At a time when spiritual women were expected to lead hidden lives in convents, Catherine remained a laywoman and was deeply involved in the political and eccesiastical affairs of her day. Her strong personality and peculiar lifestyle scandalized many. But Catherine couldn’t care less what others though of her.
Catherine was born in Siena, Italy, in March 1347, along with a twin sister who died in infancy. She was the twenty-fourth child of Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa. Giacomo was a quiet, gentle, doting father. He ran a successful wool-dyeing business that provided comfortably for his large family. Lapa was a loving but domineering mother given to emotional outbursts. By all accounts, Catherine grew up in a happy, if boisterous, home.
When Catherine was six years old, she had a breathtaking vision of Jesus. Walking home from a visit with her married sister Bonaventura, she looked up and saw Jesus seated on a throne. He was smiling, and his eyes were full of love as he raised his right hand and made the Sign of the Cross over Catherine. Catherine stood transfixed. When the vision disappeared, she burst into tears.
The vision changed Catherine. She grew serious and more prayerful. When she was about nine years old, she packed a small bag and sneaked out of the city, intending to live as a hermit in a cave just outside the city walls. But as soon as she had settled down to pray, her parents’ faces came to mind. Realizing how worried they would be when they found her missing, she returned home. No one had noticed her absence.
Back home, Catherine’s mother was not the least bit impressed with her daughter’s prayers and penances. Lapa was a down-to-earth, practical woman, and she had already picked out a nice Catholic husband for her daughter. She enlisted the help of Bonaventura, who took Catherine under her wing. She taught her little sister how to make up her face, how to dress stylishly, and how to dye her hair, all the while talking about boys and babies. Catherine responded with girlish excitement to her sister’s attentions.
A short while later, though, Bonaventura died in childbirth. Catherine was devastated. She had love her sister deeply — “More than God,” she later confessed. Her own preoccupation with her appearance seemed ridiculous now; with renewed fervor, she returned to her spiritual practices and began to live like a hermit.
Catherine’s neighbors thought her strange: an unsocial, morbid, fanatical young woman. Catherine did not defend herself to others. How could she describe to anyone her sweet visions of the Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints? “It would be like proffering mud in place of gold,” she once said. Not that all her spiritual experiences were golden. She endured diabolical visions, periods of darkness, and sexual temptation.
After three years of solitude, she decided to become a Dominican Tertiary—an unconventional idea, as only widows belonged to such groups back then. The Tertiaries spent long hours caring for the sick and the dying in a nearby hospital. Catherine joined them on their daily rounds, deliberately choosing to wash and nurse those patients from whom others shrank.
As Catherine mingled with the citizens of Siena, she kept a sharp eye out for those carrying heavy burdens—like the young gambler and alcoholic who entered a church with a knife and gored a religious painting. Catherine’s prayers were bold. “Most beloved Lord,” she prayed, “if you look strictly upon our sins, who will be able to escape eternal damnation? Is this why you came down from heaven and into the world, to punish us for our sins? No. You came to take away our sins and lead us to your mercy. Lord, give me back my brother!” The next morning, the young man asked to see a priest, confessed his sins, and received the Eucharist.
This dramatic conversion was followed by others. The citizens of Siena began to talk about the fiery little woman who was bending God’s ear and softening hard hearts. Catherine was overwhelmed by visitors, some merely curious to meet her, others in desperate need. She offered advice and prayers to all, and she was particularly good at mediating family feuds.
Soon she was attracting so many followers that the Dominican provincial had to appoint three priests to hear the confessions of her converts. She performed exorcisms, but she was not into hair-raising theatrics. Her exorcisms were simple and straightforward. “Be off with you,” she said to the evil spirit in one woman. “This creature belongs to the Lord Jesus Christ. Never again dare to torment her.” She called the devil “that old pickpocket” because he tried to snatch souls from God.
Catherine’s sudden popularity irritated some. Her circle of followers included a few good-looking young men, which fueled ugly rumors. She was derisively nicknamed “The Queen of Fontebranda” — the name of the district where she lived. Even the Dominicans weren’t sure what to make of her. For one thing, she received Communion nearly every day, an uncommon practice in medieval times. Also, during Mass she would often fall into trance-like ecstasies that distracted other worshipers and inconvenienced the priests. Mass would be over and Catherine would be absorbed in prayer, unable to hear or see the priests who politely asked her to leave so they could lock up. More than once she was carried out of the church and deposited on the front steps by the exasperated priests.
Rumors and complaints were repeatedly brought before the Dominican Fathers. In 1374 the master general of the Order summoned Catherine to Florence for a lengthy interview. Apparently, she made a favorable impression on him. Rather than scold her or limit her freedom, he appointed a highly esteemed priest, Raymond of Capua, to be her confessor and to watch over her.
Catherine lived in a chaotic time. For seventy years the pope had been absent from Rome, occupying a sumptuous palace in Avignon, France. He and his clerical community were dismissed by non-French Catholics as puppets of the French monarchy. Catherine was convinced that Pope Gregory XI’s return to Rome would stabilize the Church and bring peace to troubled Italy. But Gregory did not want to return. He was comfortable and safe in Avignon. Rumor had it that he would be killed if he tried to leave France.
Catherine wrote him repeatedly and traveled to Avignon to speak with him in person. “My sweet little Babbo,” she wrote. “Be a man. I see no other way for us and no other help in winning back your sheep that have left the fold.” Gregory stalled, but he knew Catherine was right—he had to go to Rome. In September 1376, he secretly left Avignon; four months later he made a triumphant entry into Rome. He did not adjust well to life in Italy, though; he became ill and died two years later. An Italian successor was hastily elected, Urban VI, who turned out to be an iron-fisted tyrant. The French cardinals balked. In May 1378, they abandoned Rome in protest. Urban’s response was to replace these two dozen French cardinals with new Italian cardinals. The French retaliated by electing a rival pope, Clement VII, claiming that Urban’s election was invalid. It was the beginning of the Great Western Schism.
Catherine was miserable. She felt responsible for the pitiful turn of events. If she had left Gregory alone, perhaps there would not now be two popes. “Better a pope in exile than two popes,” she said. She defended Urban and wrote angry letters to Clement’s supporters. But there was no clear “right side” in this matter: religious orders, parishes, and families were divided. Even the great saints of the era were split in their loyalties. Brigid of Sweden believed Urban VI was the “real” pope, while Vincent Ferrer sided with Clement VII.
As for Urban, the irascible lion purred when Catherine was around. “This little woman puts us all to shame,” he said to the cardinals. “We are troubled and afraid...while she is fearless.”
The schism was not Catherine’s only disappointment. For years she had lobbied in favor of a crusade that never materialized. Today we are ashamed of this violent streak on the Church’s history, but to Catherine a holy war made perfect sense as she believed it would energize the Church and unify the Italian city-states.
By the time she entered her thirties, Catherine was physically and emotionally spent. She needed every drop of spiritual energy she had left to fight her deepening despair. She believed she had failed in her mission. In fact, her work was done. In April 1380, she had a stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down. She died eight days later, age thirty-three. The news spread quickly throughout the city, and crowds of people gathered to pray and to touch her body. Many were cured instantly: a young woman whose face had been badly disfigured by leprosy; a four-year-old boy with a deformed neck; a paralytic; an elderly man with a troublesome eye disease. Today, Saint Catherine of Siena is one of only four women Doctors of Church. Her feast is celebrated on April 29.