St. Catherine of Siena

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St. Catherine of Siena


Catholic nun


Special Destiny. Born Katerina di Benincasa at Siena in western Italy, she was the second youngest child in a family of twenty-four children. She was a twin, whose sister was given to a wet nurse because her mother did not have enough milk for two babies. Catherine lived while her twin sister died in a few months. This tragedy gave Catherine a sense of having a special destiny. Her father was a dyer, who, as a member of the class of tradesmen and artisans, was active in the politics of Siena. His faction held power from 1355 to 1368. This situation probably was the root of Catherine's strong interest in politics and her good sense of how to achieve political goals.

Divine Vision. Catherine was barely a year old when the Black Death swept through Siena, taking several of her siblings and many relatives. Her entire life was darkened by recurring outbreaks of the plague, and it may explain her interest in caring for the sick. As a child Catherine was fascinated by the Dominican friars who preached in her hometown, and at age seven she had a vision of Christ smiling at her, which led her to decide to become a nun. She remained committed to that goal despite her family's wishes that she marry, and her resolve was made all the stronger when an older sister died in childbirth. In her early teens Catherine began to practice a life of severe self-denial that included whipping herself and extended periods of fasting. Throughout her life she ate so little that those around her often believed that she went without food. She was extremely thin yet active for most of her life. Her fasting may also explain her many visions.

Sisters of Penance. By the time Catherine reached her sixteenth year, her family accepted her commitment to becoming a nun and allowed her to join the Sisters of Penance. That order did not have any convents, and she lived isolated in a small room in her parents' house with almost no contact with other people. After three years filled with constant prayer and visions, she underwent a mystical experience in 1366 in which Christ promised to be her heavenly spouse, and she emerged from her room in order to care for the sick and the poor. In 1370 Catherine fell into a long trance, in which she received a divine command to leave her home and enter the public life of the world. In short order, despite her inexperience in politics, she became deeply involved in the issues of her time. The major issue was the absence of the Pope from Rome. Since 1307 the popes had been residing at Avignon in southern France, which created a problem since the Pope's authority rested on the claim to be the successor of St. Peter as bishop of Rome. It was a major blow to Italian pride as well as the Roman economy. Catherine began to exhort Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome while also actively supporting his call for a crusade against the Muslims. The crusade never took place, but she impressed the Pope with the zeal and effort she put into advocating it.

Raymond of Capua. In 1374 Catherine was summoned to an assembly of church leaders in Florence to investigate whether this woman who wrote to popes, cared for the sick and poor, and fasted constantly was authentic. She convinced them of her divine mission, although they assigned Raymond of Capua as her confessor and companion to ensure that she did not starve herself to death. He became her principal confidant and biographer. Catherine also impressed the leaders of Florence, who asked her to mediate for them with the Pope over the war that had broken out between the city and the papacy over land in the Papal States. She went to Avignon in 1376 as the city's representative, which also gave her the opportunity to admonish Pope Gregory to return to Rome. She failed to secure a peace between Florence and the papacy but did influence Gregory's decision to leave Avignon for Rome in late 1376. This event is the one for which she is best known.

Death. Catherine also returned to Italy, where her reputation had grown so high that other governments asked her to mediate their disputes. At Florence in 1378 she found herself in the midst of the popular uprising known as the “Ciompi.” When an attempt was made on her life, she was bitterly disappointed in surviving it, believing that she had been denied martyrdom. Nonetheless, she played a role in settling the uprising and then returned to Siena, where she wrote (literally for the first time—she apparently was illiterate until this point in her life) the Dialogue of Divine Providence. It was a dialogue between the Heavenly Father and a human soul in which she set out her theology of love and service. Her wish to retire from the political scene received a severe setback when a major crisis erupted in the papacy. After Gregory XI's death in 1378, factionalism among the cardinals resulted in the election of two popes, one residing in Rome and the other in Avignon. The Roman Pope Urban VI called her to Rome to support his cause. Catherine wrote vehement letters seeking to resolve the Great Schism. Believing that she was at fault for her sinfulness, she reduced even further the tiny amount of food she consumed, and in early 1380 she died in Rome. She is a prime example of what historian Rudolph Bell has called “holy anorexia.”

Biography. Fifteen years later, Raymond of Capua wrote Catherine's biography, which had a large role in securing her canonization as a saint in 1461. Besides the Dialogue, her major literary work is the enormous collection of her letters. While many are eloquent exhortations to their recipients to love Christ and serve humanity, most are to popes, cardinals, and kings, often amazingly blunt in their language, on solving problems and correcting abuses in the Church. Her commitment to the unity and authority of the Catholic Church was the principal reason why Pope Paul VI in 1970 declared Catherine a Doctor of the Church, which means that her works are recommended for study by Catholics.


