April 29 is the feast of St. Catherine of Siena, O.P. Catherine Benincasa was born in 1347 in Siena, Italy. She was the 25th and final child born to her parents. Her father was a wool dyer and her mother was mistress of a large and active household. (Catherine was actually a twin, but her sister died shortly after birth.)
As a girl, when asked who my patron saint was, the only St. Catherine I knew at the time was Catherine of Siena. So I decided to take her as my patroness. That was fine with my mother, since I hadn’t been particularly named with a saint in mind! I didn’t know much about her, but she seemed like a strong, intelligent, interesting woman, so I stuck with her.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned much more about her and have become much more impressed with her spunk, her intelligence, her courage and her great faith. She was a woman who took matters into her own hands at a time when parents, and particularly fathers of families, made life-determining choices for their children. She cut her hair rather than get married. She accepted her parents’ decree that she should become a servant of the family if she wouldn’t behave as a daughter was expected to behave. She spent many years devoted to prayer alone in a small room at home. She was a mystic who allowed the love of God to flow forth through her to those in the world around her. She ventured out into a turbulent world, becoming an advisor to popes and other leaders of church and state. She cared for plague victims and organized others to do so as well. For most of her life she couldn’t read or write, but that didn’t stop her. She dictated and sent letters to people great and small. She recorded her insights into the spiritual life in works that are read to this day. Her influence has lasted far beyond her short 33 years.
In 1970, she became one of the first two women honored as Doctor of the Church for her writings.
I asked several people who are familiar with the work of St. Catherine of Siena to share a short idea or two with us about her. These are the responses I received, in order received.
From Susan T. Mahan, Ph.D.
I like the fact that Catherine did not seek to be the center of attention even though she had an exceptional spiritual life. When her family was angry at her for refusing to marry and isolated her; then made her work as a servant and wouldn’t let her out of the house, she totally accepted it and prayed her way through the day. She was not resentful but saw the gift in her circumstances. She also followed her inner discernment as to what the Lord wanted for her and trusted Him. She did not bend to what others expected – her family, her social class, even the Pope.
From Michael Fones, O.P.
What I really admire about Catherine was her ability to cross boundaries and categories that normally would have been off limits to women – and often, even men. She traveled extensively, at a time when travel was unusual and dangerous. Because of her holiness, she was brought in to mediate between factions at odds with one another. She was, as Jesus said of those who are born from above, like the wind; you couldn’t tell where she came from or where she was going. I find her fascinating because of her single-minded devotion to the Blessed Trinity, and the intense personal relationship she had with God, which is so beautifully expressed in her masterpiece, the Dialogue.
From Sr. Barbara Long, O.P.
I think the most interesting things for me are all of her efforts in striving to bring peace to the Church and the warring city states of Italy. At the end of her life, she thought that she was a failure, and yet look what a legacy she has left us.
In these our turbulent times, the example of St. Catherine of Siena is one upon which we should all draw.
Image by Bro. Robert Lentz, OFM