Saint Catherine of Siena
Siena Italy. March 25, 1347.
Rome, Italy. April 29, 1380.
Canonized by Pius II in 1461.
Doctor of the Church
She was proclaimed ‘Doctor of the Church’ by Pope Paul VI in 1970.
Saint Catherine was born in Siena, Italy on March 25, 1347. She and her twin sister were the last of her parents’ 25 children. Her father, Mr. Benincasa, was a dyer. Her mother, known as Monna Lapa, was also from a humble family.
In 1353, when she only 6 years old, she had her first vision. She saw Christ with Saints Peter, Paul and St. John the Evangelist on a Church. Jesus, dressed in pontifical garb, blessed her. For her, this was like a prophecy and a sign that she had to belong entirely to God. A few months later, in response to this call, Catherine made a private vow of virginity. She was faced with great opposition at home for her decision to dedicate herself to mortification and prayer. When she turned 12, her parents decided to marry her off, so as to definitively end her life of piety, but she cut her hair and shut herself in her room. So, her parents and her sisters hardened against her and attempted to put all possible obstacles in the way of her vocation. They tried to distract her, so that she might become more worldly, offering her dresses and other such vanities. They forced her to do the hardest jobs at home, tried to interrupt her times of prayer, and would not allow her a private room to pray alone in. However, she did not protest; she obeyed and patiently offered everything up to the Lord. In this way, she learned to live interior solitude in the midst of distractions and to pray in her heart in the midst of occupations. At the same time, she was able to mortify her likes and to live austerely.
One day, when Catherine was in prayer, her father saw a dove land on her head. This event led him to understand that his daughter’s attitude was due to a divine calling and that he had to let her do God’s will. Thanks to this, Saint Catherine had more freedom; she began to serve the poor and the sick, given over completely to others in a life of apostolate. At the same time, she spent long hours in prayer alone in her room, with a great penitential rigor.
When she was 16, she entered as a Third Order Dominican, maintaining her vow of virginity as a lay person. For three years she confined herself to her room, living in absolute solitude and speaking only to her confessor. She suffered from many temptations and vexations of the devil, but they helped her to strengthen her faith and her trust in God. Later on, she asked the Lord about this time period, “Where were You while I was suffering this abandonment?” And the Lord answered her, “I was in your heart, strengthening you with my grace.”
Saint Catherine received the great gift of being mystically espoused with Jesus. When she was 20 years old, during prayer one day, Jesus appeared to her, accompanied by his Mother and other saints. Mary took St. Catherine’s hand and drew it close to Jesus, who placed a gold ring on her finger while he said,“I, your Creator and Savior, I espouse you today and I give you my faith, which will never waver and which will be conserved until the day in which we celebrate our wedding feast in Heaven.” Christ, whom she loved above all things with steadfast fidelity, became her spouse.
After this, Catherine’s life became a succession of mystical experiences and of intimate dialogue with Jesus, who granted her many extraordinary graces. Another of the important graces in her life was the exchange of hearts. The year after her mystical espousal, St. Catherine pleaded the Lord to take her heart and keep it for himself. Immediately she felt that he had really taken her heart. Three days later, Jesus appeared to her with a heart in his hand and said, “My beloved daughter, just as the other day you offered me your heart and I took it, I now give you my heart, and from now on it will occupy the place where yours was.” In April, 1375, she also received the stigmata in an invisible way. While looking at a crucifix, she saw 5 rays of blood coming from the wounds of the Crucified Christ, which left the stigmata of his Passion in her.
With the grace of the espousal, the saint also experienced a call to give herself even more to the Church and to others. Leaving the solitude of her cell, she surrendered herself to the service of the most needy. She also began to live an apostolic life of relations with others. Little by little, her reputation of holiness spread and a group of followers, who went to her for spiritual advice, was formed around her. In addition, she became an influential person in society. Her letters to various persons of nobility and politics are famous. She even wrote to Pope Gregory XI, who at the time resided in Avignon, vehemently insisting on his return to Rome.
Catherine travelled frequently, promoting the reform of the Church and peace among nations. She put forth all her effort and did everything she could, and, at the same time, persistently prayed to God, entrusting all her work to Him.
After the death of Gregory XI, Pope Urban VI was chosen as his successor. However, he suffered much opposition from the cardinals, who even went to the point of choosing an antipope, causing a great schism in the Church. St. Catherine fought to reconcile the cardinals with the Holy Father, going from one place to another to speak with them and sending them letters.
In 1380, the saint went to Rome to defend Pope Urban VI and to support him. During her stay in Rome, her health rapidly deteriorated. Despite her poor physical health, she went to St. Peter’s Basilica to pray for the Pope and for the Church. One day she felt a great weight on her shoulders, experiencing that the Lord placed the ship of the Church on her. In only a few months, she must remain in bed and she began to weaken greatly. On April 29, at 33 years old, surrounded by some of her followers, she passed away. She was buried in the Basilica of Santa María Sopra Minerva, although later parts of her body were taken as relics to other places.
She was canonized by Pope Pious II in 1461. In 1939, Pius XII declared her the main patron saint of Italy, alongside St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Paul VI granted her the title of doctor of the Church in 1970. In 1999, Pope John Paull II declared her the patron saint of Europe, along with St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
St. Catherine’s love of the Eucharist was so great that she reached the point of living only off the Eucharist. This is a grace of God which a few saints have received.
She was one of the few people whose confessor allowed to receive communion frequently. One day, during the celebration of the Holy Mass, when the priest elevated the Host, she, while saying the words, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof,” interiorly thought, “It’s true, Lord, I am not worthy.” In that very moment, she heard the voice of Christ say, “But I am worthy of you entering under mine.” And, at the same time, the Host flew to her mouth. Some witnesses say that this miracle happened more than once.
