Catherine was the 23rd child of Jacopo and Lapa Benincasa and grew up as an intelligent, cheerful and intensely religious person. Catherine disappointed her mother by cutting off her hair as a protest against being overly encouraged to improve her appearance in order to attract a husband. Her father ordered her to be left in peace and she was given a room of her own for prayer and meditation.
She entered the Dominican Third Order at 18 and spent the next three years in seclusion, prayer and austerity. Gradually a group of followers gathered around her — men and women, priests and religious. An active public apostolate grew out of her contemplative life. Her letters, mostly for spiritual instruction and encouragement of her followers, began to take more and more note of public affairs. Opposition and slander resulted from her mixing fearlessly with the world and speaking with the candor and authority of one completely committed to Christ. She was cleared of all charges at the Dominican General Chapter of 1374.
Her public influence reached great heights because of her evident holiness, her membership in the Dominican Third Order, and the deep impression she made on the pope. She worked tirelessly for the crusade against the Turks and for peace between Florence and the pope.
Someone has said that “God made us because he loves stories.” Saints allow God’s love to flow through them. Through their witness God shows to humanity his presence and his face. Saints inspire us, guide us, encourage us and remind us of what God can do through human beings. St. Catherine of Siena said that “All the way to heaven is heaven because Christ is the way.” She strongly believed that we are bonded with the risen Christ in a union so deep that we form one body. In her relationship with Jesus She lived out the words of St. Paul; “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal.2:20).
This mystical communion that was at the heart of St. Catherine’s spirituality inspired her to reach out to the poor and suffering of Siena. When the Black Death swept through her city, she had no hesitation in caring for the victims. She worked as a nurse. She dug graves for those who died of the plague and then buried them properly herself. She accompanied prisoners who were condemned to death to the place of execution waiting with them and praying for them to the end.
A major church problem in the late fourteenth century was the Avignon Papacy. In the summer of 1376, Catherine traveled to Avignon to encourage Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome. In one of her letters she wrote; “No longer resist the will of God, for the starving sheep wait for you to return to the see of St. Peter.” Fortified by Catherine’s appeals, Gregory XI returned to Rome, but he died soon after.
In 1378, the Great Schism began, splitting the allegiance of Christendom between two, then three, popes and putting even saints on opposing sides. Catherine spent the last two years of her life in Rome, in prayer and pleading on behalf of the cause of Urban VI and the unity of the Church. She offered herself as a victim for the Church in its agony. Just as the Spirit gave new life to the infant Church on Pentecost, Catherine sought to bring a spirit of reconciliation to the divisions of her time. Exhausted by her efforts for unity, Catherine died in 1380 at the age of thirty-three. She died surrounded by her “children.”
Catherine ranks high among the mystics and spiritual writers of the Church. In 1970 Paul VI named her and Teresa of Avila as doctors of the Church. In recent years, it has been suggested that she (among other possibilities) should be named patron of the Internet. Her spiritual testament is found in The Dialogue.
St. Catherine of Siena’s passionate commitment to prayer, peace and justice and her love for the Church are important qualities that we can imitate. Her strong faith and love is clear in this letter that she wrote to Raymond of Capua in the midst of her courageous efforts to solve the crisis in the Church during the great Schism. “And at the hours of Terce I rise up from Mass, and if you looked you would see a woman walking to St. Peter’s where I work again in the little bark of the holy Church. There I stay until near Vespers, and I would love never to leave that place whether by day or night until I see this people steadied and strengthened a little with their Father.”. Having a patron Saint is like having another friend. May St. Catherine’s prayers and friendship inspire and strengthen us in our faith journey.