On the Feast of the Annunciation, 1347—the same year the Black Plague arrived in the Mediterranean Basin—Lapa Benincasa gave birth to twin daughters. Catarina and Giovanna were numbers 24 and 25 to Lapa and her husband, Giacomo. Giovanna died in infancy.
Little Catherine soon developed a reputation as a joyful and pious child among her friends and siblings and among adults as well. The Benincasa household, if a little hectic, was a good home. Lapa and Giacomo were prosperous and loved one another. Lapa, already in old age, nursed the baby Catherine while keeping her post at the helm of the Benincasa household. If Lapa was loud and prone to impatient outbursts, we might well excuse her, given a life marked by perpetual pregnancy and childbirth. Moreover, there is, “heroism and tragedy in a woman who bears 25 children and buries most of them” (Anne B. Baldwin, Catherine of Siena: A Biography).
Giacomo was a man of even temper and spotless reputation. Once, a competitor sought, with some success, to ruin his reputation with falsehoods about an unpaid debt. Giacomo’s response was to assemble his family and pray for him. The man apologized and cleared the family’s good name.
Giacomo tolerated no profanity in his home. Catherine’s sister, Buonaventura, so accustomed to an atmosphere of chaste talk, became physically ill when she heard her husband Niccolo engaging in loose talk with his friends, and persuaded Niccolo to mend his offensive speech.
From Catherine’s home on the Via dei Tintori—Street of the Dyers—rose up a steady stream of prayers and devotions mixed with the vapors from the dyes. The extended Benincasa family included priests, brothers, members of the Dominican Third Order (which Catherine would later join), and even a later-canonized saint, John Columbini.
Catherine was never sent to school. Regular readings from the Bible, the preaching of the Sienese Dominicans, and hearing the heroic lives of saints constituted her education. Such a family today we would describe as devout, and surely Catherine’s family was, though it was not unusual in its time for its piety.
Catherine looked for solitude in her holy-but-bustling home to play pious games—imitating the great saints of Tuscany. She would kneel and recite an Ave Maria on each step while ascending flights of stairs, and she would whip herself with a little knotted cord. She was a leader among her playmates, and often they would join her in this discipline. At an early age she began the practice of abstaining from meat, though she kept this from her parents by passing her dinner along to her brother Stefano or to one of the multitude of cats that are so much a part of Italian households. As Bl. Raimondo, her first biographer, puts it: “The little disciple of Christ began to fight against the flesh, before the flesh had begun to rebel.”
Before regarding the pious practices of a little Tuscan girl as so unusual, we should recall with how much enthusiasm children in our own day imitate celebrities. In her play, Catherine imitated the heroes of her day—great saints of the Church.
A Vision in the Sky
When Catherine was six, she and her brother Stefano were returning home from a day in the country. Pausing at the top of the steps leading down to the town she looked across the valley at the church of San Domenico. Above the roof of the church she saw a vision of Christ seated on his throne, dressed in the robes of the pope and wearing the papal tiara. At his sides were Sts. Peter and Paul and St. John the Evangelist. Smiling at her, Christ rose from his throne and blessed her with the sign of the cross.
Meanwhile, Stefano had hurried along, unaware that his baby sister was no longer behind him. He returned, grabbed her arm and shook it. “Come along! What are you doing here?” Glancing at her brother she said, “If you could see what I do, you would never disturb me.” Lifting her eyes heavenward again, she saw that her vision had vanished. Angry with herself for taking her eyes off her Savior, she burst into tears.
The vision only reinforced the young girl’s piety and devotion. Now, when the Dominican mendicants in their black and white robes passed her home, she ran to the street to kiss the paving stones their feet had touched. Inspired by stories of the Desert Fathers, Catherine one day sought solitude in a limestone cave outside the city walls. Beginning to pray, she found herself in a trance from which she awoke standing right outside the city gate. Concluding that her vocation was not as a hermit, she hurried home, speaking to no one about her trance. She increased the severity of her fasting and penitential scourging. At seven, she made a vow of chastity, which, by the time she turned 12, would run afoul of her parent’s designs.
