Early Life of Virtue
St. Catherine was born in 1347 in Siena, to virtuous and pious parents. She was favored by God with extraordinary graces from a very young age, and had a love for prayer and the things of God. At the age of seven she consecrated her virginity to God by a private vow. When St. Catherine was twelve, her mother and sister wanted to persuade her to marriage, and thus began to encourage her to pay more attention to her appearance. To please them, she dressed in bright gowns and in jewelry that was fashionable at the time. She soon repented of this vanity. Her family regarded solitude as unsuitable to marital life, and thus began to thwart her devotions, depriving her of her little chamber or cell in which she spent much of her time in solitude and prayer. They gave her many hard and distracting employments. St. Catherine bore all this with sweetness and patience. The Lord taught her to make herself another solitude in her heart, where, amidst all her occupations, she considered herself always as alone with God, and where no tribulation could enter.
Later, her father finally approved her devotion and all of her pious desires. At fifteen years of age, she generously assisted the poor, served the sick, and comforted the afflicted and prisoners. She continued on the course of humility, obedience, and a denial of her own will. Amidst her sufferings, it was her constant prayer that they might serve for the expiation of her offences, and the purifying her heart.
Intimacy and Espousal with Jesus
As a more formal consecration to God, at eighteen years of age, she received the long desired black and white habit of the third order of St. Dominic. Being in a third order meant that one would live the Dominican spirituality, but in the secular world. She was the first unmarried woman to be admitted. From that time her cell became her paradise, and she steeped herself in prayer and mortification. For three years she lived as a hermit, keeping silence and not speaking to anyone but God and her confessor. During this period, at times loathsome forms and enticing figures would present themselves to her imagination, and the most degrading temptations assailed her. Afterwards, the devil spread in her soul such a cloud and darkness that it was the severest trial imaginable. She continued in a spirit of fervent prayer, humility, and confidence in God. By these she persevered victorious, and was at last delivered from those trials which had only served to purify her heart. When Jesus visited her after this time, she asked Him: "Where were thou, my divine Spouse, while I lay in such an abandoned, frightful condition?" She heard a voice saying, "Daughter, I was in thy heart, fortifying thee by grace." In 1366, she experienced what she called a ‘mystical marriage’ to Jesus. When Catherine was praying in her room, a vision of Christ appeared, accompanied by His mother and the heavenly host. Taking the girl's hand, Our Lady held it up to Christ, who placed a ring upon it and espoused her to Himself, saying she was now armed with a faith that could overcome all temptations. To Catherine the ring was always visible, though invisible to others.
Her Service to Others
After three years of solitary life in her home, St. Catherine felt that the Lord was calling her to now lead a more active life. She therefore began to associate more with her fellow men and serve them. God recompensed her charity to the poor by many miracles, often multiplying provisions in her hands, and enabling her to carry necessaries to the poor, which her natural strength could not otherwise have borne. In her ardent charity she labored for the conversion of sinners, offering her continual prayers and fasting. In Siena, when there was a terrible outbreak of the plague, she worked constantly to relieve the sufferers. "Never did she appear more admirable than at this time," wrote a priest who had known her from childhood. "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."
All her discourses, actions, and her very silence, powerfully induced men to the love of virtue, so that no one, according to Pope Pius II, ever approached her who did not go away better. She was able to reconcile even the worst enemies, more by her prayers than by her words. For instance, one man whom she was trying to persuade to live virtuously, when she saw her words were not having an effect, she then made a sudden pause in her discourse, to offer up prayers for him. They were heard that very instant, and an entire change was wrought in the man. He then reconciled himself to his enemies, and embraced a penitential life. The most hardened sinners could not withstand the force of her exhortations and prayers for a change of life. Thousands came to hear or only to see her, and were won over by her words and example to repentance.
There gathered around the saint a band of earnest associates. For example, an aged hermit abandoned his solitude to be near her, because, he said, he found greater peace of mind and progress in virtue by following her than he ever found in his cell. Another found that when she spoke the divine love was enkindled in him, and his contempt of all earthly things increased. A warm affection bound her to these whom she called her spiritual family - children given her by God that she might help them along the way to perfection. They experienced her spirit of prophecy, her knowledge of the consciences of others, and her extraordinary light in spiritual things. She read their thoughts and frequently knew their temptations when they were away from her. At this time public opinion about Catherine was divided; many revered her as a saint, while others called her a fanatic or denounced her as a hypocrite. Her confessor at this time, Father Raymond, would later become the saint’s biographer.
