The Catholic Defender: St. Catherine of Siena
Jesus, at your right hand the Queen in gold of Ophir. Hear, O daughter, consider, and incline your ear; forget your people and your father's house; and the king will desire your beauty. Since he is your lord, bow to him; the people of Tyre will sue your favor with gifts, the richest of the people with all kinds of wealth. The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes; in many-colored robes she is led to the king, with her virgin companions, her escort, in her train. With joy and gladness they are led along as they enter the palace of the king.
Psalms 45 beginning in verse 9 speaks of the heavenly hosts, the heavenly cohort who were lead to the King.
The virgin companions are filled with "joy and gladness". We who are living are "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
When I think about the princess decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes, this reminds me of the Virgin Mary, who really is the Queen in gold of Ophir.
When I think of the virgin companions, they remind me of those religious who dedicated their lives for the sake of Christ and His Kingdom.
One such companion of Mother Mary was St. Catherine of Siena , she was born in Italy on March 25, 1347.
Catherine was the youngest of 25, as a young girl, she was noted to be life-filled with a certainly brightness, sharp in her bearing. She learned from the Dominican friars who taught her humility,
Catherine Benincasa was born at Siena on 25th March, 1347. She was the youngest but one of a very large family of twenty-five. She died in Rome on 29th April, 1380. In this brief career of thirty-three years she accomplished so varied and so striking an apostolate that one historian declares, “She was the greatest and most portentous woman that, second to the Virgin Mother, has ever appeared in history — the most sublime ambassadress that God has ever sent to men.”
In Siena, there was a monastery of Dominican friars, so that from her earliest years Catherine was familiar with the black and white habit, which she herself was later to wear. She knew that the white signified Purity and the black Humility and Penance — virtues which strongly appealed to her young heart. She decided that one day she, too, would become a Dominican, but, in the meantime, she must make herself holy — a task which she undertook by various and strange means, including the saying of a “Hail Mary” on every step of the stairs. We can imagine the effect of this on an irate mother who might be waiting for Catherine to bring a message from the top of the house!
As a matter of fact, this was only one of the many things that antagonised a mother whose temper was seldom at rest. In her search for holiness, Catherine also hit on the plan of running away from home to live as a hermit. She took up her abode in a cave outside the city, and devoted herself most assiduously to prayer, but, when evening came, the gnawing pangs of hunger and the fears of being alone in the darkness so terrified her that she fled back to the city, leaving her hermitage desolate.
When she was six years old, she was one afternoon returning home with her brother along a road winding into Siena. Catherine was lagging behind absorbed in her baby fancies, perhaps picking wild flowers or playing at make-believe with the little figures that people every childish mind. Suddenly, raising her eyes across the valley, she saw a most extraordinary vision above the Church of Saint Dominic.
It took the form of a throne “decked as for a king, and on the throne Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world, in Papal raiment and with the Pope’s crown upon His head”; with Him were Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint John the Evangelist. Catherine, rapt in wonder at this marvellous vision, suddenly saw Our Lord smile tenderly upon her, then stretch forth His hand and bless her with the Sign of the Cross.
Meanwhile, her brother had rambled on in the belief that she was following, but, now, looking back, he perceived her gazing into the heavens with an expression of extreme happiness on her face. He called to her unavailingly, then, boy-like, returned and pulled her roughly by the arm. Then it was as though Catherine awoke from a deep sleep; for a moment, she stood dazed, then burst into tears at the realisation that her beautiful vision had vanished.
We can imagine the two children walking silently onward after this strange episode — people were laughing and talking in the streets, children were playing, everything was just as usual, but for Catherine everything had become different, “for the highest power in the world had overshadowed her, Eternity had spoken to her child’s heart”; Catherine, like the Apostles, had “seen the Lord.” His look had penetrated to the depths of her soul and set resounding there that urgent message heard so often by men and women whom God has destined to serve Him. “Come, follow Me — follow Me away from father and mother, from sisters and brothers, from house and home, from your town and country, follow Me wherever there are souls to be won.” Catherine responded willingly to such a call, though she knew that it would cost her the material happiness which this world offers. At the age of seven, then, she made a vow of virginity; going before the statue of Our Lady, she dedicated her life to God, promising to have no other bridegroom but Him.
