The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine
Lorenzo Lotto 1506-07
Saint Catherine of Siena
1347 - 1380
Doctor of the Church
Patronage: Italy, Europe, Fire Prevention, Illness, Miscarriages, Nursing and Nurses
Feast Day: 29 April (formerly 30 April)
Canonized: July 1641 by Pope Pius II
The Middle Ages were drawing to a close and the brave new world of the Renaissance was springing to life when Catherine Benincasa was born. The place was Siena, and the day was the feast of the Annunciation, 1347. Catherine and a twin sister who did not long survive were the youngest of twenty-five children. The father, Giacomo or Jacopo Benincasa, a prosperous wool dyer, lived with his wife Lapa and their family, sometimes comprising married couples and grandchildren, in a spacious house which the Sienese have preserved to the present day.
As a child Catherine was so merry that the family gave her the pet name of Euphrosyne, which is Greek for Joy and also the name of an early Christian saint. At the age of six she had the remarkable experience which may be said to have determined her vocation. With her brother she was on the way home from a visit to a married sister, when suddenly she stopped still in the road, gazing up into the sky. She did not hear the repeated calls of the boy, who had walked on ahead. Only after he had gone back and seized her by the hand did she wake as from a dream. She burst into tears. Her vision of Christ seated in glory with the Apostles Peter, Paul, and John had faded. A year later the little girl made a secret vow to give her whole life to God. She loved prayer and solitude, and when she mingled with other children it was to teach them to do what gave her so much happiness.
When Catherine was twelve, her mother, with marriage in mind, began to urge her to pay more attention to her appearance. To please her mother and sister, she dressed in the bright gowns and jewels that were fashionable for young girls. Soon she repented of this vanity, and declared with finality that she would never marry. When her parents persisted in their talk about finding her a husband, she cut off the golden-brown hair that was her chief beauty As punishment, she was now made to do menial work in the household, and the family, knowing she craved solitude, never allowed her to be alone. Catherine bore all this with sweetness and patience. Long afterward, in "The Dialogue", she wrote that God had shown her how to build in her soul a private cell where no tribulation could enter.
Catherine's father at last came to the realization that further pressure was useless, and his daughter was permitted to do as she pleased. In the small, dimly-lighted room now set apart for her use, a cell nine feet by three, she gave herself up to prayers and fasting; she scourged herself three times daily with an iron chain, and slept on a board. At first she wore a hair shirt, subsequently replacing it by an iron-spiked girdle. Soon she obtained what she ardently desired, permission to assume the black habit of a Dominican tertiary, which was customarily granted only to matrons or widows. She now increased her asceticism, eating and sleeping very little. For three years she spoke only to her confessor and never went out except to the neighboring church of St. Dominic, where the pillar against which she used to lean is still pointed out to visitors.
At times now she was enraptured by celestial visions, but often too she was subjected to severe trials. Loathsome forms and enticing figures would present themselves to her imagination, and the most degrading temptations assailed her. There would be long intervals during which she felt abandoned by God. "O Lord, where wert Thou when my heart was so sorely vexed with foul and hateful temptations?" she asked, when after such a time of agonizing He had once more manifested Himself. She heard a voice saying, "Daughter, I was in thy heart, fortifying thee by grace," and the voice then said that God would now be with her more openly, for the period of probation was nearing an end.
On Shrove Tuesday, 1366, while the citizens of Siena were keeping carnival, and Catherine was praying in her room, a vision of Christ appeared, accompanied by His mother and the heavenly host. Taking the girl's hand, Our Lady held it up to Christ, who placed a ring upon it and espoused her to Himself, bidding her to be of good courage, for now she was armed with a faith that could overcome all temptations. To Catherine the ring was always visible, though invisible to others. The years of solitude and preparation were ended and soon afterward she began to mix with her fellow men and learn to serve them. Like other Dominican tertiaries, she volunteered to nurse the sick in the city hospitals, choosing those afflicted with loathsome diseases—cases from which others were apt to shrink.
There gathered around this strong personality a band of earnest associates. Prominent among them were her two Dominican confessors, Thomas della Fonte and Bartholomew Dominici, the Augustinian Father Tantucci, Matthew Cenni, rector of the Misericordia Hospital, the artist Vanni, to whom we are indebted for a famous portrait of Catherine, the poet Neri di Landoccio dei Pagliaresi, her own sister-in-law Lisa, a noble young widow, Alessia Saracini, and William Flete, the English hermit. Father Santi, an aged hermit, abandoned his solitude to be near her, because, he said, he found greater peace of mind and progress in virtue by following her than he ever found in his cell. A warm affection bound her to these whom she called her spiritual family, children given her by God that she might help them along the way to perfection. She read their thoughts and frequently knew their temptations when they were away from her. Many of her early letters were written to one or another of them.
At this time public opinion about Catherine was divided; many Sienese revered her as a saint, while others called her a fanatic or denounced her as a hypocrite. Perhaps as a result of charges made against her, she was summoned to Florence to appear before the general chapter of the Dominicans. Whatever the charges were, they were completely disproved, and shortly afterwards the new lector for the order in Siena, Raymund de Capua, was appointed her confessor. In this happy association, Father Raymund was in many things of the spirit her disciple. Later he became the saint's biographer.
