Saint Catherine of Siena, Virgin and Doctor

Catherine of Siena was a member of the Third Order of the Dominicans (Order of Preachers, OP), a scholar, philosopher and theologian. She was born in Siena, Italy, on 25 March, 1347. Her parents were Giacomo di Benincasa, a cloth-dyer, and Lapa Piagenti, daughter of a local poet. She was their 23rd child out of 25. Catherine’s twin sister, the 24th, died at birth.

The family belonged to the lower middle class of tradesmen and minor notaries, known as “the Party of the Twelve”, which, between revolutions, ruled the Republic of Siena from 1355 to 1368. Catherine received no formal education and could neither read nor write. At the age of seven she consecrated her virginity to Christ against the wishes of her family who wanted her to live a normal life and marry. Against her parents’ will, she dedicated her life to praying, meditating and living in total solitude into her late teens.

At the age of sixteen, she took the habit of the Dominican Tertiaries. Catherine gathered a group of companions, both women and men, and travelled with them throughout Northern Italy. They called for a reform of the clergy, the launching of a new crusade and told people that true repentance and renewal could only be achieved through a “total love for God”. Catherine also dedicated her life to the study of religious texts. 

About 1366, at the age of 19, Catherine experienced what she described in her letters as a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus, after which she began to tend the sick and serve the poor, taking care of them in hospitals or homes.

In 1370, when she was 23, she received a series of visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, after which she heard a command to leave her secluded life and enter the world of public life. Although illiterate, she dictated several letters to people in positions of authority, especially calling for peace between the squabbling republics and principalities of Italy and also for the return of the papacy from its exile in Avignon, in the south of France, back to Rome.

She carried on a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, also calling on him both to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States, which had become embroiled with a war with Florence. In June of 1376, Catherine went to Avignon herself, as the ambassador of Florence, to make peace with the Papal States and to urge Pope Gregory to return to Rome. She was not successful but, the following year, at the beginning of 1377, she had impressed the pope so much that he did return to Rome.

After Gregory’s death in 1378, the cardinals, mostly French, elected an Italian Pope, Urban VI, who turned out, among other defects, to be arrogant and tyrannical. The cardinals met again, declared that the first election had been under duress from the Roman mob and hence invalid. They elected a new pope, Clement VII, who established his residence at Avignon.

Catherine, now in Rome, worked tirelessly to persuade Urban to mend his ways. Her letters to him are respectful, but uncompromising. As one historian has said, she perfected the art of kissing the Pope’s feet while simultaneously twisting his arm, and she worked to persuade dissidents that the peace and unity of the Church required the recognition of Urban as lawful Pope. Despite her efforts, the Western Schism continued until 1417. It greatly weakened the prestige of the Bishops of Rome and helped to pave the way for the Protestant Reformation in the following century.

Driven by politics rather than any real theological disagreement, the schism was ended by the Council of Constance (1414-1418). Catherine remained at the papal court and tried to convince the nobility and cardinals that Urban was the rightful pope. The problems of the Western Schism would trouble her to the end of her life. Catherine’s letters are considered among the great works of early Tuscan literature. More than 300 of her letters have survived. In her letters to the Pope, she often referred to him affectionately as “Papa” or “Daddy” (Babbo in Italian). Her major work is the Dialogue of Divine Providence.

After a prolonged period of suffering lasting three months, which she endured with total acceptance, she died on 29 April, 1380. Her last political achievement, accomplished practically from her death-bed, was the reconciliation of Pope Urban VI with the Roman Republic in 1380. After her death, the people of Siena wished to have her body interred in their city.

There is a legend which explains how Catherine’s head did reach the city, where it is now entombed in the basilica of San Domenico. The people of Siena knew they could not get her whole body past Papal State guards and so decided to take only her head, which they placed in a bag. They were still stopped by guards and prayed to Catherine to help them because they knew Catherine would rather lie in her native city. When they opened the bag to show the guards, it no longer held her head, but was full of rose petals. Once they got back to Siena they reopened the bag and her head was there.

Because of this legend, Catherine is often shown holding a rose. Her body is buried in the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, close to the Pantheon. Catherine was canonised in 1461. Her feast day at first was not included in the Tridentine Calendar. When it was later added to the Roman Calendar, it was put on 30 April, the day after her date of death which had already been taken by the feast of St Peter of Verona. In the 1969 revision of the Roman Catholic calendar, it was decided to leave his celebration to local calendars, as he was less known outside of Italy. St Catherine’s feast was then finally put on 29 April, the date of her death.

In 1970, Pope Paul VI gave her the title of Doctor of the Church, making her the first woman, along with Saint Teresa of Ávila, to receive this honour. In 1999, Pope John Paul II made her one of the patrons of Europe, together with Saints Benedict, Cyril and Methodius, Bridget of Sweden, and Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein). She is also, together with St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of Italy.

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