St. Catherine of Sienna

February 3, 2008


St. Catherine of Sienna, 1347-1380

Catherine Benicasa was born in Siena in 1347, the youngest of a very large family. Her father, Giacomo, was a prosperous wool-dyer, the comfort of whose home may be gauged even today by visiting the large house in which he brought up his family, still preserved though considerably altered, through the intervening centuries. His wife, Monna Lapa, was the capable and energetic ruler of this lively family.

Catherine spent a normal, contented infancy during which only excessive gaiety singled her out from among her brothers and sisters. But in adolescence she became attracted to prayer and solitude. Lapa vigorously disapproved and for a period considered Catherine a difficult daughter, in fact a problem teenager, who rebelled against her mother’s direction in such matters as dress and amusements, resisted any suggestion of marriage and refused just as positively to become a nun.

There was a truce to their disagreement when Catherine, at the age of sixteen, gained admittance to the Third Order of St. Dominic, then flourishing in Siena. The rules of this group allowed her to dress in the black and white habit of a Dominican nun while remaining in her own home. Thenceforward for three years she never left her room, except to go to mass and confession, and spoke to no one except her confessor. This good priest said afterwards that he always felt incompetent to guide her. During this period Catherine trained herself to live on a spoonful of herbs a day and to make a couple of hours’ sleep every night suffice. Though apparently so uneventful, those years were of major importance to her, for it was on them she built her life’s achievement.

Having been told by God to resume family life, she then began to do her share of the work of the house, to nurse the sick and to help the poor. Almost at once it became known that she had discernment of souls and people began to flock to her from all sides. A motley band of men and women of all ages and ranks gathered around her, forming the singular ‘club’ of Fontebranda, the name of the district where she lived. They included scions of the principal Sienese families, men of fashion, priests and religious, soldiers and artists, merchants, lawyers, politicians.

The plain people of Siena did not care for the novelty. Here, said her neighbours in effect, is a young woman, a kind of nun, said to be holy; yet she goes about freely with numbers of young men, who are in and out of her house at all hours of the day. Who ever heard of such a thing? They nicknamed her derisively the ‘Queen of Fontebranda,’ and they called her friends, who they said must be bewitched, the ‘caterinati.’ But the unique club, or the ‘bella brigata,’ as they called themselves, was not to be dispersed by jeers. The disapproval did not even cloud their happiness. They persevered. Ecclesiastical history has since given them the noble title ‘School of Mystics.’ They were attracted to Catherine by her gaiety as well as by her asceticism; by her practical common sense as well as by her spiritual insight; by her serenity and personal charm.

There was at this time a severe crisis in the church, owing to the papacy’s desertion of Rome for Avignon. This had particularly bad effects on the Italian Communes, who were always at strife with the French papal legates. When Florence declared war on the papal states in protest against the legates’ rule, eighty towns joined them in ten days. While Catherine was in Pisa, working in the cause of peace, she received the stigmata on the fourth Sunday of Lent, 1375, although the marks remained invisible until after her death. At a certain stage in this war, Florence asked Catherine to go to Avignon and there intercede with Pope Gregory XI on behalf of their embassy. She at once agreed and reached Avignon in the third week of May, 1376, accompanied by twenty-three members of the ‘bella brigata,’ including four priests.

The ensuing three months were among the most fateful in the whole history of the Church. Catherine had to endure every kind of rebuff in Avignon: the society ladies who had great power in the papal court openly made fun of her; inquisition-minded prelates subjected her to a merciless examination in doctrine; when the Florentine envoys arrived, they rudely refused to accept her mediation: Florence had merely used her as a pawn in order to gain time. But the pope favoured her, and now she fully understood his irresolution of character and his difficulties. She succeeded in convincing him that peace could be won only by restoring the papacy to Rome.

The might of France, the Sacred College and the pope’s own family immediately closed in around him to prevent him from taking his step. It was a terrifying struggle of wills in which the victory went to Catherine. Pope Gregory XI left Avignon forever on September 13th, 1376.

The change of climate and the difficulties with which he had to cope took a heavy toll of Gregory’s frail physique. He died within a year. The new pope, Urban VI, was a Neapolitan who began his pontificate with a zeal for reform which immediately alienated the French cardinals. They withdrew to Anagni, where they issued a statement that the occupier of the Holy See was in reality an intruder, whom they had only pretended to elect in fear of the Roman mob who had dominated the election with their clamor for an Italian pope. Shortly afterwards the French cardinals elected a rival pope, who went to live in Avignon. Thus began the great western Schism which lasted for seventy years and proved to be the most terrible ordeal which the church has ever had to suffer.

Catherine went to Rome at the request of Urban VI to organize spiritual help towards ending the schism. Before leaving Siena for the last time, she dictated a book called The Dialogue of St. Catherine; this and her four hundred Letters comprise a great treasury of spiritual writing.

Once again in Rome she pitted herself against the powers of evil that threatened to engulf the church. For a whole year she lived corporally on the Blessed Sacrament and took less than an hour’s sleep every night while she sent her zealous letters all over Europe, beseeching help for the restoration of unity and for peace, as daily she offered her life for this cause. One evening in January, 1380, while dictating a letter to Urban, she had a stroke. Partially recovering, she lived in a mystical agony, convinced that she was wrestling physically with demons. She had a second stroke while at prayer in St. Peter’s and died three weeks later on April 29th, 1380, aged thirty-three. She was buried under the high altar in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, but her head was afterwards removed and taken to Siena, where it is enshrined in the Dominican church. She was canonized eighty-one years after her death. Her feast is celebrated in Siena on April 29th, but elsewhere in the church on the next day.