The following story appeared in the April 16 Idaho Catholic Register.
by Emily Woodham
St. Catherine of Siena is among the most well-loved and controversial saints of the Church. Her writings about Jesus have appealed beyond Catholics to Protestants, and her courageous witness of charity in her care of the sick and poor has inspired millions through the centuries.
However, her extreme fasting has led modern scholars to think she may have suffered from an eating disorder. Her visions in her ecstasies were filled with references to Christ’s blood and His role as Bridegroom, and they are often disturbing, unless understood in the context of the Eucharist and other symbols of Christ’s love and redemption. Despite these uncomfortable aspects of her life, she was canonized in 1461, after close scrutiny, and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970.
Catherine Benincasa was born on the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, 1347, in Siena, Italy. She was her parents’ twenty-third of 25 children. (Only half of her siblings survived to adulthood.)
Her family was wealthy, but devout, and she incorporated her faith in her playtime as a child, making up games with penances and prayers. When she was nearly 6, she had a vision of Christ as King. When she was 7, she decided to consecrate herself to Jesus and to never marry.
Because Catherine refused to marry, her mother decided to make her life miserable at home, treating her like a servant. However, Catherine remained undaunted. Because she could rarely find time for contemplative prayer, she created what she called a “cell within,” a place of prayer within her heart where she could escape to pray while she did her chores.
Her family relented to her wishes in 1366, and she was permitted to become a Third Order Dominican, whose group for women was called the “Mantellate.” For three years, she spent her time in her little room in her parents’ home, when she was not at Mass or Confession. It was during this time that she taught her-self to read, which she said was a miraculous gift from God.
While at prayer, Christ appeared to her and said, “Daughter, do you know who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you will be very happy. You must know that you are that which is not, but I am That Which Is.”
Catherine based the rest of her call on this statement: to live in the truth that she was nothing without Him and His love and that all things exist only because of His great love. Then Christ called her to begin ministering to the sick and poor.
While many people sought her prayers and advice, others became jealous. Gossips were horrified that she would roam the streets alone as she went to houses to help, and they found it scandalous that she would have long conversations with monks and priests. Rumors flew that she was not a maiden and was a fake. This upset her not because they disparaged her, but because she was concerned for the souls of the gossips and the harm they did to the Gospel through their hatred. She remained courageous, praying for all those she encountered and chose to love everyone, even those who hated her.
Although she suffered, she maintained her happiness in Christ’s love. Contemplative prayer and frequent reception of the Eucharist fueled her good nature and benevolent work.
On the foundation of Christ’s love, she saw anything that drew a soul closer to Christ as mercy, even if it meant physical or mental suffering needed to continue. She herself endured constant physical pain and eventually was given an invisible stigmata, where one feels the wounds of Christ, but they are not visible on the body.
Over time, Catherine began writing letters, but they were written by secretaries because she did not know how to write until near her death. She also travelled with her followers. Her beliefs were questioned in 1374 by an inquisition of the Dominicans. She was found orthodox, but she was given a new spiritual director, Raymond of Capua, with whom she became close friends.
Her influence reached from monks, priests, and bishops to the Pope. From the beginning of the 14th century, the Pope resided in Avignon, France, because it was considered safer than Rome and its political intrigue. Other saints unsuccessfully tried to convince popes to return to Rome. But Catherine met with Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378) to settle a dispute for the city of Florence, and he found her irresistible. He returned the papacy to Rome in 1377.
After her travels, Catherine returned to Siena until 1378, when the new pope, Urban VI (1378-1389), asked her to come to Rome. He wanted her support because of rebellion in the Church and the declaration of an antipope, which culminated in the Great Western Schism (1378-1417), a period of time during which there were two, sometimes three, men who claimed to be pope.
Despite the scandals, Catherine’s love for Christ and His Church never wavered. She continued to pray and offer suffering for souls to return to Him and to be united with Him. She encouraged laity to remain faithful, and she constantly sent letters to admonish and edify clergy of all ranks.
She began to live only on the Eucharist, and her body was no longer able to sustain itself. She suffered a stroke and died eight days later on April 29, 1380, at the age of 33.
Before her death, she wrote The Dialogue, a series of conversations between a soul and Christ. She also wrote more than 380 letters. Her writings are considered among the best of medieval Italian literature. Although she was stringent with herself, she encouraged others to be gentle with themselves and to adjust their penances and prayer life so that they could carry out their vocations.
St. Catherine of Siena is a patron saint of nurses, people ridiculed for piety, Italy and Europe, and against fires, illnesses, miscarriages and sexual temptation. Her feast day is April 29.
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