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Saint Catherine of Siena

Saint Catherine of Siena
  • Century: 14th Century
  • Patronage: Nurses, Sickness, Bodily Ills, Firefighters, Miscarriages, People Ridiculed for their Piety,
  • Feast Day: April 29th

Patronage – Nurses, Sickness, Bodily Ills, Firefighters, Miscarriages, People Ridiculed for their Piety, Sexual Temptation, Diocese of Allentown – Pennsylvania, Italy, Europe

St. Catherine was born Caterina Benincasa, in Siena, Italy.  The house where Catherine grew up in, in the 1340’s, is still in existence today.  She was born in 1347, when the “Black Death” struck the area and Siena was badly ravaged, losing a large portion of the population.  Her mother was forty years old when she gave birth to twin daughters, Catherine and Giovanna.  Her mother already had 22 children, but half of them had passed.  Catherine’s twin sister Giovanna did not survive long.  When Catherine was two years old, her mother had her 25th child, a daughter that she again named Giovanna.  Catherine had her first vision of Christ when she was five or six, saying that Jesus smiled at her, blessed her, and left her in ecstasy.  At the age of seven she vowed chastity. 

When Catherine was sixteen, she lost her older sister Bonaventura, who died while giving birth, and shortly after her youngest sister Giovanna died as well.   She was tormented with sorrow, and her parent’s wished for her to marry Bonaventura’s widower to help raise the children.  She was so against this, she started a massive fast, and something she learned from her late sister Bonaventura, whose husband had not been a considerate man.  Bonaventura used to fast, refusing to eat until he showed better manners.  She also cut off her long hair, to dissuade him.  Eventually her parents gave in and permitted her to live as she wished. 

Catherine was able to build a “cell” inside her mind.  She would picture her father as a representative of Christ, her mother as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her siblings as the Apostles.  She learned that serving them humbly became an opportunity for her to grow spiritually.  Catherine knew the greater the suffering, the larger the triumph.  Catherine had a vision of St. Dominic, and this gave strength to her to join his Order.  Her mother was against this, and Catherine became very ill.  Her mother took her to the local Dominican Order and she was instantly healed.  Within days, Catherine wore the black and white habit of the Third Order of St. Dominic.  She was a Tertiary, and lived outside the convent, at home with her family.  She was taught to read, and she lived in almost total silence and solitude in the family home.  She gave away food and clothing without anyone’s permission, costing her family significantly, but she never demanded anything for herself. 

In 1366, Catherine experienced a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus.  Other miracles include her reception of the stigmata, and her receiving Communion from Christ Himself.  She was also told by Christ to leave her withdrawn life and enter the public life of the world.  Catherine dedicated much of her life to helping the ill and the poor, both, in hospitals and their homes.  Her early pious activities in Siena attracted large amount of followers.  The Dominican Order was getting a lot of attention as well, and they called Catherine to Florence in 1374 to interrogate her for possible heresy.  She was deemed Orthodox, and began traveling with her followers throughout northern and central Italy, advocating reform of the clergy, and advising people that repentance and renewal could be done through “the total love of God”. 

Physical travel was not the only way in which Catherine made her views known.  She began dictating letters, intended to reach men and woman of her ever-widening audience.  She begged figures in authority for peace between republics and principalities of Italy, and for the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome.  She carried on a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, asking him to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States.  In 1376, Catherine herself went to Avignon as Ambassador of Florence, to make peace with the Papal States.  She was unsuccessful, and also tried to convince Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome.  He was so impressed that he returned his administration to Rome.  Following Gregory’s death, and during the Western Schism of 1378, she went to visit Pope Urban VI, who had summoned her to Rome.  She stayed with his court and lived in Rome until she died in 1380.  This schism was something that would trouble her until her death. 

More than 300 of her letters remain today, and show that she referred to the Pope as “Papa”, rather than his “Holiness”.  Her other major work is the “Dialogue of Divine Providence”, a dialogue between a soul who “rises up” to God.  Some thought she was ignorant, but she was capable of reading both Latin and Italian.  St. Catherine died in Rome on April 29, 1380 at the age of thirty-three, having suffered a stroke eight days earlier.  Jesus is also thought to have died at the same age, and her hero – Mary Magdalene is said to have fasted for thirty-three years.  Over the years Catherine had eaten less and less, claiming that she found no nourishment in earthly food.  Instead, she received Holy Communion on a daily basis.  This extreme fasting appeared unhealthy in the eyes of the clergy and her own sisterhood, and her confessor ordered her to eat properly.  She would disgorge what she swallowed and suffered severe stomach pains, which she bore as another penance. 

She was buried in the cemetery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which lies near the Pantheon.  After miracles were reported to take place at her grave, she was moved inside the Basilica where she lies to this day.  She was carried through the city in a procession to the Dominican Church, and behind St. Catherine was her mother, who lived until she was 89 years old.  By this time she had followed most of her children and several of her grandchildren to the grave.  Pope Pius II canonized St. Catherine in 1461.  On May 5, 1940, Pope Pius XII named her a joint Patron Saint of Italy along with St. Francis of Assisi.  Pope Paul VI gave her the title of “Doctor of the Church” in 1970, along with St. Teresa of Avila, making them the first women to receive this honor.  In 1999, Pope John Paul II made her the Patron Saint of Europe.  She is also Patron of the historically Catholic American Woman’s fraternity – Theta Phi Alpha. 

Practical Take Away

St. Catherine of Siena was born in Siena, Italy.  She came from a very large family, with a total of 25 children being born to her parents.  They had a strong faith, and at the age of five Catherine had a Mystical vision of Christ, and said He blessed her, and left her in ecstasy.  She became a Dominican Sister, and traveled Italy to teach the faith to others.  She developed a large group of followers, and worked to bring peace to their country, and also corresponded with the Pope, in an attempt to get him to reform the clergy and to move his administration from Avignon, back to Rome.  She was successful in doing so.  She bore the stigmata, and received Holy Communion from Christ Himself.  She is said to have experienced a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus Christ.  Many miracles took place after her death, and she died at the age of thirty-three.  She was declared a Doctor of the Church.