Saint Catherine of Siena
Life in 14th-century Siena seemed to offer 16-year-old Catherine Benincasa only two alternatives, an arranged marriage or life as an enclosed nun. What else could an illiterate, teen-aged daughter of a middle-class Italian merchant do? Astonishingly, Catherine refused to accept either option, fighting hard and successfully for a third way of life.
Catherine’s family, horrified at her refusal to do the conventional thing, forced her to endure months of mistreatment before she won the right to join the Dominican Third Order and live a devout life at home. For three years, Catherine lived a life of prayer, silence, and austerity in her tiny 9-by-12-foot room. During the Carnival of 1366, she experienced a mystical betrothal to Christ. A few days later, she realized that God was asking her to leave her contemplative isolation and re-enter the world. Catherine of Siena was only 19 when her public ministry began.
It was just as well that she got such an early start. Over six hundred years later, her life still strikes us as astonishing. In the next fourteen years Catherine lived the life of a dozen women. She was an ambassador and peace-maker, a nurse and a healer and a powerful evangelist whose very presence triggered innumerable conversions. She served as a counselor to Popes, queens, priests, housewives, and condemned prisoners, while composing one of the great works of Christian mysticism. Importantly, it was her status as a single laywoman that set Catherine of Siena free to answer a call from God that would alter the course of Western history and result in her becoming the first lay Doctor of the Church (as a Third Order Dominican, Catherine was not considered a nun).
Like her spiritual father, Saint Dominic, Catherine had remarkable charisms. While making peace between two branches of the Salembeni family, she sparked a religious revival. Thousands of local people would make their way through the mountains to the castle where Catherine was staying. The mere sight of her would set them clamoring for the sacraments. Seven priests worked all day and half the night hearing their confessions and could not keep up with the demand from penitents, some of whom hadn’t been to confession in forty years. Numerous healings were also attributed to Catherine. Her spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua, once fell ill of the plague and had all the symptoms of impending death. She knelt by his side and prayed for an hour and a half until he wondered if she had forgotten about him altogether. But after eating food that she had prepared, he fell asleep, and upon waking, found himself completely well.
Catherine’s life was so remarkable that we are tempted to feel as if she has nothing to say to those of us whose faith and gifts seem all too ordinary by comparison. Remarkable as her gifts were, more remarkable was her sense of personal responsibility and authority to tackle the urgent issues of her day. She had no credentials of note in medieval society except that she was a disciple of Jesus Christ, a faithful daughter of the Church, and a woman of great spiritual depth and giftedness. Few lay Christians have had a clearer sense of standing in Jesus’ place than Catherine. Her influence was based upon her personal holiness and charisms, not her position. The most staggering thing about Catherine of Siena is that she did it all as a laywoman. Precisely on this account, there is much about Catherine’s ministry common to all of us who are called to live out our faith as lay Christians.
Like us, she cared deeply about the people and the world about her. One of my favorite stories about Catherine is of her experience in Pisa, where crowds thronged about her, kissing her hands. When accused of enjoying this attention, she protested that she hadn’t even noticed how people saluted her because she had been so interested in them! Catherine cared about the good of her hometown, of Italy, and of the whole of Christendom, which included the spiritual and institutional well-being of the Church itself. Like Saint Dominic, she constantly asked "What about the others?" But Catherine did more than care, she took action. When Siena was ravaged by recurring bouts of the plague, Catherine and her disciples risked their own lives to care for the sick and bury the dead. When the Pope needed to be strengthened in his resolve to leave Avignon and return to Rome, Catherine’s counsel gave him the courage he needed.
She plunged into the murky, chaotic world of Italian religious and political life without thinking that, because she was only an uneducated woman, she had no right to be there. There were no handy self-help guides to tell her How to Reconcile Warring City States in Five Easy Steps or How to Deal With Difficult Popes. The problems before her were every bit as complex and hard to grasp as are the problems facing us in our world. And, just as achievements in the our modern world can be difficult to measure, partial, and ambiguous in impact, so were Catherine’s.
Even her greatest political accomplishment, convincing Gregory VI to return to Rome, quickly lost its luster when two years later the Church found itself with two competing claimants for the office of Pope. Thus began the "Great Schism" that lasted thirty-six years and during which three men claimed to be Pope at the same time. Just as the results of our love and work are often obscured by the pressure of the problems and personalities about us, so the long-term effects of Catherine’s courageous struggle were not visible when she died at the young age of 33. At the end of her life, almost all of Catherine’s efforts in peace-making and church reform seemed to have ended in failure.
The key to Catherine’s lasting impact lay in her collaboration with others. A group of friends and disciples had gathered around her in Siena. It was a eclectic group made up of men and women, lay, religious, and priests, members of her family (including her mother, who repented of her opposition to Catherine’s vocation) and members of the nobility. A number of the "caterinati," as skeptics referred to her friends, went on to have an enormous impact for good. One of Catherine’s lay followers eventually became Prior General of the Carthusian Order. Raymond of Capua, who was Catherine’s confessor and biographer, became Master of the Dominican Order after her death and helped lead a major reform. John Dominic, the other great leader of the Dominican Reform, was only able to join the order because Catherine healed him of a speech impediment. He played a critical role in healing the Great Schism. He also founded the famous convent of San Marco in Florence and encouraged the work of Fra Angelico, the great Dominican painter. Catherine’s influence on all these men was profound.
Saint Catherine continues to touch the lives of men and women today. In the past six months, three different women have told me how traveling to Siena to visit Catherine’s home (which is carefully preserved) and shrine has powerfully changed their lives. We get phone calls and e-mail from people all over the country looking for information about our patroness. Others show up at our workshops simply because our organization is associated with Catherine of Siena.
We have much in common with the people of Rome who, upon hearing of Catherine’s death, poured into the chapel where her body lay, bringing their sick to ask for her intercession (miraculous cures did occur that heightened the crowd’s fervor). One of her Dominican friends mounted the pulpit to speak words of praise about her life, but he could not make himself heard over the voices of the vast throng praying around him. His response seems prophetic of her continued significance for us today as a saint and Doctor of the Church. "Catherine," he said, "speaks better for herself."