Catherine of Siena

Lesson 13:  Catherine of Siena

Scope:  One of only three female Doctors of the Catholic Church, Catherine is one of the most extraordinary figures in church history. She was a member of the third-order community of Dominican sisters in her native Sienna, but Catherine became an important figure for the whole church.  Whether she was consoling a condemned prisoner, chastising lax prelates, or comforting those stricken by bubonic plague, Catherine strove to follow Jesus.  She traveled to Avignon to urge Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, which he did.  Catherine dictated hundreds of letters, which are a precious source for understanding this woman on fire with the love of God.  Like the one on whom she modeled her life, she died at the age of 33.

  1. Catherine Benincasa, born in 1347 and dead at the age of 33, has left Christianity an extraordinary example and body of writings.
    1. Her letters - more than 380 survive - take up four large printed volumes.
    2. Her Dialogue is regarded as a masterpiece of the spiritual life.
    3. Catherine is one of only three female Doctors of the Church out of thirty-three total doctors of the Church, the other two being Teresa of Avila and Theresa of Lisieux.
    4. She is co-patron of Italy with Francis of Assisi and co-patron of Europe with Benedict and several others.
  2.  The world into which Catherine was born was a particularly difficult and tumultuous one.
    1. A year after she was born in Siena, an independent city-republic about 40 miles south of Florence, the bubonic plague, perhaps in conjunction with other diseases, killed about a third of the population of Europe and more than half the residents of Siena.
    2. A great deal of social and political unrest followed in the wake of the plague, and the disease killed others two more times during Catherine's life.
    3. The papacy had been relocated to Avignon in 1305.
      1. It is important to remember that the pope is the bishop of Rome.
      2. Italy saw a great deal political instability and economic decline as a result of the pope's absence.
  3.   Catherine was the 24th of 25 children of a reasonably prosperous dyer, Giacomo                         Benincasa, and his wife, Lapa.
    1. She received visions at an early age.
    2. She made clear to her parents that she wished to remain a virgin and, thus, not to marry.
    3. As a young woman of 18, Catherine joined a group of Dominican third-order sisters, the Mantelatte.
      1. The group provided her with a structured life and spiritual direction.
      2. These women were not cloistered, so Catherine was able to engage in a life of active charity.
      3. She learned to read and, ultimately, to write.
  4. Catherine was active in Siena.
    1. She cared for the sick and dying at the hospital of Siena during recurrences of the bubonic plague.
    2. Famously, she counseled, consoled, and brought to contrition a man condemned to death for a crime; according to tradition, his head fell her lap at his execution.
  5. Catherine became involved in what we could call papal politics when Siena and its northern neighbor participated in a politically motivated war against the Papal States and, hence, the pope.
    1. Catherine became convinced that the pope must return to Italy.
      1. She wrote letters to the pope, including several in which she questioned his courage and urged him to resign if he lacked the will to do what is right: "Since (God) has given you authority and you have accepted it, you ought to be using the power and strength that is yours .  If you don't intend to use it, it would be better and more to God's honor and the good of your soul to resign."
      2. Catherine urged Pope Gregory XI to reform the entire church.
        1. She criticized many papal appointments.
        2. She called for the pope to support a crusade, in part because it would unify Christendom against a common enemy.
    2. Catherine journeyed to Avignon to urge the pope to return to Italy.
    3. After Gregory's return to Rome, he persuaded her to come to Rome, where, in fact, she died in 1380.
  6. Catherine's letters present many sides of her devotion and involvement in the world; here, we can look at only a sampling.
    1. Much of the information in this lesson about Catherine, the papacy, and church reform comes from the letters.
    2. Catherine believed that Christ despised no one - not those of low or illegitimate birth or those who have sinned - and imitating him meant that we should despise no one.
    3. She wrote to a prostitute in Perugia that she did not recognize the dignity accorded her by Christ's sacrifice.
    4. Catherine told the pope that the goods of his church were intended to be held in trust for the poor but were being used to wage war.
    5. She asked a political leader to treat with mercy a man who was harassing and threatening a house of nuns.
    6. Catherine's language, like Clare's, sometimes pushed religious imagery in unexpected directions, as shown, for example, by her peculiar metaphors:  "Oh, Jesus, gentlest love, as a sign that you had espoused us you gave us the ring of your most holy and tender flesh at the time of your holy circumcision on the eighth day......Notice that the fire of divine charity gave us a a ring not of gold but of his own purest flesh."
    7. Perhaps thinking of Francis's reception of the stigmata, Catherine wrote, "We always become one with the object of our love."
  7. Catherine had a deep devotion to the crucified Christ.
    1. She was conscious of being a follower of St. Francis of Assisi in this devotion.
    2. In 1375, while praying during Holy Week in a church in Pisa, she experienced the reception of Christ's wounds, although they did not appear on her body.
    3. One of the most popular stories about Catherine is that Christ appeared to her and offered her a choice of crowns - a royal diadem or a crown of thorns.  She, of course, chose the latter.

Suggested Reading: 

  1. Selections from The Letters of Catherine of Siena.
  2. Mary Ann Fatula, Catherine of Siena's Way

Next Week’s Lesson:  Bernardino of Siena