One of the wonders of human life is the birth, perhaps once a century, of a child with talents so far beyond the ordinary that he or she must be called a prodigy. Today the Church celebrates a spiritual child prodigy: Catherine of Siena. She was born on March 25, 1347 as one of twin girls — the 23rd and 24th child, respectively, of their mother Lapa, married to a prosperous wool dyer named Iacopo di Benincasa.
In 1353, when Catherine was six years old, she had a vision of Jesus sitting on a throne, clad in papal vestments, high above the church of St. Dominic near her home. With Him were the apostles Peter, Paul, and John. The Lord smiled at her and blessed her. For Catherine, it was the beginning of a lifelong love story. The year following she made a vow of perpetual virginity: She wanted to belong to Christ alone.
Girls often married in their early teens in Catherine’s day. In 1359, when Catherine was twelve, her mother told Catherine to dress in finer clothes and take better care of her hair. At the urging of her older sister, Bonaventura, Catherine agreed. Three years later, that same sister died in childbirth — an event that, in her grief, Catherine considered a punishment for having given in to Bonaventura, thus putting her love for her sister before her promise of virginity to God. To show that she was still true to her vow, Catherine cut her hair. Her mother was furious. As a punishment, she gave Catherine all the housework and barred her from the small room in the family’s house where she used to pray. Catherine realized that she did not need the room; she had a secret cell within where Jesus was always waiting. Accepting the housework, she told her family that she was willing to be their servant for life. But she would never marry: She had already taken Jesus as her spouse.
In 1363, 16-year-old Catherine joined a group of widows called the sisters of Penance of St. Dominic. They wore the black and white Dominican habit, in which Catherine is normally depicted. She was never a nun, however. For the next three or four years, Catherine lived a life of prayer in her family home, accompanied by penitential practices so severe that they undermined her health. During this time she seldom spoke to anyone but her confessor, and left her room only to attend Mass at the nearby church of St. Dominic.
Toward the end of this period, Catherine began to pray that God would grant her an increase of faith, "in such fullness," she said later, "that never for the future would any hostile power be able to unsettle or uproot it." The response she sensed within her was a word of God in the prophet Hosea: "I will espouse you to me in faith" (2:22). In 1367, when Catherine was about 20, she had a mystical experience of Christ placing a ring on her finger while speaking these words. He also commanded her to leave her life of solitude and engage in active service of others. Years later Catherine would record the Lord’s words: "Remember that I have laid down two commandments of love: love of me and love of your neighbor. On two feet you must walk my way; on two wings you must fly to heaven."
Obedient to the Lord’s command, Catherine began to take part in family and city life. She nursed the sick. She helped convert notorious sinners and worked to restore peace between feuding individuals and families. People began to seek her advice. Catherine, who had had no formal schooling and who learned to write only in her 20s, responded by dictating letters of counsel and advice. More than 380 of these letters survive, addressed to people of all sorts, high and low alike. They bear vivid witness to a woman of great courage and spiritual power.
The letters are remarkably bold, commanding even popes and princes to do what Catherine is convinced is God’s will. "In the name of Jesus Christ crucified and of sweet Mary," is a typical opening. "Dearest So-and-so in Christ the sweet Jesus," the letter would continue, "I, Catherine, servant and slave of the servants of Jesus Christ, write to you in his precious blood desiring . . ."; and then follows the particular counsel or command which is the subject of the letter.
Especially noteworthy are Catherine’s letters to the two popes with whom she corresponded. From 1309 until 1376, the popes resided in Avignon in the south of France (and all were Frenchmen). The last of them, Gregory XI, elected on December 30, 1370, often declared his conviction that the proper seat of the papacy was at Rome. First by letters and then during a three-month personal visit to Avignon in June of 1376, Catherine urged him to act on this conviction. She writes:
You are well aware, most holy father, that as you took holy Church as your bride, you undertook to work on her behalf, expecting the contrary winds of many sufferings and troubles to oppose your fight on her behalf. Face such dangerous winds in a manly way with fortitude, patience, and long-lasting perseverance, never turning back for fear: persevere and rejoice in storms and battles. Let your heart rejoice, then, because in the many adversities that have happened and are still happening God’s work is being well done, nor was it ever done in any other way. And so we see that persecution of the Church, or the tribulations a virtuous soul has to endure, end in peace, attained through patience and long perseverance.
What Gregory made of this unsolicited advice, history does not record. He finally left Avignon for Rome in September 1376, arriving there only in January 1377.