Rudolph Bell, Holy Anorexia (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena; translated by Kate Austin (New York: Sheed& Ward, 1954).

St. Catherine of Siena

views updated May 17 2018

St. Catherine of Siena

The Italian mystic St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a woman of intense prayer and close union with God. She was also active in political affairs and influenced the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome.

The twenty-third child of the Benincasa family, Catherine was born in Siena. She was a cheerful, bright, and intensely religious child, who later said she had vowed her virginity to Christ at the age of 7 when she had her first vision of Him. At 13 she joined the Dominican Sisters of Penitence in Siena. By the time she was 20, Catherine had become so widely known for her personal holiness and asceticism that she attracted a group of spiritual disciples—priests and laymen, men and women.

The many letters she dictated during the next 10 years show that her interest broadened from the religious to the political affairs of the time. The city-state of Florence was at war with the Pope and was torn by opposing factions. In 1376 Catherine was persuaded to act as a mediator and bring peace to Florence. She visited Pope Gregory XI at Avignon, which had been the seat of the papacy for over half a century. Catherine believed that peace would not come to Italy until the Pope returned to Rome. Pope Gregory himself wanted to move the papacy back to Rome but he had been unable to summon sufficient courage in the face of considerable opposition from his advisers. Catherine's deep spirituality and insistent words provided just the right kind of gentle, forceful persuasion.

In 1377 the Pope returned to Rome. But he died a year later and his successor, Urban VI, was harsh, unyielding, and antagonistic. Catherine kept in touch with him, once writing, "For the love of Jesus crucified, Holy Father, soften a little the sudden movements of your temper." The Pope did not follow her advice and lost the allegiance of the cardinals. Declaring that he had not been validly elected, they returned to Avignon to elect another pope. This was the beginning of the Great Schism. Catherine was crushed, and she attempted to win the allegiance of some political leaders to Urban. Her strength failed, however, and she died in Rome on April 29, 1380, surrounded by her spiritual "children." She was canonized in 1461.

Catherine wrote of her religious experiences in a series of "dialogues" with God. This work, which became an Italian classic, is still read with respect.

Further Reading

Of the many biographies of Catherine available in English, two of the best are Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena (trans. 1954), which stresses her spiritual importance, and Michael de la Bedoyère, The Greatest Catherine: The Life of Catherine Benincasa, Saint of Siena (1947), which shows the woman as she appears in her letters.

Additional Sources

Baldwin, Anne B., Catherine of Siena: a biography, Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division, 1987.

Meade, Catherine M., My nature is fire: Saint Catherine of Siena, New York, N.Y.: Alba House, 1991.

Noffke, Suzanne, Catherine of Siena: vision through a distant eye, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996.

Raymond, of Capua, The life of … Sainct Catharine of Siena, Ilkley Eng.: Scolar Press, 1978. □

Catherine of Siena, Saint (1347–1380)

views updated May 29 2018

Catherine of Siena, Saint (13471380)

A mystic and visionary, and a noted literary figure of the early Italian Renaissance, Catherine Benincasa was born in the Tuscan town of Siena to a wool dyer. She experienced religious visions as a child and withdrew to a tiny room in her father's house, taking little food, practicing selfmortification, sleeping on a hard wooden plank, and living the life of a religious hermit. After joining the Dominican order at the age of eighteen she gradually ended her solitude, tending to the poor and the sick, even as the city was struck by a deadly outbreak of plague. She attracted a small crowd of devoted followers and became famous throughout the city and its surroundings for her virtue and saintliness. She was often called on to mediate disputes and involved herself in the wars between the church and several cities of northern Italy that had banded together to rebel against papal authority. When Pope Gregory XI raised an army to threaten Florence, one of the rebel cities, she traveled to the papal court in Avignon, France, to mediate the conflict. After arriving in Avignon, she urged the pope to return his court to Rome, against the opposition of French cardinals who were then dominating the church administration.

After the death of Gregory, his successor Urban followed her advice and returned to Rome, but the church was soon split between two candidates; Catherine supported Urban, elected by the cardinals of Rome, against Clement, supported by the French. Catherine diligently wrote to the men involved in this Great Schism, attempting through sheer force of personality and eloquence to heal the breach. Impressed by her insight and the force of her personality, Urban invited her to live in Rome, where she died in 1380. Her literary works include several hundred letters written to the popes and princes of Europe and the Dialogue of Divine Providence. Catherine was revered throughout Europe for her asceticism and her devotion to the church, as well as her startling and energetic involvement in worldly affairs. She was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461.

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Saint Catherine of Siena