Catherine of Siena, St.

views updated


Dominican tertiary and mystic, doctor of the church; b. Siena, probably in 1347; d. Rome, April 29, 1380.

Life. Catherine was the 23rd child (a twin) of Jacopo Benincasa, a dyer, and his wife, Lapa Piagenti. Jacopo was a good Christian and was to prove a true father to Catherine in her struggle for freedom to follow her unusual vocation. Lapa was an average Italian housewife; she was hardworking, maternally affectionate, but spiritually rather obtuse. Catherine grew up intelligent, cheerful, and intensely religious. It is reported that at the age of 7, following a vision of Christ in glory, she vowed her virginity to him. Later on, her mother repeatedly urged her to care more for her appearance with a view to marriage. Catherine at first yielded a little but then proved intractable, and to show her resolution she cut off her hair. This led to persecution from her family, which was ended when Jacopo ordered that Catherine be left in peace and allowed her a room of her own for prayer and meditation. Catherine was already being guided in her spiritual life by the Dominicans, and she greatly desired to become a tertiary of the order. This was accomplished, after some difficulty, in 1364 or 1365. The next three years she spent in seclusion from the world, devoting herself to prayer and the practice of severe austerities. It proved to be a preparation for the active apostolate that was to follow, and it ended, probably in the spring of 1368, with a vision that convinced Catherine that Christ had accepted her as his "bride." She received his command to carry her love for him out into the world and so give full scope to the charity within her.

Catherine's life from that time until her death fell into three somewhat clearly marked periods: from 1368 to the summer of 1374; from this date to November 1378; and then the year and a half until her death in 1380. The first period was spent entirely in Siena and is marked by four important developments. First, there gathered around her the nucleus of the group of friends and disciples with which her name is associated: men and women; priests both secular and religious, among whom Dominicans naturally predominated; and the laity; most of them her seniors, but all in some measure her spiritual pupils, and all accustomed to calling her "mother." The formation of this "family" led in turn to the beginning, not later than 1370, of the great series of Catherine's letters. Probably she could already read, and later would learn to write, but she dictated nearly all her letters to secretaries chosen from her "family." At first simply vehicles for spiritual instruction and encouragement, the letters soon began to touch on public affairs. The first public issue to receive her attention was a projected Crusade against the Turks. Meanwhile, in the little world of Siena, it was inevitable that her personality and influence should arouse some opposition and even slander. She was a saint who mixed fearlessly in the world and spoke with the candor and authority of one completely committed to Christ. At the same time she was a woman, young and with no social position. She was accused of hypocrisy and presumption. At this critical point it was her Dominican affiliation that saved her. Summoned to Florence to give an account of herself to the general chapter of the order held there in May and June of 1374, she satisfied the rigorous judges, and her work was given official Dominican protection. The chapter appointed Bl. raymond of capua (133099) as director of Catherine and her followers; from then on he was very closely associated with her activities.

The next four years saw Catherine's influence on public affairs at its greatest. Two issues in particular led her into church politics: the Crusade already mentioned and the war between Florence and her Italian allies against the papacy (137678). Catherine's political achievements should not, however, be overestimated. She had no interest in secular politics as such and often showed herself naïve and ingenuous when involved in them. Such influence as she had was due to her manifest holiness, to her Dominican connection, and to the impression she made on Gregory XI and, to a lesser degree, on his successor, Urban VI. She first saw Gregory at Avignon in June 1376. She had gone there at the request of the Florentines, hoping to make peace between them and the pope. This effort was in vain, but she did have much to do with Gregory's decision to bring the Curia back to Rome in that same year. She had persisted also in her efforts for the Crusade, the project that so often recurs in her letters and that had brought her to Pisa in 1375. This visit is worth recording because it was during an ecstasy in a church in that city that Catherine received the stigmata, though the wounds were visible only to herself. By January 1377 Catherine was back in Siena. During the next two years she continued her tireless apostolate in that city and in the Tuscan countryside and, with less success, her efforts for peace in Florence. Gregory had died in March of 1378, and his successor was the well-meaning but often harsh and tactless Urban VI. In the autumn the Great Schism began.

