Catherine of Siena, born in 1347, holds a remarkable place among religious women due to the fact that she was named both a Roman Catholic saint and a doctor of the Church.
Born the 23rd child to parents Jacopo and Lapa Benincasa in Rome, Catherine was said to be an intelligent youngster with both an intensely religious and cheerful disposition. She reportedly disappointed her mother when she cut off her hair to protest what the girl considered excessive encouragement to improve her physical appearance in order to attract a potential husband. Her father ordered everyone to leave her alone and gave his daughter a room of her own, where she could pray and meditate.
At 18, Catherine entered the Dominican Third Order. She passed the following three years as a period of seclusion, austerity, and prayer, gradually attracting a number of followers. Her contemplative life morphed into a public apostolate, and her letters of spiritual instruction to followers contained an increasing amount of comments of public affairs.
Her outspokenness resulted in opposition and charges brought against her. However, the Dominican General Chapter of 1374 cleared her name. Her spirituality and actions made a significant impression on the Pope, and she worked feverishly for a crusade against the Turks.
The year 1378 marked the Great Schism, which split Christian allegiance among three popes. Catherine championed Pope Urban VI and spent her last two years in Rome, praying and offering herself as a sacrifice for the Church and the agony it was undergoing.
Catherine’s followers surrounded her when she died. In 1461, she was named a saint, and in 1939, she and Francis of Assisi became co-patrons of Italy. She was named, along with Teresa of Avila, a doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.
The spirituality of Catherine of Siena appears in her writings in The Dialogue. This work consists of four treatises. In them, she stresses that merit is present only in the virtue of love.
Catherine is particularly intriguing to present-day Christians because her life experience and her spirituality were in many ways very different from our own. This is largely due to her link to mysticism. However, many Christians who look to her as a spiritual companion see a woman who realized that holiness was a goal that could only be achieved over the entire course of a worshiper’s lifetime.
The feast day of Catherine of Siena commemorates the date of her death in 1380.