, and condemned.
So loving was Catherine that the Lord blessed her with visions of Himself and His Holy Saints. Catherine went to every extent to keep the Church unified and bring God’s message of peace and unity to them so that they may remember that we are all part of God’s Holy Church. She was known to remark that “God’s mission was her own.” It was written by Father B.
de Gaiffier that “It is Catherine’s devotion to the cause of Christ’s Church that makes her such a noble figure.” In these ways Catherine of Siena acted as a saint in life and for these reasons that she is now recognized as one of “the greatest women in Christendom.” Saint Catherine can serve as a role model for us today. We can follow her example of charity to the less fortunate.
We can do this by visiting the elderly and donating to a food or clothing drive. We can emulate Catherine’s devotion to the Church by giving advice to others and educating them about Jesus and the role the Church should play in our lives. One way to do this is by volunteering to teach religious instruction classes. Another way is to simply talk or listen to someone you know is having problems.
In many ways Catherine is an inspiration to many people, primarily young women, today. We can use her spirit of determination in the face of adversity to achieve our goals. We must remember that during her lifetime there were little or no opportunities for women to express their thoughts. She did not let this stop her.
Catherine fought to be able to live the lifestyle she felt God had called her to live. We can use her devotion to the Church to grow in our own spiritual awareness. Catherine is a truly divine example of perseverance. She did not let obstacles stand in her way.
I feel the greatest lesson we can learn from the life of Saint Catherine of Siena is that we are all part of God’s Church and we are all one family under God. We should not let our differences separate us, rather unite us within one Church and one God. Catherine strived to teach the world this lesson. In these ways Saint Catherine can be a role model for us today.