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Santa Caterina da Siena (St. Catherine of Siena)

An extraordinary woman who had the courage to tell the truth to popes and kings, she was able to have an enormous influence on politics in an age of strife, wars and plague, when women did not even learn to read. The Patron saint of Siena, and co-patron of Rome, Italy and Europe, St. Catherine is at the forefront among the mystics and writers of the Church, a fighter for peace, for the unity of the church, and an author of magnificent spiritual prose.
Santa Caterina painting of Tiepolo's school
Santa Caterina, a painting of Tiepolo's school

Biography

In the district of Fontebranda (now Nobile Contrada dell'Oca), Siena, on March 25, 1347 the 24th of 25 children Jacopo Benincasa, a dyer, and Lapa di Puccio de' Piacenti was born, her baby twin sister Giovanna dying at birth. The Pope was, at that time, in Avignon and Christianity was threatened by heretical movements.

When she was six, Jesus appeared to her in the attire of a Supreme Pontiff, with three crowns on his head and a red mantle, next to him St. Peter, St. John and St. Paul. At 7 he made a vow of virginity, and her days were not dedicated to children's plays, but to prayer, penance and fasting: she reduced food and sleep, abolished meat and ate raw herbs and fruits.

At age 12, while young Catherine wished to enter the Dominican order, her parents wanted her to marry, but she reacted strongly: she cut her hair, covered her head with a veil and shut herself up in the house. Then, one day the father saw a dove hovering over his daughter in prayer, and accepted her choice.

At age 16 she took her religious vows in the Third Order, called the "mantellate" (for their a black Dominican mantle over a white tunic); this congregation included mostly mature women or widows who continued to live in the world, but keeping the vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.

At the end of the Carnival 1367, during a vision, that will always remain present in the mind and heart of St. Catherine, the Blessed Virgin presented her to Jesus, who gave her a splendid ruby ring, saying, "I, your Creator and Savior, take you in marriage; confident that you will keep pure until you celebrate your eternal wedding with me in Paradise".

She began an intense charitable activity for the poor, the sick, the prisoners, while Europe was devastated by pestilence, famine, wars. Meanwhile she lived a mystic's life, full of struggles with the devil, levitation, ecstasy, bilocation, talks with Christ.

Her "political" activity

Catherine did not go to school, had no teachers, but received from the Lord the gift of knowing how to read; she also learned to write, but often used to dictate her letters, dispatched to popes and kings, common people, and also to prisoners. Her Dominican cell became a gathering place for artists and scholars, clerics, confessors and secretaries, (called the "Caterinati"). Her epistles were a mixture of prose and poetry, firm and uncompromising, addressed to both religious and civil authorities, and usually began with the owrds: "I, Catarina, the servant of servants of Jesus, write to you in His precious blood".

The issues on which Catherine turned her attention were the pacification of Italy, the need of a crusade, the return of the papacy to Rome and the reform of the Church. After the plague in Siena, on April 1, 1375, in the church of Santa Cristina, she received bloodless stigmata. That same year, she tried to dissuade the leaders of the city of Pisa and Lucca from joining the anti-papal League. The following year she went to Avignon as an ambassador of the Florentines for a peacekeeping mission that failed, but Pope Gregory XI was persuaded by strong-willed Catherine to return to Rome, which he did on January 17, 1377. A year later Gregory died and was succeeded by Pope Urban VI (1318-1389). However, a part of the Cardinals rejected this election and appointed another Pope, a situation that started a schism of the Western Church that was to last with several popes and anti-popes forty years, ending only with the Council of Constance.

In 1377 Catherine was called to Rome by the new pope for help in the new schism, but in Rome she fell ill and died on April 29, 1380, at the age of 33, the same as Christ.

Death and burial

She was buried in the cemetery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, located near the Pantheon, Rome. After the reporting of miracles at her tomb, or according to other sources because the soil of the sepulture was too damp, Raymond of Capua had her body exhumed and buried inside the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where it is still today.

On that occasion, Raymond, at the time General of the Dominican Order, obtained from Pope Urban VI permission to detach the saint's head. The sacred relic was then secretly taken to Siena in a silk bag which is still preserved in her House. A story is connected to this episode: the men carrying the bag out of Rome were stopped by the Roman guards, and obliged to open the bag, which however appeared full of rose petals. Once they got back to Siena they reopened the bag with the saint's head. Raymond informed the Consistory of the Republic of Siena that Catherine's head was in town, and with a solemn procession the relic was carried to the Basilica of San Domenico, and enclosed in the copper bust now to the right of the entrance to the chapel that was built in her honor after Catherine's canonization in 1461.

Works

Catherine, according to the testimony of her first biographer and confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua, had the wonderful gift of being able to read and write, and her works are part of early Italian literature for the beautiful, powerful style:
  • "Dialogue of Divine Providence", for which Paul VI named her "Doctor of the Church."
  • 381 Letters, considered among the great works of early Tuscan literature.
  • 26 "Prayers", mostly composed in the last 18 months of her life.

Patronage

In 1939 Pope Pius XII named her a joint Patron Saint of Italy with Saint Francis of Assisi. In 1999, Pope John Paul II made her one of Europe's patron saints, with Edith Stein and Bridget of Sweden. She is also the patroness of the American "Theta Phi Alpha" women's fraternity.

Suggested reading and links

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