-fresco of St. Catherine of Siena – done by a family member who knew her, showing her true likeness
St Catherine of Siena, OP, one of the Great Reformers of the Catholic Church, publicly excoriated priests, bishops, cardinals, and popes. She called them “wretches”, “idiots”, “blind hirelings”, and “devils incarnate”. Catherine sought to shame the clergy into reform; her methods and her inspiration for reform were direct and challenging.
Catherine claimed that her reform rhetoric was revealed to her in a series of visions. The legitimacy of these visions was reinforced by Catherine’s miracles. From early in her career, she was known for her miraculous ability to subsist solely on the Eucharist, and was given the grace of the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, during her life, among other supernatural phenomena.
Born Catherine Benin in Siena, Italy, to Giacomo di Benincasa, a clothdyer, and Lapa Piagenti, possibly daughter of a local poet, in 1347, she was the last of 25 children. A year after she was born, the Black Death, or bubonic plague, came to Siena for the first time. Sometime around 1353, at the age of seven or eight, Catherine experienced a vision of Christ that led her to make a vow of virginity.
In about 1366, Catherine experienced what she described in her letters as a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus. Her biographer also records that she was told by Christ to leave her withdrawn life and enter the public life of the world. Catherine dedicated much of her life to helping the ill and the poor, where she took care of them in hospitals or homes.
Her early pious activities in Siena attracted a group of followers, both women and men, while they also brought her to the attention of the Dominican Order, who had primary responsibility for the Inquisition in many regions. Catherine was summoned by the Inquisition to Florence in 1374 to interrogate her for possible heresy. After this visit, in which she was deemed sufficiently orthodox, she began travelling with her followers throughout northern and central Italy advocating reform of the clergy and the launch of a new crusade and advising people that repentance and renewal could be done through “the total love for God.”
Just as Catherine was not repulsed by the filth of her neighbors’ diseased bodies, she was also not repulsed by the corruption manifested in the body of Christ. For most of her career, she tended to the sick, the hungry, and the dying, much like Blessed Teresa of Calcutta has done in our own day. She wrote many letters to religious leaders and secular officials of her day encouraging and demanding, under penalty of perdition, reform, peace, order, atonement, repentance, reconciliation, and adherence to the Gospel.
Her other work, “The Dialogue of Divine Providence”, is one of the most well known works in Catholic mystical writing, referred to simply as St Catherine’s “Dialogue”, or “The Dialogue”. Its premise is a dialogue between a soul who “rises up” to God and God, and was recorded by her followers between 1377 and 1378. She opens with a description of sin and the need for penance. She synthesizes both the apologetics of love and of humility under the rubric of the atonement for sin.
Saint Catherine of Siena in her Dialogue writes about tears. She describes the different ways that God uses our sadness to bring us into ever closer union with Him. We are sad when we encounter the emptiness of sin and the fear of eternal punishment. These turn us away from sin and toward virtue. Those who begin to turn away from sin, however, still lose the things they love, from worldly goods to beloved friends. Those who have grown accustomed to feeling close to God may even feel, for a time, a loss of spiritual consolation, as if God were withdrawing from them. These losses also lead to sadness, although of a very different quality and for different reasons. This helps to purify love of its selfishness, so that the soul may turn more and more to God. Even sadness due to evils committed against God and the people that we love can bring us closer to God, because we can unite our suffering with the suffering of Jesus on the cross. God uses our sadness to lead us to Him.
St Catherine died of an apparent stroke in Rome, in the spring of 1380, at the age of thirty-three. She was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1970, one of only three women and thirty men to hold this title in the history of Christianity.
“Charity is the sweet and holy bond which links the soul with its Creator: it binds God with man and man with God.” – Saint Catherine of Siena
“Lord, take me from myself and give me to Yourself.” -St. Catherine of Siena
“O Deity eternal, O high, eternal Deity, O sovereign, eternal Father, O ever-burning fire!… What do Your bounty and Your grandeur show? The gift You have given to man. And what gift have You given? Your whole self, O eternal Trinity. And where did You give Yourself? In the stable of our humanity which had become a shelter for animals, that is, mortal sins” -St. Catherine of Siena.
