A super saint: St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church

In one of Catherine’s visions of our Lord, He presented her with two crowns, one of gold and one of thorns. He asked her to choose which she wanted. Catherine replied, “I desire, O Lord, to live here always conformed to your passion, and to find pain and suffering my repose and delight.” She then proceeded to choose the crown of thorns and pressed it hard upon her head.

By Kimberly Bruce

Saint Catherine of Siena, whose feast we celebrate on April 29, is a super saint. Not only was she a stigmatist, theologian, philosopher, mystic, and helper to the poor and suffering, but she was also a highly esteemed political ambassador utilized by popes! 

A prolific letter writer (nearly 400 personal letters written to popes, cardinals, sovereigns, nuns, students, and commoners), St. Catherine also wrote a Discourse on the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin and a series of Prayers

Her most famous work, however, is her Dialogue, a conversation with God pertaining to the spiritual life. A massive work (more than 400 pages) dictated to three secretaries over a period of five days while St. Catherine was in a period of spiritual ecstasy, it teaches one how to come closer to God and benefits the modern reader as much as it did her contemporaries. Her Dialogue became the basis for her receiving the title “Doctor of the Church” by Pope St. Paul VI in 1970. (She was canonized a saint by Pope Pius II in 1461.) 

Heroic virtue
A spiritual genius, St. Catherine also lived a life of heroic virtue. 

Born Catherine Benincasa in Siena, Italy, on March 25, 1347, she was the 24th of 25 children. From her earliest years, Catherine was blessed with visions. She assumed austere sacrificial penances, and consecrated her virginity to God at the age of 7. When she was 12, her parents wished to marry her off. She, however, wanted to enter the religious life and did everything she could to impress upon them that her only interests were prayer, sacrifices, and the things of God. She was treated horribly in return. Her parents saddled her with the hardest labor and chores at home. She was the subject of humiliations, contempt, and insults from her sisters. She withstood these adversities with a joy and sweetness that showed she had heroic patience and love of crosses. 

Catherine became a Third Order Dominican at the age of 18. She continued to receive mystical experiences or “spiritual espousals,” as they were called. She was incredibly compassionate towards those in need of mercy: the poor, those suffering the worst diseases, and those in need of conversion. 

Catherine lived on little food, many times only subsisting on the Blessed Sacrament received at Holy Mass. She offered her sufferings for the Church and the conversion of sinners, and was known to be radiantly happy. She counselled many with great spiritual wisdom. Her soul was constantly at prayer, and she was granted many miracles. God was known to miraculously multiply provisions she was supplying to those in need. She was even given supernatural strength to carry items to those in need.

Persecution
Despite abundant acts of love and mercy toward others, she suffered tremendous persecution from her religious sisters and the friars of her order. In the summer of 1370, Catherine had a vision of Heaven, hell, and Purgatory, during which she heard a command to re-enter public life. After this, she began dictating, through her secretaries, letters of encouragement to all, regardless of their states in life. Five years later, she received the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) in her own body, and two years after this, she miraculously learned to write. 

In one of Catherine’s visions of our Lord, He presented her with two crowns, one of gold and one of thorns. He asked her to choose which she wanted. Catherine replied, “I desire, O Lord, to live here always conformed to your passion, and to find pain and suffering my repose and delight.” She then proceeded to choose the crown of thorns and pressed it hard upon her head.

Papal schism
In 1373, two factions within Florence unified against Pope Gregory XI. Their aim was to strip the Holy See of its lands within Italy. War broke out between Florence and the Holy See involving the Papal States (territories in central Italy over which the Pope had held sovereignty from 756 A.D.-1870). Saint Catherine sent numerous letters, and said many prayers, exhorting other cities in Italy not to follow Florence’s example. Her words, whether written or spoken, were always convincing. She left popes, cardinals, politicians, and many others in awe of her prudence and holiness in such matters.

In 1376, Catherine travelled as an ambassador to Avignon, France, from Florence. (The papacy had been headquartered in Avignon since the election of Pope John XXII in 1314.) Her mission was to negotiate peace between Pope Gregory and the Florentines. She pleaded, as well, for the papacy’s return to Rome. She pressed the Pope to reform the clergy and administration of the Papal States. Peace was far from the hearts of the Florentines, however. Catherine endured great sufferings and dangers while there. She offered these hardships in prayer for the Church.

While in Avignon, three prelates, envious of  Catherine’s influence with Pope Gregory, decided to question her. They were hoping to “trip her up,” so to speak, with their questions. Instead, they later said to the Pope that they had never seen a soul so enlightened nor so profoundly humble as Catherine!

Return to Rome
Catherine continued to write to Pope Gregory, encouraging his speedy return to Rome. He ultimately conceded to her request and left for Rome in September, 1376. 

Two years later, Catherine was sent back to Florence by Pope Gregory for continued peace negotiations. While there, an attempt was made on her life. She escaped, though not without lamenting that she did not die a martyr. She longed to unite herself with Christ at every opportunity in order to benefit sinners and His Church. 

In 1380, even though she was sick, Catherine travelled to Rome. This time, her mission was to help restore the rightful Pope Urban VI with Rome (against the antipope Clement VII). Never one to tire of doing the will of God, there she died on April 29 at 33 years of age.

Saint Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church, pray for us!
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