Now, Italian girls reach maturity much sooner than their Western sisters; consequently, when Catherine was twelve her mother, deciding that she must be betrothed, set about looking for a suitable husband, insisting at the same time that her daughter should deck herself out in all the finery calculated to attract the male fancy. For a while, Catherine enjoyed the happy life thus offered her, as well as the company of the young men who sought her affection, but soon she realised that all this was but empty pleasure, unworthy of one who knew in her heart that God was calling her to higher things.
At the same time, she remembered her vow of virginity and, to the surprise and annoyance of her family, declared that she would not marry; furthermore, to frustrate her mother’s plans for making her attractive, she cut off her hair.
When this was discovered, a torrent of maternal abuse and invective was poured on Catherine; her family felt they would be disgraced in having an old maid on their hands, therefore, to bring her to her senses, they decided that, while waiting for her hair to grow, she should be the servant of the house and be treated as such.
Consequently, the maid was dismissed and Catherine was set to the menial work of cooking and washing-up for the family of twenty-five.
Not a murmur of complaint escaped her during this trying time, though she suffered a family persecution and was scorned by her friends.
One night as she lay in the little servant’s room at the back of the house she had a strange dream, in which she saw Saint Dominic offering her the black and white habit with the words, “Be of good heart, my daughter, and fear not; assuredly you shall wear this habit!”
At the age of sixteen, then, when her family had become convinced of her aversion to marriage, she was allowed to take the habit of a Dominican Tertiary. From then on, her life is divided into two distinct periods — first, those three years from the age of sixteen to nineteen during which she devoted herself to contemplation and prayer, unconsciously preparing herself for the great apostolate she was soon to undertake; and, secondly, the last fourteen years of her life which she spent in the service of her neighbour and the Church.
These first three years were passed in a small brick-paved room in the basement of her father’s house, where, as a Dominican Tertiary, she fasted, watched and prayed, never emerging except to go to Mass and Confession at the Church of Saint Dominic.
During this time mortification figured largely in her life though she herself was accustomed to warn her disciples against great corporal penance — it led, she declared, to self-complacency and pride.
Ecstasies and visions, too, were vouchsafed her, as is sometimes the case with souls wholly absorbed in God, but they are not an integral part of true holiness, which really consists in love of God, from which is engendered unquestioned acceptance of the Divine Will, so that we work in close union with Christ for the salvation of souls.
A feature of her life more worthy of our consideration, then, is the astonishing way she mastered temptations during these three years, for Catherine was essentially human, possessing all the evil tendencies of fallen Nature, but in her vision of Truth she saw that temptations overcome mean growth in self-knowledge, an essential factor of Humility, therefore, she did not become despondent when subjected to them. Moreover, she longed to offer to her Lord an undivided will and perfect purity of heart, both of which can only be proved under temptation.
Now the world of Catherine’s day was exceptionally corrupt. Impurity was a vice countenanced on all sides; therefore, it is not astonishing that the devil, knowing the power for good she would have in such a world, strove with all his might to stir up the lower passions of her nature by lascivious visions, threatening to torment her until she succumbed to his wiles.
Night after night, and day after day, he assailed her sight with pictures so impure that only a diabolical mind could create them, tempting her all the time to give in and be like those whom he presented to her gaze, but Catherine, with a supreme effort of the will, declared repeatedly that she had chosen Christ alone as her lover and suffering as her joy.
At one time, when these temptations seem to have possessed her very soul, she threw herself at the foot of the crucifix, saying, “Lord, where were You while my soul was being so sorely tormented?” “I was in your heart, Catherine,” came the answer, “for I will not leave anyone who does not first leave Me by mortal sin.” Then, with the realisation that she was one of those white-robed warriors of the Dominican army, whose war is against such vices, she took courage, and repeating the Holy Name, fought her way through temptations to peace.
