by Rev. Matthew Mauriello –
Caterina di Benincasa was born on March 25, 1347 in Siena, Italy, to Giacomo di Benincasa, a cloth dyer, and Lapa Piagenti, who was about 40 years old when she gave premature birth to twin daughters, Catherine and Giovanna. As a child, Catherine was so merry that the family would call her Euphrosyne, which is Greek for “joy” and the name of an early Christian saint. She is considered a great saint of the Church as a tertiary of the Dominican Order and a mystical theologian. She also worked to bring the papacy of Pope Gregory XI back to Rome from France and to establish peace among the Italian city-states.
According to her confessor and biographer, Blessed Raymond of Capua (1330-1399), Catherine had her first vision at the age of 5, when she saw Christ seated in glory with the Apostles Peter, Paul and John. He recounted that at age 7, she vowed to give her whole life to God. When she was 16, her older sister Bonaventura died in childbirth and she learned that her parents wanted her to marry the widower. She was opposed to this and started a strict fast and cut off her long hair to discourage any suitors.
St. Catherine chose to live an active and prayerful life outside a convent’s walls. After a vision of St. Dominic, she joined the “Mantellate,” the local association of Dominican tertiaries and received the habit. They taught her how to read and she lived in a spirit of prayer and solitude in the family home. In 1368, at the age of 21, Catherine experienced what she described in her letters as a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus. She wore the invisible wedding ring that He gave her and He told her to leave a withdrawn life and enter the public life of the world. She began helping the infirm and the poor by taking care of them in hospitals or homes. These early pious activities attracted a group of followers, both women and men, who gathered around her.
Due to political tensions, she began travelling with her followers throughout northern and central Italy, advocating reform of the clergy and advising people that repentance and renewal could be done through “the total love for God.” She used her influence to sway Pisa and Lucca away from alliance with an anti-papal league. It was in Pisa in 1375 that, according to Raymond of Capua’s biography, she received the invisible stigmata.
In addition to travel, St. Catherine began dictating letters to scribes. They reached those in authority, begging for peace between various principalities of Italy and for the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome. She corresponded with Pope Gregory XI (r.1370-1378), asking him to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States. She traveled to in Avignon in June 1376 and tried to convince him to return to Rome. He did indeed return his administration to Rome in January 1377; however, to what extent this was due to her influence is a topic of debate. He died in March 1378 and the following November, with the outbreak of the Western Schism, the new pope, Urban VI (r.1378-1389), summoned her to Rome. She tried to convince nobles and cardinals of his legitimacy, both meeting with them and writing letters to persuade others.
These letters are considered one of the great works of early Tuscan literature and more than 300 have survived. In writing to the pope, she often referred to him affectionately simply as “Papa” meaning “pope” instead of the formal form of address as “Holiness.” Her theology can be described as mystical and is a fruit of her own spiritual life or those of others. She viewed Christ as a “bridge” between the soul and God and transmitted that idea, along with her other teachings, in her book The Dialogue of Divine Providence. Her contemporaries recounted that much of it was dictated while she was in ecstasy. For many years, she had accustomed herself to a rigorous abstinence and she received the Holy Eucharist almost daily. She wrote: “You, eternal Trinity, are a deep sea. The more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek You” (Dialogue 167).
St. Catherine of Siena died at the age of 33 on April 29, 1380, in Rome and her tomb is at the Basilica of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. She was canonized on June 29, 1461, by Pope Pius II, also from Siena. In his decree of April 13, 1866, Blessed Pope Pius IX declared her as a co-patroness of Rome and on June 18, 1939, Ven. Pope Pius XII named St. Catherine of Siena as one of the two patron saints of Italy, together with St. Francis of Assisi. On October 3, 1970, St. Paul VI proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church and on October 1, 1999, St. John Paul II named her as one of the six patron saints of Europe, together with Sts. Benedict, Cyril and Methodius, Bridget of Sweden and Edith Stein.
Rev. Matthew R. Mauriello is a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport since 1991, and is currently chaplain at St. Camillus Nursing Home in Stamford. He is an author and a regular columnist for Soul Magazine.