Catherine of Siena
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St. Catherine of Siena

 

Catherine Binencasa was one remarkable woman. Born in 1347 in Siena, Italy with a twin sister, she was one of twenty-four children born to Lapa Piagenti and Gaicomo di Binencasa.   She survived while her twin sister, Giovanna, did not. Her mother, Lapa, gave birth a few years later to another girl and named her Giovanna as well. Half of Lapa and Giacomo’s children died in infancy, but Catherine thrived. It was the era of the Black Plague and many people died. Catherine saw her first vision of Christ when she was a young child of only five or six years old, and since her father realized that this young daughter was different and somewhat special, he set aside a room for her to pray in quiet, uninterrupted. Catherine never married, though was pressured into doing so, later, when one of her sisters passed away and her widower was looking for a replacement, but Catherine felt called by Christ. She fasted and cut off her hair, and became a third order member of the Dominicans. She was not a nun, but most religious orders in the Church also sponsor “Third Orders” for lay people who may feel drawn to their particular spirituality, e.g., there are Third Order Franciscans, Third Order Carmelites, Third Order Dominicans, etc. Lay members of these groups live in their own homes, engage in their own vocations or jobs, but may also meet regularly with other lay members who wish to follow the prayer patterns and particular charisms of the larger group.

 

St. Catherine of Siena

 

The fourteenth century in Italy and in the Church was a tumultuous time. The pope had fled to Avignon, France. Florence and Rome and the Papal states were in constant battles with each other. Catherine’s family was lower middle class; her father was a wool dyer and belonged to a faction of tradesmen and petty notaries, known as the “Party of the Twelve”. Catherine not only learned her faith at her parent’s knee, she learned about politics. She felt drawn, however, to solitude and the quiet life. In 1366, she had a profound experience of Christ, which she referred to as her mystical marriage to Christ. A few years later, she experienced a series of special insights into the Divine mysteries while in a trance and heard God telling her to leave her withdrawn life and enter the public life. She did so, and began not only taking care of the sick who were still dying of the plague, but also began writing letters to princes and papal legates. She felt called to have an active role in the healing of the Church and the solving of some volatile church-state relations of the time. Since her reputation for holiness preceded her, these princes and papal legates listened to her and began calling on her to intercede with one group or another. She called on the pope and told him he needed to return to Rome and reform the clergy. War broke out between Florence and the Holy See and Catherine became a type of ambassador. So involved was she in the politics of Italy and the Church that an assassination attempt was made on her life. In the end, though, the Pope did return to Rome and the Church began to stabilize once more. Some have said that Catherine of Siena was to the 14th century what the Second Vatican Council was to the 20th century. The difference was that drastic, and the renewal that profound. The Church had come home to Rome. Catherine continued to work with the poor and destitute in Rome and help reform the Church for the rest of her life. A new text on her life by Thomas F. Luongo, entitled The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena, testifies that her sanctity and her politics were intimately interwoven and while earlier hagiographers often tried to simplify her life assigning her more traditional roles of feminine spirituality in the fourteenth century, she was a significant force to be reckoned with. She was deeply involved in politics, but brought to it a mystical language about the body of Christ that few of her country men could ignore.

 

Catherine also engaged in contemplation for hours. She ate very little food, and said she was awaiting the heavenly banquet in the next life. Catherine experienced the Stigmata, meaning that she experienced the wounds of Christ on her own body, though they were never visible to others. She did leave us numerous letters of correspondence, but she also left us her “Dialogues,” which are her conversations with God as she remembered them. These are written in beautiful Tuscan vernacular of the fourteenth century. In them, she sees Christ as a bridge, a bridge with three stairs that represent three stages in the spiritual life, a fall, a rising and a moving forward. In that capacity, she is a wonderful role model for Mystical Ventures. Catherine is a model for the journey, for moving forward to build up the body of Christ. She is a great inspiration for any of us engaged in social justice or who might be active trying in some small way to help make the world a better place, or to make it more like the Kingdom of God. In other places in the Dialogues, she sees Christ as a bridge, again with three steps, crafted from the wood of the cross, over which one may cross to meet God. In her prayers, she consistently writes of Jesus Christ as wisdom, writing, “Power of the Eternal Father, help me! Wisdom of the Son, enlighten the eye of my understanding! Tender mercy of the Holy Spirit, enflame my heart and unite it to yourself! (Prayers, 48). Catherine’s motto and the Dominican motto since her time has been “contemplation in action”. One can see how she took those Trinitarian prayers and contemplation and used them to move mountains.

 

Catherine died in 1380 at the age of 33 years old, the same age many believe Jesus died. She was canonized in 1461 and declared the patroness of Italy and of the Dominican order. In 1970, Pope John Paul II declared her to be a doctor of the Church, a title only a few women have received.  Catherine is often called a Doctor of Unity for bringing many factions back together.

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Mysticism, according to its historical and psychological definitions, it that direct intuition or experience of God; a mystic is a person who has, to a greater or less degree, such a direct experience – one whose religion and life are centered not merely on accepted belief or practice, but on that which the person regards as first hand personal knowledge.                    

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