For a medieval Sienese family, the marriage of a daughter was more than just a matter of finding a suitable man. Hagiographer Sigrid Undset puts it this way:
For the people of the Middle Ages the family was still the most powerful protector of the rights and welfare of the individual. In a time so full of unrest and disturbance, the protection a man could expect from the community—whether state or town—was at the best uncertain. But a group consisting of fathers, sons, and sons-in-law who held fast together and faithfully defended their common interests at least promised a certain amount of security. (Catherine of Siena)
Of the Tuscan communes, Siena was among the most tumultuous, plagued by one feud after another. Under these circumstances, we can understand Lapa’s impatience with an adolescent girl who avoided standing in the doorway or leaning out the window and showed no interest in prettying her appearance to attract suitors. Catherine had kept her vow of virginity to herself.
The matter came to a head when Catherine, having gone along for a short while with her mother’s desires to keep up her appearance, recovered her intense devotion and cropped her golden brown hair. The family priest, Fra Tommaso, had counseled this act when she confided to him that she had already promised herself to Christ.
The reaction from her family was severe. “You wicked girl,” her brothers shouted at her. “Do you imagine that you can escape our authority by cutting off your hair? It will grow again, and you shall be married, even if it breaks your heart. You shall never have any peace or quiet until you give in and do as we say.”
Lapa dismissed her housemaid and reduced Catherine to the role of family servant, keeping her busy night and day and taking away her joy—her private bedroom. Catherine, however, found joy in service. She imagined her brothers were apostles. She turned her kitchen into a sanctuary. She learned from the Holy Spirit to build within her soul an inner cell, in which she found the solitude to contemplate her Savior whatever her environment. “Build an inner cell in your soul and never leave it,” she would later tell those who complained of “being overburdened with the problems if the world.”
In Siena at this time were many lay women of the Third Order of St. Dominic, the Mantallate, or “cloaked sisters.” The Mantallate were mostly widows who offered their lives to God while continuing to live in the world, caring for the poor and destitute.
As a teenager Catherine longed to be a Mantellata. Inspired by a vision in which St. Dominic handed her the black and white robe, Catherine decided to make known to her family the vow of chastity she had made as a small girl and her desire to join the Dominican Tertiaries. She told them that in her early childhood:
I promised my Savior, my Lord Jesus Christ that I would always remain a virgin, and it was not out of childishness that I promised this. I have promised him that I would never take another husband. It would be easier to melt a stone than to tear this holy resolution from my heart. My advice to you is that you therefore break off these negotiations for my marriage, for on this point I shall never obey you. If you chase me from this home because of this decision so be it. I have a Bridegroom who is so rich and powerful that he will never let me suffer want. (Undset, Catherine of Siena)
Stunned silence, then loud wails from Lapa at her daughter’s assertiveness—the same direct manner Catherine would use one day with popes and princes. But Giacomo announced that the family would not stand in the way of her vow, that they could never have found a better bridegroom for her than the one she had chosen. He turned to Catherine and asked her to pray for her family.
She now pursued her vocation full bore. She whipped herself thrice daily, wore a chain around her waist that cut into her skin, confined her diet to raw vegetables and water, and deprived herself of sleep to the point where she slept only a half hour every other day. It is almost certain that the severity of these penances would never have passed muster with a spiritual director, but Catherine had only the stories of St. Benedict and St. Francis to guide her, and—she was convinced—the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Catherine would later counsel moderation in physical discipline, telling her followers that such exercises could become an obsession and interfere with spiritual progress.
Her Mystical Marriage
In 1366, Catherine became a Mantellata, receiving the white robe, which symbolized purity, and the black cape, which symbolized humility. She was 19 years old.
For the next three years she lived in solitude in her home on Via dei Tintori, leaving the house only to go to Mass in the early morning at the Church of San Domenico. During this time she experienced several spiritual espousals, ecstatic unions with Christ deepening her love for him and her understanding of theological truths, truths which she would dictate during several day-long ecstasies at the end of her life (the product of which is her Dialogue). Also during this time she was tormented by demons, who revealed to her images of unnatural acts in a fruitless effort to tempt her.
