St. Catherine of Siena is a doctor of the church and Italy’s patron saint along with St. Francis.
The 24th child in a family of 25 children, Catherine of Siena was a saintly teacher and church reformer. As a young girl, she clashed with her father, who worked dying wool, and her mother, a hardy determined housewife, after she told them she wasn’t going to get married, but was giving herself totally to God.
She cut her hair and began to fast and pray. She joined a group of women who helped the poor in Siena, mostly widows associated with the Dominican order. They were suspicious of the pious young girl who kept to herself and at odds with her mother and father.
At 21 years old, Catherine went beyond the mission of the women’s group and reached out further to the church and society. Men and women, priests and laypeople, from Siena and its surroundings gathered around her. They cared for the poor– famine struck Siena in 1370 and a plague in 1374– but also they sought to reform the church and the society of their day.
At the time, Italian cities like Siena, Florence, Pisa and Padua were fighting among themselves as rival families clashed continuously over political power and economic advantages. In 1309 the popes fled the violence and factional riots in Rome for the safety of Avignon in France, where the papacy remained for almost 70 years. They call it “the Babylonian Captivity.”
Catherine and her companions pleaded with the feuding Italian cities for peace and urged the popes to return to Rome to exercise their mission as bishops of the city where Peter and Paul once led the Christian church. Catherine cajoled, warned and scolded the absent popes to do their duty as shepherds of their sheep and get back to where they belonged.
Without any formal education, Catherine learned to read and write only later in life, which made her an unlikely public figure. She was also a woman teaching and preaching– unusual for that day : “Being a woman, I need not tell you, puts many obstacles in my way. The world has no use for women in a work such as that and propriety forbids a woman to mix so freely with men.” (Letter) Despite those obstacles, Catherine traveled to the warring cities of Italy urging peace and to Avignon to plead with the pope to return to Rome.
Catherine had a deep experience of God in prayer, as the “Dialogue,” her mystical exchange with God, attests. God spoke with her and she shared those words. Her prayerfulness drew others to join her in her mission of peace-making and reform.
Jesus was her “Gentle Truth,” her guide and strength. “This is a sign that you trust in me and not in yourself: that you have no cowardly fear. Those who trust in themselves are afraid of their own shadow; they think heaven and earth are letting them down. Fear and a twisted trust in their own small wisdom makes them pitifully concerned about getting and holding on to everything on earth and throwing away everything spiritual…The only ones afraid are those who think they are alone…They are afraid of every little thing because they are alone–without me.” (Dialogue)
As a lay-woman in the church, she was not afraid to speak to power, once correcting a bishop for “ordaining little boys instead of mature men… idiots who can scarcely read and say the prayers. They consider it beneath them to visit the poor, they stand by and let people die of hunger.”
Tell the truth, God told her. Tell the truth because love impels you. “You must love others with the same love with which I love you. But you cannot repay my love. Love other people, loving them without being loved by them. Love them without concern for spiritual and material gain, but only for the glory of my name, because I love them.” ( Dialogue ) Loving God inevitably means loving others.
She died in Rome in 1378 and is buried there in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Her heart is in Siena.