After another such victory, Our Lord appeared to her uttering these consoling words: “Because you have, for love of Me, renounced all worldly joys and desires, I have resolved solemnly to keep My betrothal with you and to take you for My bride in faith,” and as He spoke He put on her finger a golden ring, saying, “Fear nothing, you are shielded with the armour of Faith and shall prevail over all your enemies.”
Soon after this, Our Lord commanded her to go forth from her seclusion in order to labour for the salvation of souls by works of charity and zeal. For the next few years, then, we find her devoted to alms-giving and nursing the sick of the city. Here she showed a predilection for the most repulsive cases.
One old woman covered with cancerous sores whom no one would attend was Catherine’s chosen patient. Daily she visited her, bathed her sores and attended to all her needs, at the same time getting nothing for her kindness but violent abuse. This woman even went so far as to spread the most devastating stories about Catherine’s moral character, but even this did not lessen her devotion.
At length, when the malicious old creature died and no one would go near enough to bury her, Catherine dug the grave and buried her with her own hands.
Repeatedly, too, she visited the prisons where hosts of men and women were sent to execution in dereliction and despair; over and over again, she won such souls to God. Sometimes she would spend whole nights in the cell of the condemned, pleading with them to turn to God before the morning brought their execution. On one occasion, a young man was unjustly condemned to death.
Try as they would, the priests could not convert him from his desire for revenge and his blasphemies against God, Who, he thought, had abandoned him. We are told that he walked up and down his cell like a madman and would not hear of Confession. But Catherine went to the unhappy youth; for days she prayed and pleaded with him. At length her words gave him so much comfort and joy that, having made his confession he begged her to be with him at the hour of execution. “Stay with me and do not leave me,” he pleaded; “then all will be well and I shall die content.”
At dawn next morning, she waited for him on the scaffold. Read her account of the way she describes it herself and try to imagine the virile courage and manliness of soul that must have been hers. She says: “I waited for him then, at the place of execution, and I waited in continual prayer."
Calling on Our Lady, I prayed and did violence to Heaven to obtain the grace that, at the last moment, Mary would give him light and peace. Then he came, gentle as a lamb, and when he saw me, he began to smile and he would that I should make the Sign of the Cross over him. I made it and said to him, ‘Up to the marriage, dear, my brother; soon shall you be in life everlasting.’ With great meekness, he lay down and I placed his head aright (upon the block) and bent down and bade him think only of the blood of the Lamb. His lips said nothing but ‘Jesus’ and ‘Catherine.’ And as he spoke, thus I took his head in my hands and I closed my eyes and said, ‘I will.’ Then I saw his soul meeting with Christ and I knew that it had been saved by pure grace and mercy, without merit. Then his soul turned, as the bride turns, at the bridegroom’s door and, looking back, bends her head in thanks to those who have attended her. But when the body had been taken away, my soul rested in such peace and quiet and in a fragrance of blood so sweet that I could not bear to wash from off my habit the blood that had sprinkled it.”
Meanwhile, a host of friends and disciples had gathered around this wonderful woman — politicians, soldiers, poets, outcasts, kings and queens sought her advice. People implored her mediation in the countless family quarrels that destroyed the city life of the time.
In every case, she showed that vitality of interest that springs from true, unselfish friendship and that is able to draw out and sustain the best in every nature, strong or weak. She gave herself whole-heartedly to each one as though his life and concerns were all that mattered to her. In every case, too, she insisted on purity of life and prayer. She never began this spiritual intercourse with a rebuke, but, identifying herself with the sinner, she pointed out that she, too, knew those sins of the body; then she passed on to the contemplation of some divine truth — the mercy of Christ, the purity of Our Lady, the wonder of God’s love, indicating at the same time the loveliness and desirability of virtue; then she deftly contrasted the conduct of her client, letting him see himself in all the ugliness of his sin. In true Dominican style, she thus led the sinner to repentance by a positive method, stimulating his will to virtue by visions of holiness and by depicting his offended God in such a way that the most degraded sinner would feel ashamed. Even the notoriously wicked Queen Joanna of Naples she dealt with in this fashion.
