I last visited Siena in June 2016 with a group of women from WINE, Women in the New Evangelization, and wrote the following account of our visit. We had a truly memorable day in this picturesque, historic, medieval Tuscan hill town, as you will see in some of my photos. And you just have to love Catherine of Siena! Here I am with Kelly Wahlquist, founder of WINE, and Teresa Tomeo!
CATHERINE OF SIENA: WHEN SHE SPOKE, POPES LISTENED
Saint Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), Third Order Dominican, scholar, philosopher, theologian, mystic, spiritual writer, co-patron of Italy with St. Francis of Assisi and a Doctor of the Church.
What an astonishing, wonderful story, what a remarkable and inspirational woman was St. Catherine. I truly felt her presence everywhere we visited in Siena and am now starting to read the two books I bought – her “Letters” and also “The Dialogues,” her spiritual legacy.
Catherine was the 23rd child of Jacopo and Lapa Benincasa, a well off couple – Jacopo was a fabric dyer – of Siena. A number of her siblings, including a twin sister, did not survive to adulthood. (from Franciscan media: Painting of Saint Catherine of Siena | Siena Cathedral Choir | photo by Sailko)
They lived, as you will see, in a very large home in hilly Siena with fabulous views of the city and outlying countryside.
Her home –
One of the plaques I photographed points to the fact that St. Therese of Jesus and St. Catherine of Siena were the first two women whom Popes named as Doctors of the Church.
Two other photos show a very ornately decorated room – the Benincasa family dining room!
Biographies state that Catherine was lively, curious, cheerful, fun-loving and intelligent and very religious.
From an EWTN bio: 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 afterwards, 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 disappointed her mother by cutting off her hair as a protest against being overly encouraged to improve her appearance in order to attract a husband. Her father ordered her to be left in peace, and she was given a room of her own for prayer and meditation.”
“…..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.”
“….The years of solitude and preparation were ended and soon afterwards 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….”
“….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!’”
And Popes listened to this singularly remarkable woman…
“….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.” (Saint Catherine of Siena, Virgin | EWTN)