“Oh, inestimable Charity, sweet above all sweetness!… It seems, oh, Abyss of Charity, as if thou wert mad with love of Thy creature, as if Thou couldest not live without him, and yet Thou art our God who has no need of us.” – St Catherine of Siena
“Eternal Trinity, Godhead, mystery deep as the sea, You could give me no greater gift than the gift of Yourself. For You are a fire ever burning and never consumed, which itself consumes all the selfish love that fills my being. Yes, you are a fire that takes away the coldness, illuminates the mind with its light, and causes me to know Your truth. And I know that You are beauty and wisdom itself. The food of angels, You gave yourself to man in the fire of your love.” -from “The Dialogue”
“I’ve appointed the Devil to tempt and to trouble My creatures in this life [St. Catherine of Siena reports that Our Lord said to her]. I’ve done this, not so that My creatures will be overcome, but so that they may overcome, proving their virtue and receiving from Me the glory of victory. And no one should fear any battle or temptation of the Devil that may come to him, because I’ve made My creatures strong, and I’ve given them strength of will, fortified in the Blood of My Son. Neither the Devil nor any other creature can control this free will, because it’s yours, given to you by Me. By your own choice, then, you hold it or let it go if you please. It’s a weapon, and if you place it in the hands of the Devil, it right away becomes a knife that he’ll use to stab and kill you. On the other hand, if you don’t place this knife that is your will into the hands of the Devil—that is, if you don’t consent to his temptations and harassments—you will never be injured by the guilt of sin in any temptation. Instead, you’ll actually be strengthened by the temptation, as long as you open the eyes of your mind to see My love, and to understand why I allowed you to be tempted: so you could develop virtue by having it proved. My love permits these temptations, for the Devil is weak. He can do nothing by himself unless I allow him. So I let him tempt you because I love you, not because I hate you. I want you to conquer, not to be conquered, and to come to a perfect knowledge of yourself and of Me.” — St. Catherine of Siena
-“The Ecstasy of St Catherine of Siena”, Pompeo Batoni, 1743, Museo di Villa Guinigi, Lucca, Italy
-the mystical marriage of St Catherine of Siena, O.P., Clemente de Torres, ~1715, oil on canvas, H: 175 cm (68.9 in). W: 332 cm (130.7 in), private collection
-mummified head of St Catherine of Siena, O.P., Church of San Dominico, Siena
“O eternal Trinity! O fire and abyss of charity! How could our redemption benefit You? It could not, for You, our God, have no need of us. To whom then comes this benefit? Only to man. O inestimable charity! Even as You, true God and true Man, gave Yourself entirely to us, so also You left Yourself entirely for us, to be our food, so that during our earthly pilgrimage we would not faint with weariness, but would be strengthened by You, our celestial Bread. O man, what has your God left you? He has left you Himself, wholly God and wholly Man, concealed under this whiteness of bread. O fire of love! Was it not enough for You to have created us to Your image and likeness, and to have re-created us in grace through the Blood of Your Son, without giving Yourself wholly to us as our Food, O God, Divine Essence? What impelled You to do this? Your charity alone. It was not enough for You to send Your Word to us for our redemption; neither were You content to give Him to us as our Food, but in the excess of Your love for Your creature, You gave to man the whole divine essence. And not only, O Lord, do You give Yourself to us, but by nourishing us with this divine Food, You make us strong with Your power against the attacks of the demons, insults from creatures, the rebellion of our flesh, and every sorrow and tribulation, from whatever source it may come.
O Bread of Angels, sovereign, eternal purity, You ask and want such transparency in a soul who receives You in this sweet Sacrament, that if it were possible, the very angels would have to purify themselves in the presence of such an august mystery. How can my soul become purified? In the fire of Your charity, O eternal God, by bathing itself in the Blood of Your only-begotten Son. O wretched soul of mine, how can you approach such a great mystery without sufficient purification? I will take off, then, the loathsome garments of my will and clothe myself, O Lord, with Your eternal will!” (St. Catherine of Siena).