She could not endure sentimentality or effeminate weakness; on the contrary, manliness was a quality she required from all her friends, both men and women. They must be strong personalities, ready to put their hands to painful and difficult tasks. “Do not stand still; do not look back; do not leave hold of the plough,” she was fond of saying to those inclined to hesitate on the road to conversion or inclined to waver in the conquest of souls. In this, she was merely echoing Our Lord Himself, Who said: “He who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is not worthy of Me.”
Adviser to Popes
Meanwhile, the residence of the Popes at Avignon and the corruption of the clergy were having evil repercussions all over Europe. One city after another revolted against the over-lordship of the Pope; wars broke out, in which the efforts of kings and rulers were directed towards crushing the temporal power of the Papacy.
Papal Legates came to Catherine to discuss with her methods of reform and appeasement. She listened to them all, exhorting them to reform their lives and to work for the reformation of the Church. Such was their confidence that they persuaded her to go as ambassadress to these unruly cities in an attempt to make peace; gladly she did so, travelling to Florence, Pisa and Lucca as the Pope’s representative. In 1376, she went to Avignon, to the Pope (Gregory XI) himself, to plead for the rebellious city of Florence. This was her great opportunity of pleading personally with the Pope to return to Rome, and to reform the lives of the clergy. This she felt was her life’s crusade and Avignon her battlefield, where, by means of her powerful sword of Truth, she would carry the cause of God to victory.
Admitted to the presence of the Pope, she pleaded first for the city of Florence; then, with all the vehemence of a passionate nature, she exhorted Gregory to cast aside his idleness and luxury, to be a man, and to do what he knew was his duty. She pointed out the corruption of the Cardinals, telling them to their very faces that their vicious lives were a disgrace to mankind and would certainly bring down the wrath of God on the world. The whole Papal court stood aghast at the daring words of this astonishing woman. One official insultingly asked: “Couldn’t the Florentines find a man to send instead of a wretched little woman like you?”
The Cardinals besought the Pope to get rid of her, and even threatened her life, but to Catherine it mattered not if she suffered death, provided she carried to victory the cause of God. For, even though she might condemn the human weakness of the Pope, she regarded his office as the most sanctified on earth.
For days, then, she appeared before the timid Gregory, each time urging him more vigorously to cease disgracing his noble office. “Be a man, Holy Father. Arise! I say to you that you have nothing to fear. If you do not do your duty, then, indeed, you might have cause to fear. You know you ought to come to Rome — then be a man and come; and if any try to stay you, turn to him and say, as did Our Lord, ‘Get behind me, Satan’.”
So deep an impression did her words make on Gregory that he resolved to obey her command and return to Rome. Moreover, with his soul swelling with Catherine’s supernatural energy, he ignored the pleas of the Cardinals, ignored even his own aged father, who, falling on his knees, begged him to remain in Avignon. Meanwhile, the Cardinals appealed to the king of France to intervene.
King Charles V ‘the Wise’, with his brother Louis (the First) of Anjou, hastened to the Papal court to deal personally with this obnoxious woman, but, at his very first interview, he was not only won over to her way of thinking, but was even persuaded to lead a crusade against the Infidels.
On January 17, 1377, Pope Gregory XI made his triumphal entry into Rome and the ‘Babylonian captivity’ was ended.
The next three years Catherine spent in Rome, repeatedly active as ambassadress and adviser to Popes Gregory XI and his successor, Urban VI., and working tirelessly for the reformation of the Church, serving the destitute and the afflicted, and dispatching eloquent letters on behalf of the Papacy to the courts and governments of Europe.
Three secretaries were needed to write her letters, which she dictated simultaneously. Today, these letters, four hundred in number, together with her Dialogue and a series of prayers, rank among the classics of the Italian language, written as they are in the beautiful Tuscan tongue of the fourteenth century.