This disaster overshadowed and saddened the last phase of Catherine's life. From November 1378 until her death she was in Rome, occupied chiefly with her prayers and pleading on behalf of Urban VI and the unity of the Church, and with the composition of her book, the Dialogue, written in four treatises, which she intended as her spiritual testament to the world. Early in 1380 her agony over the state of the Church, for which she had offered herself as a victim to God, brought on a seizure, the prelude to her death. She died, surrounded by her "children," and was buried in the church of the Minerva at Rome. Her head is at S. Domenico in Siena.

Spirituality. Spiritually, Catherine ranks high among Catholic mystics and spiritual writers. Her spirituality is markedly Christocentric: gifted by nature with a fine intelligence and intense vitality, she surrendered herself to the Incarnate Word. The basic theme of her teaching

is God's creative and recreative (redemptive) love, expressed and symbolized in the Precious Blood. Her stress on the importance in Christian living of clear, exact knowledge shows her Dominican training, but her teaching derives at least as much from SS. Augustine and Bernard as (indirectly in any case) from St. Thomas. Venerated in her lifetime as a saint, she was canonized by Pius II in 1461. In 1939 Pius XII declared her and St. Francis of Assisi the chief patron saints of Italy, and, on Oct. 1, 1999, she was declared patron of Europe by John Paul II. In 1970, she was declared Doctor of the Church.

Feast: April 29 (formerly April 30).

Bibliography: Works. The standard complete edition of Catharine's letters is Le lettere di s. Caterina da Siena, ed. n. tommasÈo, 4 v. (Florence 1860), rev. ed. p. misciattelli, 6 v. (Siena 191321; repr. Florence 193940). e. duprÉ-theseider, Epistolario da Santa Caterina da Siena (Rome 1940). Saint Catherine of Siena as Seen in Her Letters, tr. v. d. scudder (New York 1905), a selection. Dialogue or Libro della divina dottrina, ed. m. fiorilli (2d ed. Bari 1912), rev. s. caramella (1928), Eng. tr. a. l. thorold (London 1896). I, Catherine: Selected Writings, ed. and tr. k. foster and m. j. ronayne (London 1980). The Letters of Catherine of Siena, tr. s. noffke (2d ed. Tempe, Ariz. 1999). Literature. Fontes vitae s. Catharinae Senensis historici, ed. m. h. laurent et al. (Siena 1936). The most authoritative early life is raymund of capua's Leggenda Major, Eng. tr. g. lamb, The Life of St. Catherine of Siena (New York 1960). a. levasti, My Servant Catherine, tr. d. m. white (Westminster, Md. 1954). a. grion, Santa Caterina da Siena: Dottrinae fonti (Brescia 1953). g. cavallini, Catherine of Siena (London 1998); Things Visible and Invisible: Images in the Spirituality of St. Catherine of Siena, tr. jeremiah (New York 1996), sr. m. The Secret of the Heart: A Theological Study of Catherine of Siena's Teaching on the Heart of Jesus (Front Royal, Va. 1995). a. curtayne, Saint Catherine of Siena (New York 1935). s. undset, Catherine of Siena, tr. k. austinlund (New York 1954). s. noffke, Catherine of Siena: Vision Through a Distant Eye (Collegeville, Minn. 1996). r. fawtier, Sainte Catherine de Sienne et la critique des sources, 2 v. (Paris 192130), v. 1 Sources hagiographiques, v. 2 Les Oeuvres de s. C. de S. r. fawtier and l. canet, La Double expérience de Catherine Benincasa (Paris 1948). Fawtier's radical criticism of the sources was examined by e. jordan in Analecta Bollandiana 40 (1922) 365411. e. duprÉ-theseider, "La Duplice esperienza di S. C. da S.," in Rivista storica italiana 62 (1950) 533574.

[k. foster]

About this article

Catherine of Siena, St.

Updated About content Print Article


Catherine of Siena, St.