The ecstasies culminated in her mystical marriage to Christ. It was the final day of Mardi Gras, and all Siena was feasting. Catherine prayed in her cell, doing penance for the sins of the revelers. Christ appeared to her and said:
For my sake you have thrown away the vanity of this world, you have regarded the lusts of the senses as nothing and chosen me as the only joy of your heart. Therefore now, while all the others here in your house feast and enjoy themselves, I will celebrate the solemn marriage feast with your soul. I shall betroth you to myself as I have promised. (Undset, Catherine of Siena)
In the presence of his Mother, St. John, and St. Paul, Jesus placed a ring on her finger, a diamond with four large pearls. The ring was visible only to her throughout her life. He told her: “My Daughter, from now on you must undertake without protest all the works which I come to demand of you, for armed with the power of faith, you shall triumphantly overcome all your opponents.”
Catherine was now ready to re-enter the world. She began at once on a course of almsgiving. Soon she was caring for the most wretched of the sick at the hospital Santa Maria della Scala, where she took a small cell in the cellar.
“There were in those days,” Sigrid Undset writes,
a number of patients in the hospitals whom an angel from heaven could not have satisfied: It is the same in our day, and will always be so. These became Catherine’s patients and she strove untiringly to do everything humanly possible to lessen their sufferings. Old courtesans and superannuated prostitutes who had long ago been forced to retire from the life of pleasure to which they had belonged, found a bitter consolation in making the work of their young nurse as difficult as possible.
One old woman named Cecca repeatedly cursed Catherine and accusing her of sleeping with monks, but the young girl continued day in and day out bathing her, feeding her, and cleaning her room. Even when Catherine contracted leprosy on her hands, she did not waiver in her care. When Cecca died, having come to peace at last through Catherine’s prayers and patience, only Catherine would bury the stinking corpse. When she laid down the shovel, she saw that her dirt-covered hands had been healed.
Another patient, an aging Mantellata named Palmerina at first called Catherine a fraud, but she also was converted before death. A third patient, Andrea, was a breast cancer victim whose condition caused an intolerable stench. Everyone but Catherine refused to come near her. She was inspired by Catherine’s heroic charity and died at peace.
News spread quickly of her miraculous gifts, and Catherine’s following began to grow. Her circle of intimates came to be called Caterinati. When she was not doing corporal works of mercy, praying, fasting, or going into ecstasy, she was counseling her Caterinati. “Mamma” they called her, and their numbers included monks and nuns, poets and lawyers, former philanderers, and other once-hardened sinners whose souls had been turned heavenward by the prayers, sufferings, and examples of this little saint of Siena. In time, a team of confessors was appointed to handle all those who were converting, including a pair of criminals as they were headed to the scaffold.
By the age of 27, her reputation had spread throughout Tuscany. Her profound knowledge in matters scriptural, theological, and metaphysical—with no formal training in any of these—led to an inquiry before the Dominican hierarchy in Florence. For hours, Dominican theologians questioned Catherine. They found her to be “a holy woman given exceptional graces by God.”
While in Florence, she met her new spiritual director, Fra Raimondo de Capua. He returned with Catherine to Siena to take charge of the Dominican monastery. He would become a lifelong friend and her first biographer. Arriving in Siena, they found that the plague had returned. It was during this second round of plague that she performed many miraculous cures, including those of Raimondo and Matteo di Ceni de Fazzio, rector of the hospital Casa della Misericordia. “Get up Messer Matteo, get up!” Catherine said to the dying rector, “this is not the time to lie and laze in bed!”
Indeed not, and when the plague had passed, the more critical work of saving souls remained ever present. One young man, Niccolo di Toldo, was unjustly sentenced to death for an evening of wine-fueled hotheaded talk against Siena’s current ruling clique. Angry at God, Niccolo was in no mood to prepare for a holy death, but Catherine’s grace and charm prevailed upon him to make a good confession. She met him at the scaffold, and gently held his head in her hands as the executioner’s axe fell. G.K. Chesterton in the chapter Paradoxes of Christianity, refers to the “sublime pity of St. Catherine, who, in the official shambles, kissed the bloody head of the criminal” (Orthodoxy). Bl. Raimondo makes a bad pun on her name, saying that Catarina would live to take a whole ” catena” (chain) of souls to heaven.