By this time, however, her strength was being rapidly consumed, and with that heroic self-sacrifice so characteristic of her nature, she besought God to let her bear the punishment for all the sins of the world, asking Him to receive the sacrifice of her body for the unity and renovation of the Church.
In her last agony it seemed that the Church, the barque of Peter, was laid upon her shoulders and that it was crushing her to death with its weight.
After a prolonged suffering of three months she died with the words, “You, Lord, call me and I am coming to You. . . . Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit.” It was 29 April 1380.
To all appearances Saint Catherine’s life had been a comparative failure, for though she had laboured for fourteen years, when she lay dying there was little evidence of the good she had effected; the Church was soon to be torn by the Great Schism, begun as early as 1378, while corruption and pluralities would continue their dire work until the convocation of the great Council of Trent.
But in the world’s history, there have been other such failures, which, in reality, were “triumphal defeats of which Victory herself might be jealous.” After all, Our Lord died with the words, “Traitor” and “Impostor,” ringing in His ears, while His very Apostles were too ashamed to show their faces; but His defeat was the sign of victory to a redeemed people.
Catherine of Siena had given her life for a great and noble cause. She had helped to reform the Papacy, but, more important still, she had collected a mighty band of men and women dedicated to the service of God. As I have already said, the friends of Catherine made other contacts; their influence extended far and wide. In reality, it was her influence, for was it not she who had pointed out their paths to them and shaped their destiny for good? Her whole life had been spent in the service of God and of His Church; well might she be depicted in art with her protecting arm encircling the Papal tiara! For, though to her contemporaries she appeared to fail, history has given the lie to their biased judgments, while the verdict of heaven comes in her own assurance: “God asks not a perfect work, but infinite desire.”
Something changed her when she was 21. She described an experience she referred to as her "mystical marriage to Christ." There are debates over whether or not St. Catherine was given a ring with some claiming she was given a bejeweled ring, and other claiming the ring was made of Jesus's skin. St. Catherine herself started the rumor of the latter in her writings, but she was known to often claim the ring itself was invisible.
Such mystical experiences change people, and St. Catherine was no exception. In her vision, she was told to reenter public life and to help the poor and sick. She immediately rejoined her family and went into public to help people in need.
She often visited hospitals and homes where the poor and sick were found. Her activities quickly attracted followers who helped her in her mission to serve the poor and sick.
St. Catherine was drawn further into the world as she worked, and eventually she began to travel, calling for reform of the Church and for people to confess and to love God totally. She became involved in politics, and was key in working to keep city states loyal to the Pope. She was also credited with helping to start a crusade to the Holy Land. On one occasion, she visited a condemned political prisoner and was credited with saving his soul, which she saw being taken up to heaven at the moment of his death.
St. Catherine allegedly was given the stigmata, but like her ring, it was visible only to herself. She took Bl. Raymond of Capua has her confessor and spiritual director.
From 1375 onwards, St. Catherine began dictating letters to scribes. She petitioned for peace and was instrumental in persuading the Pope in Avignon to return to Rome.
She became involved in the fractured politics of her time, but was instrumental in restoring the Papacy to Rome and in brokering peace deals during a time of factional conflict and war between the Italian city states.
She also established a monastery for women in 1377 outside of Siena. She is credited with composing over 400 letters, her Dialogue, which is her definitive work, and her prayers. These works are so influential that St. Catherine would later be declared a Doctor of the Church. She is one of the most influential and popular saints in the Church.
By 1380, the 33-year-old mystic had become ill, possibly because of her habit of extreme fasting. Her confessor, Raymond, ordered her to eat, but she replied that she found it difficult to do so, and that possibly she was ill.
In January of 1380, her illness accelerated her inability to eat and drink. Within weeks, she was unable to use her legs. She died on April 29, following a stroke just a week prior.
St. Catherine's feast day is April 29, she is the patroness against fire, illness, the United States, Italy, miscarriages, people ridiculed for their faith, sexual temptation, and nurses.