The Peacemaker for the Church
One of St. Catherine’s major achievements was her work to bring the Papacy back to Rome from its displacement in France. She also became known as a peacemaker – she began by helping settle various family quarrels, and then her work broadened to include establishing peace in the Italian city states. For example, in 1375, news came to St. Catherine through Fr. Raymond that the people of Florence had entered into a league against the holy see. Pope Gregory XI, residing at Avignon, wrote to the city of Florence, but without success. Internal divisions and murders occurred among the Florentines, and soon made them sue for pardon. St. Catherine was sent by the city magistrates to become their mediatrix. Before she arrived at Florence, she was met by the chiefs of the magistrates, and the city left the management of the whole affair to her discretion, with a promise that she should be followed to Avignon by their ambassadors, who should sign and ratify the conditions of reconciliation and confirm every thing she had done. His holiness, after a conference with her, in admiration of her prudence and sanctity, said to her: "I desire nothing but peace. I put the affair entirely into your hands; only I recommend to you the honor of the church." However, the Florentines were not sincere in their search for peace, and they continued to carry on secret intrigues to draw all of Italy from its obedience to the holy see.
The saint had another point no less at heart in her journey to Avignon. Pope Gregory XI, elected in 1370, had his residence at Avignon, where the previous five popes had also resided. The Romans complained that their bishops had for seventy-four years past forsaken their church, and threatened a schism. Gregory XI made a secret vow to return to Rome; but not finding this design agreeable to his court, he consulted St. Catherine on this subject, who answered: "Fulfill what you have promised to God." The pope, surprised she should know by revelation what he had never revealed to anyone, was immediately determined to do so. The saint soon left Avignon. We have several letters written by her to him, in order to hasten his return to Rome, in which he finally did in 1376.
Later, St. Catherine wrote to pope Gregory XI in Rome, strongly exhorting him to contribute by all means possible to the general peace of Italy. His holiness commissioned her to go to Florence, still divided and obstinate in its disobedience. She lived some time in there amidst many dangers even against her own life. Over time she brought the people of Florence to submission, obedience, and peace, though not under Gregory XI, but under Pope Urban VI. This reconciliation occurred in 1378, after which St. Catherine returned to Siena.
Conclusion of the Saint’s Life
St. Catherine thus returned to Siena, where she continued her life of prayer. She had a perpetual union of her soul with God. For, although obliged to often converse with different persons on so many different affairs, she was always occupied and absorbed in God. In a vision, Jesus presented her with two crowns, one gold and the other of thorns, bidding her to choose which of the two she pleased. She answered: "I desire, O Lord, to live here always conformed to your passion, and to find pain and suffering my repose and delight." Then, eagerly taking the crown of thorns, she pressed it upon her head.
In 1378, when Urban VI was chosen as Pope, his temper alienated from him the affections of the cardinals, several of whom withdrew. They then declared the late election null, and chose Clement VII, with whom they retired out of Italy, and resided at Avignon. St. Catherine wrote strong letters to the cardinals who had first acknowledge Urban, and afterwards elected another; pressing them to return to their lawful pastor. She wrote as well to Urban himself, exhorting him to bear cheerfully under the troubles he found himself in, and to abate of a temper which had made him so many enemies. Through Father Raymond of Capua, her confessor and ultimately her biographer, the pope asked St. Catherine to return to Rome. He listened to her and followed her directions. She also wrote to the kings of France and of Hungary to exhort them to renounce the schism.
While laboring to extend obedience to the true pope, St. Catherine’s health began to decline. She died of a stroke in Rome in 1380, at the age of thirty-three. The people of Siena wanted to have her body. There was a miracle told in which they were partially successful. Knowing that they could not smuggle her whole body out of Rome, they decided to take only her head, which they placed in a bag. When stopped by the Roman guards, they prayed to St Catherine to help them. When they opened the bag to show the guards, it appeared no longer to hold her head but to be full of rose petals. Once they got back to Siena they reopened the bag and her head was visible again. Due to this story, St Catherine is often seen holding a rose. The incorruptible head and thumb were entombed in the Basilica of San Domenico, where they remain today. Saint Catherine's body is buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, which is near the Pantheon.
St. Catherine's letters are considered one of the great works of early Tuscan literature. She wrote 364 of them, more than 300 of which have survived. In her letters to the Pope, she often referred to him affectionately as "Papa" or "Daddy" ("Babbo" in Italian). Roughly one third of her letters are to women. Other correspondents include her various confessors, among them Raymond of Capua, the kings of France and Hungary, the Queen of Naples, and numerous religious figures. Her other major work is “The Dialogue of Divine Providence,” a dialogue between the soul and God, recorded between 1377 and 1378 by members of her circle. Often assumed to be illiterate, St. Catherine is acknowledged by Raymond in his biography as capable of reading both Latin and Italian, and another hagiographer, Tommaso Caffarini, claimed that she could write.
Pope Pius II canonized Catherine in 1461, and Pope Paul VI gave her the title of Doctor of the Church in 1970, making her one of the first women to receive this honor. Her feast day is April 29.
Butler, Alban. (1864). The Lives or the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, Vol. IV. D. & J. Sadlier, & Company.
Lives of the Saints, Saint Catherine of Siena. Online: http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/CATSIENA.htm.