Perhaps the best known Dominican woman, Catherine was the youngest of 23 children born into the Benincasa family in Siena, Italy on 25th March 1347
At the age of 7 Catherine had a vision of Christ set over the Church of San Domenico. She later explained that she had vowed her virginity to Christ on that day.
At the age of 13 Catherine joined a branch of the Dominican Order as a laywoman and ,such was her reputation for holiness and wisdom, that a group of men and women gathered around her and were known as the Caterinata.
Her most famous writings “The Dialogue”; a series of conversations between herself and Christ show the amazing relationship that existed between them. Catherine’s Letters were written to many followers and were a tremendous source of Catherine’s teachings.
Catherine was an amazing woman. From being illiterate she became a woman who was fearless in her work for the Church. Her reputation eventually brought her to public attention where she became involved in Italian Political Life.
In 1376 she went to Avignon as a mediator and managed to persuade Pope Gregory X1 to return to Rome. However, the Great Western Schism began with his successor Urban V1 who returned to Avignon. Catherine was worn out with all the stress and died in Siena in 1380.
Catherine was canonised in 1461 and in 1970 Pope Paul V1th proclaimed her a Doctor of the Church. Catherine’s feastday is celebrated on April 29th each year.
( Sr. Patricia O’Reilly OP)
“The value Catherine makes central in her short life and which sounds clearly and
consistently through her experience is complete surrender to Christ. What is most
impressive about her is that she learns to view her surrender to her Lord as a goal to
be reached through time.
She was the 23rd child of Jacopo and Lapa Benincasa and grew up as an intelligent,
cheerful and intensely religious person. 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.
She entered the Dominican Third Order at 18 and spent the next three years in
seclusion, prayer and austerity. Gradually a group of followers gathered around
her; men and women, priests and religious. An active public apostolate grew out of
her contemplative life. Her letters, mostly for spiritual instruction and encouragement
of her followers, began to take more and more note of public affairs. Opposition and
slander resulted from her mixing fearlessly with the world and speaking with the
candor and authority of one completely committed to Christ. She was cleared of all
charges at the Dominican General Chapter of 1374.
Her public influence reached great heights because of her evident holiness, her
membership in the Dominican Third Order, and the deep impression she made on the
pope. She worked tirelessly for the crusade against the Turks and for peace between
Florence and the pope
In 1378, the Great Schism began, splitting the allegiance of Christendom between
two, then three, popes and putting even saints on opposing sides. Catherine spent the
last two years of her life in Rome, in prayer and pleading on behalf of the cause of
Urban VI and the unity of the Church. She offered herself as a victim for the Church
in its agony. She died surrounded by her “children” and was canonized in 1461.
Catherine ranks high among the mystics and spiritual writers of the Church. In 1939,
she and Francis of Assisi were declared co-patrons of Italy. Paul VI named her and
Teresa of Avila doctors of the Church in 1970. Her spiritual testament is found in The
She was the youngest but one of a very large family. Her father, Giacomo di Benincasa, was a dyer;
her mother, Lapa, the daughter of a local poet. They belonged to the lower middle-class faction of
tradesmen and petty notaries, known as “the Party of the Twelve”, which between one revolution
and another ruled the Republic of Siena from 1355 to 1368. From her earliest childhood Catherine
began to see visions and to practise extreme austerities. At the age of seven she consecrated her
virginity to Christ; in her sixteenth year she took the habit of the Dominican Tertiaries, and renewed
the life of the anchorites of the desert in a little room in her father’s house.
After three years of celestial visitations and familiar conversation with Christ, she underwent the mystical experience
known as the “spiritual espousals”, probably during the carnival of 1366. She now rejoined her
family, began to tend the sick, especially those afflicted with the most repulsive diseases, to serve
the poor, and to labour for the conversion of sinners. Though always suffering terrible physical
pain, living for long intervals on practically no food save the Blessed Sacrament, she was ever
radiantly happy and full of practical wisdom no less than the highest spiritual insight. All her
contemporaries bear witness to her extraordinary personal charm, which prevailed over the
continual persecution to which she was subjected even by the friars of her own order and by her
sisters in religion. She began to gather disciples round her, both men and women, who formed a
wonderful spiritual fellowship, united to her by the bonds of mystical love. During the summer of
1370 she received a series of special manifestations of Divine mysteries, which culminated in a
prolonged trance, a kind of mystical death, in which she had a vision of Hell, Purgatory, and
Heaven, and heard a Divine command to leave her cell and enter the public life of the world. She
began to dispatch letters to men and women in every condition of life, entered into correspondence
with the princes and republics of Italy, was consulted by the papal legates about the affairs of the
Church, and set herself to heal the wounds of her native land by staying the fury of civil war and the
ravages of faction. She implored the pope, Gregory XI, to leave Avignon, to reform the clergy and
the administration of the Papal States, and ardently threw herself into his design for a crusade, in the
hopes of uniting the powers of Christendom against the infidels, and restoring peace to Italy by
delivering her from the wandering companies of mercenary soldiers. While at Pisa, on the fourth
Sunday of Lent, 1375, she received the Stigmata, although, at her special prayer, the marks did not
appear outwardly in her body while she lived.
The works of St. Catherine of Siena rank among the classics of the Italian language, written in the
beautiful Tuscan vernacular of the fourteenth century. Notwithstanding the existence of many
excellent manuscripts, the printed editions present the text in a frequently mutilated and most
unsatisfactory condition. Her writings consist of the “Dialogue”, or “Treatise on Divine
Providence”; a collection of nearly four hundred letters; and a series of “Prayers”. The “Dialogue”
especially, which treats of the whole spiritual life of man in the form of a series of colloquies
between the Eternal Father and the human soul (represented by Catherine herself), is the mystical
counterpart in prose of Dante’s “Divina Commedia”.
A smaller work in the dialogue form, the “Treatise on Consummate Perfection”, is also ascribed to
her, but is probably spurious. It is impossible in a few words to give an adequate conception of the
manifold character and contents of the “Letters”, which are the most complete expression of
Catherine’s many-sided personality. While those addressed to popes and sovereigns, rulers of
republics and leaders of armies, are documents of priceless value to students of history, many of
those written to private citizens, men and women in the cloister or in the world, are as fresh and
illuminating, as wise and practical in their advice and guidance for the devout Catholic today as
they were for those who sought her counsel while she lived. Others, again, lead the reader to
mystical heights of contemplation, a rarefied atmosphere of sanctity in which only the few
privileged spirits can hope to dwell. The key-note to Catherine’s teaching is that man, whether in the
cloister or in the world, must ever abide in the cell of self-knowledge, which is the stable in which
the traveller through time to eternity must be born again.