Gregory XI died on March 27, 1378. Twelve days later, with mobs rioting out of fear that the election of another French pope would mean the papacy’s return to Avignon, the cardinals elected with all but one vote a non-cardinal, Bartolomeo Prignano, archbishop of Bari on the heel of the Italian boot. He took the name Urban VI. Over the next four months, however, the new pope’s violent temper and uncontrollable tirades alienated his electors, causing many to speculate that his unexpected elevation had upset the balance of his mind.
At the beginning of August, the cardinals declared their election the previous April null, "as having been made not freely, but under fear" of mob violence, and invited Urban to resign the papacy. When he declined to do so, the cardinals proceeded to elect another pope, Clement VII. His coronation on October 31, 1378, inaugurated the Great Western Schism, a period of 39 years during which the Church had two claimants to the papal throne, and at one point three. Leading members of the Church, including canonized saints, disagreed about who the real pope was.
At the end of November 1378, Catherine went to Rome at the urgent request of Urban VI, who wanted her support in his struggle to unify the Church. She would remain there until her death 15 months later, writing letters to people entreating them to support Urban, and praying day and night for the Church’s unity. Though Catherine never wavered in her support for Urban, she counseled him to control his hot temper. "Mitigate, for the sake of Christ crucified," she wrote him, "the sudden impulses of your nature. By holy virtue you shall control nature. Since God has given you a naturally big heart, I beg you, and want you, to try your best and make it supernaturally great; I mean that, through zeal and desire for virtue and reformation of holy Church, you may acquire a manly heart grounded on humility."
Catherine also wrote to ordinary people. A letter to a mother emphasizes one of Catherine’s frequent themes: that children, possessions, and everything we have is given to us on loan:
And were you to see that God is calling [your children], do not oppose his sweet will. . . . Do not pretend to choose their stations in life according to your own views — to do so would mean that your love for them is separate from God’s love — but be pleased with whatever situation God calls them to.
Catherine’s advice is much needed today, when a major obstacle to young people sensing a call to priesthood or the religious life is parental opposition.
Tempting as it is to continue quoting Catherine’s letters, we must look also at her other writings. First is the Dialogue, an exchange of questions and answers between Catherine and God, dictated between 1377 and 1378. "Do you know who you are and who I am?" God asks. "If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are the one who is not and I am he who is." At another point Catherine speaks: "You, eternal Trinity, are a profound sea, so that the more I enter it the more I find, and the more I find the more I seek for you. You do not satiate, because the soul that feeds at its good pleasure in your depth does not feel satiated: it always remains hungry for you, thirsty for you."
"The material you are made of is love," God tells Catherine, "because I created you out of love, and therefore you cannot live without love." The worst sin, God tells Catherine, is despair, which gives more weight to our faults than to God’s mercy. "This is the sin that is never forgiven, my mercy having been spurned in its being refused . . . . I was more displeased by Judas’s despair, and it weighed more heavily on my Son, than by his betrayal."
There are also Catherine’s prayers, 26 in all: transcriptions of words she uttered in ecstasy, mostly toward the end of her life, from December 1378 to early 1380. On the feast of Mary’s annunciation, Catherine prays:
Mary, were you troubled with fear by the words of the angel? It does not seem . . . that fear did trouble you, even though you showed some wonder and trouble. . . . In your prudent questioning [of the angel] you show your profound humility and, as has been said, you were not afraid; you just wondered at God’s infinite bounty and charity in comparison to the lowliness and littleness of your virtue.
At the end of January 1380, Catherine suffered severe pain in her chest, and for two days was unable to speak. In February she was able to walk daily, with great difficulty, to St. Peter’s, where she spent the day praying and fasting. These visits ended when she had a vision of the Church, as a ship, pressing down on her shoulders until she was no longer able to stand. She spent her final days paralyzed from the waist down, dying at noon on April 29, 1380. She was just 33 years old, according to the traditional dating, the age at which Jesus was crucified. Her last spoken words were those of the Lord she had so tirelessly served: "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."
Catherine’s sanctity was acknowledged at once, but the Church’s continuing turmoil delayed her canonization until 1461. She has long been recognized, with St. Francis of Assisi, as patron of Italy. On October 4, 1970, Pope Paul VI awarded her the title of doctor, or official teacher, of the Church, the second woman (after St. Teresa of Avila) to be so honored.
Rev. John Jay Hughes is a priest of the Saint Louis archdiocese and the author, most recently, of the memoir No Ordinary Fool and of Columns of Light: 30 Remarkable Saints, available both in print and as a recorded book from Now You Know Media.