We can tell from her writings that she had a special devotion to the Blood of Christ. She tells about an ecstasy in which the Lord allowed her to enter into his side to drink his blood:
“That day, the Lord did this with me: He showed me from far off his most holy side and I cried because of my immense desire to draw my lips close to his sacred wound. Then he placed my mouth closer to the wound in his side. My soul, moved by such a great desire, entered into that wound, and in it found such a sweetness and such knowledge of his divinity that, if you could only understand it, you would be amazed that my heart was not broken into pieces and that I’ve been able to keep living with a similarly excessive love and ardor.”
Referring to the strength that the Eucharist has to satisfy the heart of man, she affirms:
“If we so wish, the Blood of Christ will become our drink and his Flesh our food. Man’s hunger cannot be satisfied in any other way and only the Blood can satiate his thirst. Even if a man could own the whole world, it would not be enough to satisfy him, because the things of the world are lesser than him. He cannot be satisfied by anything less than the Blood because the Blood is filled with the eternal divinity of the Infinite Being, whose nature is superior to that of man…Oh, Lord of unspeakable mercy! You are sweetness for those who love you, gentleness for those who taste you and even much gentler for those who drink of you.”
She also practiced, and recommended the practice, of making spiritual communions. She defines these as “mystical communions of desire which taste and find charity in the Blood, upon considering that it was poured out for love; because of this desire, the soul is inebriated, inflamed and satiated.”
She tells us how she, at age 7, had a vision of Jesus in which she saw him as King, seated on a throne. At age 7 she privately consecrated herself to Jesus before a painting of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom she prayed with these words: “Most Holy Virgin, look not upon my weakness, but rather grant me the grace to take as my spouse he whom I love with all my soul, your Most Holy Son, our only Lord, Jesus Christ! I promise Him and you, that I will never take any other spouse.”
During her mystical espousal with the Lord, it was Mary who gave Catherine her Son’s hand. One day in ecstasy, she heard God say to her, “Since you have renounced all worldly pleasures out of love for me, and you wish to find joy only in me, I have chosen to espouse you in faith and to solemnly celebrate our wedding.” In this moment, the Blessed Virgin appeared with St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, and David, the prophet. Mary took St. Catherine’s hand and drew it close to Jesus, who placed a gold ring on her finger while he said, “I, your Creator and Savior, espouse you today and I give you my faith, which will never waver and which will be conserved until the day in which we celebrate our wedding feast in Heaven.”
From St. Catherine’s writings we can deduce her close relationship with Mary and her trust in her. It is known that on more that one occasion, Our Lady helped her in miraculous ways. For example, on the feast of the Assumption, when the saint was confined to her bed, she prayed for the grace to be able to attend mass in the Cathedral. Mary answered her petition and, against all expectations, the saint was able to attend and perfectly follow the mass.
- In Siena, Italy, St. Catherine’s house is preserved next to St. Dominic’s Basilica. The chapel of the Crucifix, where St. Catherine saw 5 rays of blood, coming from the wounds of the Crucified Christ, which left the stigmata of his Passion marked in her, is also found there. An oratory, which was the kitchen where the saint, in ecstasy, fell into the fire and came out unharmed, is also found there. In addition, there are several relics of the saint there, among them, her head, one of her fingers, and some personal items.
- The Salimbeni Castle, to which the saint was invited because of her friendship with the family, is located in Rocca a Tentennano, close to Siena. While there, she received the grace of learning, by infused knowledge, to read and write. At 30 years old, without receiving any instruction, one day felt moved to take up a pen and write a prayer. With clear and precise penmanship, she wrote, “Oh Holy Spirit, come to my heart. With all your strength, draw it to you, true God. Grant me charity with holy fear, protect me from all evil thoughts, kindle and inflame in me your love, making all burdens seem light. Help me in all my needs, Christ, Love. Christ, beloved!”
- En Rome, Italy, one can visit the Basilica of “Santa Maria Sopra Minerva,” where St. Catherine of Siena is buried. From the church, one can also visit the sacristy, called the “Chapel of the Transition,” where the saint died on April 29, 1380.
- In Italy, other relics of the saint’s body are venerated in various churches: in Venice, in the Church of Saint John and Saint Paul, her foot; in Bologna, in the Basilica of St. Dominic, a heel; in Rome, in the Monastery of the Holy Rosary of Mount Mario, a hand. One of her ribs is conserved in Belgium, in the Sanctuary of St. Catherine of Astenet.
- The habit of the third order Dominicans, which belonged to St. Catherine, is preserved in Milan in the Basilica of “Santa Maria delle Grazie.”
From the saint herself:
The principle work written by St. Catherine of Siena is “The Dialogue.” In this book, the saint dictates to her scribes what the Lord inspires her to say. It is a profoundly spiritual work. In addition to this book, some of her letters and prayers are also preserved. They both can be found in religious bookstores and some web pages offer digital formats.
From the popes:
- Pope John Paul II’s Motu Proprio from October 1, 1999, in which he proclaims Saint Catherine of Siena, St. Bridget of Sweden and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Patron Saints of Europe.
- Pope Benedict XVI’s General Audience, November 24, 2010.
From other authors:
- “The Life of St. Catherine of Siena: The Classic on Her Life and Accomplishments as Recorded by Her Spiritual Director” by Raymond of Capua.
- “Lay Siege to Heaven. A Novel of St. Catherine of Siena” by Louis de Wohl.