St. Catherine was born in Siena, Italy in 1347. Her family was large (her parents had 25 children) and wealthy (her father was a prosperous wool-dyer). From an early age it was apparent that Catherine was different than the people around her. She had a vision of Christ at the age of six and made a private promise of virginity at the age of seven. When she was fifteen, her parents tried to force her to marry. In response, she cut off her hair and convinced the local community of Dominican sisters to allow her to be associated with their order, and spent three years living a life of solitude in a room in her family home where she practiced a severe asceticism, leaving her makeshift cell only to attend Mass. At twenty-one, she emerged from her room and began an intense life of service to her family and the poor and sick in Siena. She became beloved in that city when she took the lead in caring for the victims of the plague which broke out in 1374. Reading about her life, the strangeness of Catherine can make us uneasy, and it made her contemporaries uneasy too. Many of her fellow religious thought her zeal excessive and questioned her motives. But those who confronted her and called her to repentance often found that they were the ones who needed repenting.
This sort of thing tends to happen when you encounter a saint. Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian author and convert to Catholicism who received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1928, wrote about how getting to know the saints was instrumental in her deciding to enter the Church. “By degrees my knowledge of history convinced me that the only thoroughly sane people, of our civilization at least, seemed to be those strange men and women the Catholic Church calls Saints. They seemed to know the true explanation of man’s undying hunger for happiness, his tragically insufficient love of peace, justice, and goodwill to his fellow men, his everlasting fall from grace. Now it occurred to me that there might possibly be some truth in the original Christianity.”
Catherine was extraordinarily gifted, her natural abilities having been elevated to a remarkable degree by grace. Limited in her ability to read and completely unable to write, she improbably authored through dictation major works of spiritual theology as well as hundreds of letters to various political leaders. An unlikely diplomat, Catherine nonetheless mediated between warring parties in Italy and most famously travelled to Avignon, France to visit the pope and urge him to end the 70-year period of papal exile and return to his rightful place in Rome – which he did. At the request of the pope, she and her community moved to Rome where she spent the last few years of her life ministering to him and his curia. She died in 1380 at the age of thirty-three.
Undset authored a famous biography of the St. Catherine, in which she writes: “Well-meaning people were always criticizing her travels over Italy, not to speak of those in foreign lands—even to the Papal court in Avignon, at the head of a company of priests and monks, young and old men and women and God knows who else besides… They considered that a virgin consecrated to God should stay at home in her cell, say the daily Office, do good in secret, and otherwise hold her tongue. As for less well-disposed critics, all with their private reasons for being upset and annoyed—when they saw a young woman, the daughter of respectable but quite ordinary people, mixing herself up in affairs which concerned governments and prelates, stepping into the arena where complicated party interests and matters of state were decided by force of arms—what could they say, but that in spite of all her fine words about humility and the love of Christ, conversion and all kinds of spiritual things, they realized that behind all the pious words and excuses for daring to give advice to men who held the fates of countries and peoples in their hands, was an unbending will; and beneath all the fine words they heard a tone of steely determination.”
This force of will was the fruit of Catherine’s having espoused herself completely to Christ whose grace liberated her from all self-concern and worry about the good opinion of others. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she was able to act with daring and determination in obedience to God’s will and His desires for the world. Like St. Paul, love of Christ made St. Catherine unstoppable. She was (is!) a remarkable woman and a remarkable saint. She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI, and her feast day is this Wednesday, April 29.
Please remember to continue to pray the novena, found below, to St. Joseph the Worker in anticipation of his feast day on May 1.