Doctor of the Church, Mystic (1347-1380). Feast Day: April 29
Born Catherine Benincasa in Siena, Italy, and the youngest of 25 children, Catherine was drawn to a life of prayer from her earliest years. She had her first vision of Christ at the age of 6. As a teenager she strongly resisted her mother’s insistence that she prepare for marriage. Instead, at the age of 15 she joined the Dominican Tertiaries, known as the Mantellate, and donned the Dominican habit: a white tunic and veil and a black mantle. As a lay Dominican she continued to live at home and to perform various works of charity, but soon she was drawn into political and religious activities. Her predominant concerns were the reform of the Church, including the clergy, and most importantly the return of the pope from France to Rome.
Catherine fought for her Christian faith early in life – first against her parents, and then against skeptics who doubted the heavenly visions she received. Some thought she was a saint, others a religious fanatic, and still others a hypocrite. She was interviewed and questioned by theologians and religious leaders, all of whom found her to be authentic.
When the Black Death plague pandemic swept Europe and Catherine’s community of Siena, she devoted her life to nursing, caring for the most seriously ill and those with cancer and leprosy. She was often able to convert sinners who would initially taunt her and gossip about her. Later, she visited death-row prisoners to work for their conversion so that they could receive Last Rites, officially known as the Viaticum.
Catherine’s life was filled with extraordinary mystical phenomena such as visions and revelations, infused knowledge, raptures, the mystical espousal and mystical marriage, and the stigmata, which appeared on her body only after her death. Her writings consisted of 382 letters, various prayers, and the Dialogue of Divine Providence, which she dictated to secretaries, often in a state of ecstasy. Her devotion to the Church was revealed in her writings. She wrote numerous letters of admonition and pleading to the pope at Avignon, begging him to return to Rome for his own good and the good of the Church. She warned: “Self-love has poisoned the whole world and the mystic body of the Church.”
For more than 70 years, the popes had been in voluntary exile in Avignon, France, because of the wretched conditions in Rome and most of central Italy at the time. It had become so dangerous that, in 1305, Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, moved the Papal Curia to Avignon, to property that popes had owned for centuries. Catherine’s reputation as a respected mystic proved valuable, as her request for the pope to return to Rome was granted and the papal court was brought back to Rome.
Catherine of Siena is one of those saints who have a universal appeal, and both her spirituality and her mission in the Church are of perennial relevance. In her last years she lived in Rome with some of her followers, near the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where her body was placed under the main altar after her death in 1380. She was canonized a saint in 1461.
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” ― Saint Catherine of Siena
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