After Catherine's return to Siena there was a terrible outbreak of the plague, during which she and her circle worked incessantly to relieve the sufferers. "Never did she appear more admirable than at this time," wrote a priest who had known her from girlhood. "She was always with the plague-stricken; she prepared them for death and buried them with her own hands. I myself witnessed the joy with which she nursed them and the wonderful efficacy of her words, which brought about many conversions." Among those who owed their recovery directly to her were Raymund of Capua himself, Matthew Cenni, Father Santi, and Father Bartholomew, all of whom contracted the disease through tending others. Her pity for dying men was not confined to those who were sick. She made it a practice to visit condemned persons in prison, hoping to persuade them to make their peace with God. On one occasion she walked to the scaffold with a young Perugian knight, sentenced to death for using seditious language against the government of Siena. His last words were: "Jesus and Catherine! "
Her deeds of mercy, coupled with a growing reputation as a worker of miracles, now caused the Sienese to turn to Catherine in all kinds of difficulties. Three Dominican priests were especially deputed to hear the confessions of those whom she had prevailed on to amend their lives. In settling disputes and healing old feuds she was so successful that she was constantly called upon to arbitrate at a time when all through Italy every man's hand seemed to be against his neighbor. It was partly, perhaps, with a view to turning the energies of Christendom away from civil wars that Catherine threw herself into Pope Gregory's campaign for another crusade to wrest the Holy Sepulchre from the Turks. This brought her into correspondence with Gregory himself.
In February, 1375, she accepted an invitation to visit Pisa, where she was welcomed with enthusiasm. She had been there only a few days when she had another of the spiritual experiences which seem to have presaged each new step in her career. She had made her Communion in the little church of St. Christina, and had been gazing at the crucifix, when suddenly there descended from it five blood-red rays which pierced her hands, feet and heart, causing such acute pain that she swooned. The wounds remained as stigmata, visible to herself alone during her life, but clearly to be seen after her death.
She was still in Pisa when she received word that the people of Florence and Perugia had entered into a league against the Holy See and the French legates. The disturbance had begun in Florence, where the Guelphs and the Ghibellines united to raise a large army under the banner of freedom from the Pope's control, and Bologna, Viterbo, and Ancona, together with other strongholds in the papal domain, rallied to the insurgents. Through Catherine's untiring efforts, the cities of Lucca, Pisa, and Siena held back. From Avignon, meanwhile, after an unsuccessful appeal to the Florentines, the Pope, Gregory XI, sent Cardinal Robert of Geneva with an army to put down the uprising, and laid Florence under an interdict. The effects of the ban on the life and prosperity of the city were so serious that its rulers sent to Siena, to ask Catherine to mediate with the Pope. Always ready to act as a peacemaker, she promptly set out for Florence. The city's magistrates met her as she drew near the gates, and placed the negotiations entirely in her hands, saying that their ambassadors would follow her to Avignon and confirm whatever she did there. Catherine arrived in Avignon on June 18, 1376, and was graciously received by the Pope. "I desire nothing but peace," he said; "I place the affair entirely in your hands, only I recommend to you the honor of the Church." As it happened, the Florentines proved untrustworthy and continued their intrigues to draw the rest of Italy away from allegiance to the Holy See. When their ambassadors arrived, they disclaimed all connection with Catherine, making it clear by their demands that they did not desire a reconciliation.
Although she had failed in this matter, her efforts in another direction were successful. Many of the troubles which then afflicted Europe were, to some degree at least, due to the seventy-four-year residence of the popes at Avignon, where the Curia was now largely French. Gregory had been ready to go back to Rome with his court, but the opposition of the French cardinals had deterred him. Since in her letters Catherine had urged his return so strongly, it was natural that they should discuss the subject now that they were face to face. "Fulfill what you have promised," she said, reminding him of a vow he had once taken and had never disclosed to any human being. Greatly impressed by what he regarded as a supernatural sign, Gregory resolved to act upon it at once.
On September 13, 1376, he set out from Avignon to travel by water to Rome, while Catherine and her friends left the city on the same day to return overland to Siena. On reaching Genoa she was detained by the illness of two of her secretaries, Neri di Landoccio and Stephen Maconi. The latter was a young Sienese nobleman, recently converted, who had become an ardent follower. When Catherine got back to Siena, she kept on writing the Pope, entreating him to labor for peace. At his request she went again to Florence, still rent by factions, and stayed there for some time, frequently in danger of her life. She did finally establish peace between the city governors and the papacy, but this was in the reign of Gregory's successor.
After Catherine returned to Siena, Raymund of Capua tells us, "she occupied herself actively in the composition of a book which she dictated under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost." This was the mystical work, in four treatises, called "The Dialogue of St. Catherine". Her health was now so impaired by austerities that she was never free from pain; yet her thin face was usually smiling. She was grieved by any sort of scandal in the Church, especially that of the Great Schism which followed the death of Gregory XI. Urban VI was elected as his successor by the cardinals of Rome and Clement VII by the rebellious cardinals of Avignon. Western Christendom was divided; Clement was recognized by France, Spain, Scotland, and Naples; Urban by most of North Italy, England, Flanders, and Hungary. Catherine wore herself out trying to heal this terrible breach in Christian unity and to obtain for Urban the obedience due to the legitimate head. Letter after letter was dispatched to the princes and leaders of Europe. To Urban himself she wrote to warn him to control his harsh and arrogant temper. This was the second pope she had counseled, chided, even commanded. Far from resenting reproof, Urban summoned her to Rome that he might profit by her advice. Reluctantly she left Siena to live in the Holy City. She had achieved a remarkable position for a woman of her time. On various occasions at Siena, Avignon, and Genoa, learned theologians had questioned her and had been humbled by the wisdom of her replies.
Although Catherine was only thirty-three, her life was now nearing its close. On April 21, 1380, a paralytic stroke made her helpless from the waist downwards, and eight days later she passed away in the arms of her cherished friend, Alessia Saracini. The Dominicans at Rome still treasure the body of Catherine in the Minerva Church, but Siena has her head enshrined in St. Dominic's Church. Pope Pius II canonized Catherine in 1461.
- Taken from Lives of Saints, Published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.