Our next Christian figure combines the mysticism of Julian of Norwich and the worldly—albeit chaste—manners of the medieval papal court. Catherine Benincasa was born in the Tuscan city of Siena, Italy, in 1347, just as the plague broke out there. She is the first of the figures mentioned so far known by a family name, which was of relatively new use, rather than associated with a place, although she is also known as Catherine of Siena.
She came from a large wealthy merchant’s family (her childhood home still stands) and was nicknamed by her siblings “Euphresina,” a mythological reference to a joyful person. As a child she was very pious and reportedly had religious visions.
Her first challenge came at the age of 16, when her sister Bonaventura died in childbirth and Catherine’s parents decided that she should court her sister’s widower. Her response is cited by traditional hagiographers as evidence of “saintliness.” The key to a modern understanding of Catherine, in my opinion, is to view her behavior as partly adolescent rebellion and partly the expression of a choice of life other than marriage or nunnery—either or both could be saintly and a calling.
It turns out that Bonaventura had confided to her sister that her husband was “inconsiderate” and that she could only stop his worst behavior by aggressively fasting—keep in mind that in this era plumpness was viewed as a sign of beauty. Catherine had learned from her sister the power of fasting, which she used in response to her parents. In addition, to protest being urged to improve her appearance in order to attract a husband, she cut off her hair. Years later, she counseled her own confessor, Blessed Raymund of Capua, who became one of her chief biographers, that in times of trouble it is best to do what she did as a teenager: “Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee.”
In her imaginary cell she made her father into a representation of Christ, her mother into the Virgin Mary and her brothers into the apostles. Serving them humbly became an opportunity for spiritual growth. Still, Catherine resisted marriage and motherhood or nun’s veil. Instead, she sought to live an active and prayerful life outside convent walls following the model of the Dominicans.
Eventually her parents gave up. In her 16th year she became a Dominican tertiary, a monastic role dating to the Middle Ages that still exists today.
The tertiaries (Latin tertiarii, from tertius, third) or third order religious, are lay or ordained men and women who do not take vows, but participate in the lifestyle and good works of an Anglican, Catholic or Lutheran religious order—third behind the “first order” (usually, male religious priests and friars) and “second order” (associated, often contemplative, female religious) members. Some, like Catherine, wear elements of the order’s habit. Sometimes they belong to a religious institute (a “congregation”) called a “third order regular,” meaning regulated.
In her new status, Catherine initially took up the life of an anchoress, using a little room in her father's house as her “cell.” There she experienced a number of visitations from heaven and conversation with Christ until she had an even more extraordinary experience. During the pre-Lenten carnival feasting on Shrove Tuesday, 1366, while praying in her room she saw a vision of Christ, accompanied by Mary and angels. Mary took Catherine’s hand and held it up to Christ, who placed a ring on it and took her as his spouse. She then felt armed with a faith that could overcome all temptations. The ring was visible only to Catherine. She recorded her visions in a work called The Dialogue of Divine Providence.
Catherine rejoined her family and began helping the ill and the poor, caring for them in hospitals and homes. Her activities in Siena attracted a group of followers, women and men. Just as her siblings had noticed her radiantly happy disposition, these new companions saw that she had extraordinary personal charm and that her practical wisdom equaled her highest spiritual insight.
An educated young woman of some standing in society, Catherine began to participate in the politics of the day. She went to Florence in 1374, where she was interviewed at the Dominican General Chapter and acquired Raymond of Capua as her confessor and spiritual director. She began traveling with followers throughout northern and central Italy, advocating reform of the clergy and repentance and renewal for all through “total love for God.” In Pisa, in 1375, she used her influence to persuade that city and the neighboring community of Lucca not to join an antipapal alliance then gaining momentum.
According to Raymond of Capua’s biography, Catherine received the stigmata (plural of the Greek word stigma, meaning a mark, tattoo) in Pisa. Christians consider the stigmata a bodily phenomenon featuring marks, sores or sensations of pain in places on the body Jesus Christ suffered the crucifixion wounds, such as on the hands, wrists and feet. In his letter to the Galatians (Gal 6:17), Paul chooses this Greek word, typically used for an owner’s brand on the skin of an animal or slave, to refer to signs of his conversion: “I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” At Catherine’s request, only she could see them, even though later papal decree declared her the first female saint to bear the stigmata.
When Catherine returned to Siena there was a terrible outbreak of the plague. She and her circle worked bravely to relieve the sufferers.
“Never did she appear more admirable than at this time,” wrote a priest who had known her from girlhood. “She was always with the plague-stricken; she prepared them for death and buried them with her own hands. I myself witnessed the joy with which she nursed them and the wonderful efficacy of her words, which brought about many conversions.”
Among those she saved were her own confessor and several priests who contracted the disease while tending to others.
She also visited condemned prisoners, hoping to persuade them to make their peace with God. On one occasion she walked to the scaffold with a young Perugian knight, sentenced to death for using seditious language against the government of Siena. His last words were “Jesus and Catherine!”
From Avignon, meanwhile, after an unsuccessful appeal to the Florentines, Pope Gregory XI sent Cardinal Robert of Geneva (a future antipope) with an army to put down an uprising. The pope placed Florence under interdict, which meant that its inhabitants were barred from participating in certain rites, a kind of ecclesiastical quarantine. The life and prosperity of the city suffered so much as a result that its rulers asked Catherine to mediate with the pope. She was graciously received, and the pope said, “I desire nothing but peace. I place the affair entirely in your hands, only I recommend to you the honor of the Church.” But the Florentines betrayed her and attempted to woo the rest of Italy away from allegiance to the Holy See. When their ambassadors arrived, they denied any connection to Catherine.
Catherine may have failed at peacemaking, but she managed another achievement. Distressed by the Avignon papacy and its largely French and corrupt Curia, she implored Gregory to return to Rome, both in person and in letters from Siena. What follows is an extract from one of them:
Raise swiftly, father, the banner of the most holy Cross and you will see the wolves become lambs. Peace, peace, peace, that war may not delay that happy time! But if you will wreak vengeance and justice, inflict them on me, poor wretch, and assign me any pain and torment that may please you, even death. I believe that through the foulness of my iniquities many evils have occurred, and many misfortunes and discords. On me then, your poor daughter, take any vengeance that you will. Ah me, father, I die of grief and cannot die! Come, come, and resist no more the will of God that calls you; the hungry sheep await your coming to hold and possess the place of your predecessor and Champion, Apostle Peter. For you, as the Vicar of Christ, should abide in your own place. Come, then, come, and delay no more; and comfort you, and fear not anything that might happen, since God will be with you.
In 1377, the pope did indeed return. Catherine was summoned to Rome a year later by his successor, Urban VI, when the Western Schism broke out. She stayed at the papal court and tried to convince nobles and cardinals of Urban’s legitimacy. Within three years, a mixture of the strain of the court and her continuing ascetic lifestyle resulted in a stroke, from which she died, barely 33.
Pope Pius II, a native of Siena, canonized Catherine in 1461, declaring her a copatroness of Rome. Pope Pius XII named her patron saint of Italy in 1839, along with Saint Francis of Assisi. In 1970, she was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI. In 1999, Pope John Paul II declared her one of Europe's patron saints, along with Edith Stein and Bridget of Sweden. She is also the patroness of the historically Catholic American sorority Theta Phi Alpha. Her feast day is April 29.