The confusing and perpetual political turmoil of 14th-century Tuscany that took the life of young Niccolo soon claimed the time and energy of Catherine and her circle. She had three great successes in diplomacy: The first was in convincing Pisa and, for a short time, Lucca, not to join the growing anti-papal league—an uneasy alliance between Florence and Bernabo Visconti, the tyrant of Milan. Visconti was one of the age’s true monsters. He owned thousands of hunting hounds which he forced his hapless subjects to board in their homes, including monasteries. If a dog died, a severe beating was in store for its custodian. When the pope delivered his bull of excommunication to Visconti, he made the papal emissaries eat it, parchment, seal, silk cord, and all. Through her diplomacy, Catharine kept the Pisans from this unholy alliance.
Her second great success was when she reconciled Florence with the pope. The work began in Avignon, where she represented the faithless Florentines to Gregory XI.
(It was in Avignon, by the way, that Catherine fled the room during a meeting with one of the ladies at court. So foul was the smell of this woman’s soul corrupted by adultery, that Catherine could not stand to be in the same room with her. Also in Avignon, the courtesans regarded Catherine as something of a novelty and would prick her toes with needles when she went into ecstasy to see if the Sienese maid was a fraud.)
The work begun in Avignon came to fruition in 1378, when Gregory’s successor, Urban VI, lifted the papal interdict under which the Florentines had been struggling. Aside from the inestimable spiritual costs of an interdict, Fra Raimondo explains the practical costs: “Everywhere in the world the Florentines were seized by the governments and relieved of their property in the countries where they had business connections.” Florence then stood by Urban in the Western Schism that followed.
More important than the political details, however, is the consistent theme of Catherine’s many political letters. Because she could not write, she was always attended by a band of secretaries and could dictate three letters at once on different topics, not losing the thread of any of them. Throughout her some 400 letters (an archive of priceless value to medieval historians) she stresses that a good ruler must first be a good person. The outward political conduct of a ruler was the effect of the quality of his interior life, she stressed. Freedom from the slavery of sin through sacramental confession was necessary before one could rule justly, she argued, echoing St. Augustine. Her message has fallen on deaf ears in our own age, when public officials and their followers insist that their dubious private conduct has no influence on their capacity to discharge the duties of their office.
Catherine’s third and greatest political success was also a spiritual triumph: She convinced Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome. Her correspondence with Gregory was pointed and direct, but nowhere does she question his authority. On the contrary she tells him, ” Esto vir!” You are the man. Use your authority.
If she had political failures, they were in not inspiring the princes of Europe to join Gregory in a crusade to slay the Turk, and in not seeing the Western Schism resolved before her death.
Catherine’s great spiritual contribution, beyond that of her daily example, is her Dialogue, dictated during her ecstasies. Pope Paul VI, when he declared Catherine a doctor of the Church in 1970, described her theology as reflective of “the Angelic Doctor in a surprising degree,” though perhaps not too surprising since St. Thomas was a Dominican. The theme of the Dialogue is the soul’s journey to salvation through ever deeper union with the sufferings of Christ, from which flows all of his mercy. “She exalted” Paul VI says, “the redeeming power of the adorable blood of the Son of God, shed on the wood of the cross in expanding love, for the salvation of all generations of mankind.”
After dictating her Dialogue, Catherine left for Rome. The year was 1378. Her Caterinati followed her to the eternal city and lived life much as they had in Siena before she had begun her political adventures. They cared for the poor and destitute, begged for their own needs, copied the saint’s letters, and listened to her counsel.
So severe had been her fasts, by 1380, Catherine could take no food or water at all. Each morning she struggled to walk to Mass at St. Peter’s and remained there all day in prayer at the tomb of the first pope for whose successors she had fought so hard. In her final eight days she was struck with a paralysis from the waist down. When she, at the age of 33, was at last united with her Bridegroom, thousands and thousands of mourners came, and miracle after miracle was attributed to her intercession. Canonized within a century by her fellow Sienese, Pope Pius II, St. Catherine’s body lies, appropriately, under the main altar in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. The site of an ancient temple to the goddess of wisdom is now transformed in Christ as the resting place of one of his wisest saints.
Was Catherine a Proto-Feminist?
In 1985, the Center for Spirituality at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana, inaugurated a series of annual lectures named after the school’s third and best-known president, Sr. Mary Madeleva Wolff. During her tenure, Sr. Madeleva, whose circle of close friends included T.S. Eliot, Frank Sheed, and C.S. Lewis, established a Christian culture curriculum under the direction of Bruno Schlesinger, a convert from Judaism and a disciple of historian Christopher Dawson.
Since then, this little Midwestern Catholic college has come a long way, baby. Not only has the school’s theater served as the venue for a notorious lesbian advocacy play, the list of the Madeleva lecturers is a who’s who of American Catholic feminism. Among them is the outspoken advocate for the ordination of women, Sr. Joan Chittister, who once wrote:
“I celebrate myself,” the poet Walt Whitman wrote. The thought is so delicious it is almost obscene. Imagine the joy that would come with celebrating the self—our achievements, our experiences, our existence. Imagine what it would be like to look into the mirror and say, as God taught us, “That’s good.” (Light in the Darkness)
Another lecturer was Monika Hellwig, once Georgetown University’s champion of liberation theology and an outspoken critic of Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae. In 2001, the Madeleva lecturers signed their names to the “Madeleva Manifesto.” It reads, in part: “To women in ministry and theological studies we say: Re-imagine what it means to be the whole body of Christ. The way things are now is not the design of God.”
It is clear that when the signers of this manifesto objected to “the way things are now,” they did not lament, for example, the widespread use of artificial contraception. Their chief cause is a metaphysical impossibility: the ordination of women.
Not by accident, the Madeleva Manifesto was signed on April 29, the Feast of St. Catherine of Siena. It is not difficult to understand why feminists have attempted to claim the patronage of St. Catherine. After all, a version of her life might go something like this: At six years of age a girl determines not to marry. When at age 12 she is pressured by her parents to submit to an arranged marriage, she refuses, defiantly cuts off her hair, and neglects her appearance. Later, the young woman develops quite a following in her town. Men and women alike flock to her for her counsel. Her reputation spreads, and soon she is influencing and mediating in political circles unknown to women. She arbitrates family feuds. She brokers peace within and between cities. Her reputation spreads throughout Europe. Her advice commands generals, princes, and queens. She scolds the pope himself and he follows her instruction to return the papacy to Rome. She writes one of the greatest works of medieval literature. She accomplishes all of this in 33 years. When, nearly 600 years later, she is named a doctor of the Catholic Church—the oldest of the old-boy networks—she is only the second woman to receive this honor. A real glass-ceiling breaker, she made it in a man’s world.
That version gets the basic facts right, but there is none of the self-absorption of Sr. Chittister’s looking-glass gazer in Catherine. Her life was far from being a celebration of herself; it was a celebration of her Savior, his suffering and his mercy. Catherine never stood in front of a mirror and loved herself. Rather she put into practice the truth her Holy Bridegroom revealed to her early in her mystical life: “I am that which is; you are that which is not.”
Is It All True?
“What we know of Catherine’s childhood is embedded in pious legend,” asserts the introduction to the English translation of the Dialogue. Still, there are good reasons to take the bulk of the stories of Catherine’s childhood at face value. Enough of the visions and miracles of her public life have been corroborated in sufficient detail to suggest a childhood marked by such phenomena. Moreover, the hagiography written by Bl. Raimondo of Capua (Catherine’s first biographer) is the product of interviews with friends and family members including Mona Lapa and Catherine’s first spiritual director, her cousin, the Dominican priest Fra Tommaso della Fonte, who began life as a Black-Plague orphan adopted by the Benincasas. The well-documented, severe privations she embraced as an adult were so habitual that there is every reason to believe she established these practices as a child.
- The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena
- The Life of St. Catherine of Siena by Bl. Raymond Capua
- The Letters of St. Catherine of Siena
- Catherine of Siena by Sigrid Undset