Saint Catherine of Siena

Feast Day: 29 April

Born on 25 March 1347, in Siena, Italy, Saint Catherine of Siena was the youngest of 25 children. As a child, Catherine was considered to be very joyful. From a young age Catherine started to receive visions; it is said she had her first vision at the age of five or six, while journeying home with her brother from visiting a married sister. At the age of eight she vowed to give her whole life to God.

At the age of 16 her parents wished for her to marry, which she was deeply opposed to. She cut off all her hair in order to appear less attractive and to deter any marriage offers – much to her parents’ dismay! Catherine became a servant for the family, serving them as she imaged she would serve Christ and the apostles. She considered this time as an opportunity for spiritual growth and eventually her parents allowed her to join the tertiary Dominican order, although she continued to live at home and serve her family as before. Catherine of Siena filled her time in the local hospital, caring for cancer victims and lepers, and at home serving or meditating. She still experienced visions and at the age of 21 Catherine experienced what she described as a “mystical marriage” with Jesus.

(NB, as a tertiary Dominican, Catherine of Siena was never a nun, but part of the lay community that followed in the example of St Dominic. In those times it was common to wear the habit as St Catherine is often depicted as doing)

“When you are who you were made to be you will set the world ablaze!”

Catherine of Siena

As political and social tensions mounted in Siena and around Italy, Catherine found herself drawn to intervene in wider politics. In 1376 Catherine worked to repair the divides within the church. She became peacemaker and counsellor for Pope Gregory XI encouraging him to move the papacy back to Rome, which he did following her counsel and direction. It was during this time that Catherine received the stigmata (the wounds of Christ) although, at Catherine’s request, they were not visible until her death.(NB, as a tertiary Dominican Catherine was never a nun, but part of the lay community that followed in the example of St Dominic. In those times it was common to wear the habit as St Catherine is often depicted as doing)

More than anything Catherine had a deep passion for God and for the welfare of others. She would often write letters in aid of people, she would journey to visit people personally to persuade them to her views. During the schism (divide within the Church) following the succession of Pope Urban VI, Catherine was influential in convincing both cardinals and nobles of the Popes legitimacy.

Catherine received the Holy Communion every day, but found that she was unable to eat anything else. This extreme fasting appeared unhealthy in the eyes of the clergy and her own sisterhood who begged her to eat more. From the beginning of 1380 Catherine could neither eat nor swallow water; in February she lost the use of her legs and, following a stroke, Catherine died on 29 April 1380, aged just 33.

Best known for

St. Catherine was one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day, although she never had any formal education. She often had to dictate to others, although she learnt to write in 1377. More than 300 of her letters have survived, as well many prayers said by St Catherine. However her most famous work is the book entitled ‘The Dialogue of Divine Providence’ which is a dialogue between a soul who “rises up” to God and God himself. Catherine is one of only two women to be given the title of ‘Doctor of the Church’.

Why Catherine of Siena is important

A reflection from someone in our young Catholic community

Talk about having some sass… Catherine never beat around the bush, even in conversations with God. We often think of women of old sitting quietly and being ‘seen and not heard’ and so not really having much influence over their lives or the world around them… Not Catherine! Despite being a woman, from an uneducated background, Catherine took no nonsense. She was very honest and straightforward regardless of whom she was talking to; be they popes, princes or Jesus. She is a great advocate for women’s rights both by her example and her words. She was not afraid of what others thought of her but only of what was right and what would please Jesus. Nothing was too much when it came to the Lord

Catherine was a woman of great faith, courage and endurance. I love her fearlessness. She never questioned how much Jesus loved her and she allowed Jesus to become tangible through her.

Some quotes

“When you are who you were made to be you will set the world ablaze!”

“No one should judge that he has greater perfection because he performs great penances and gives himself in excess to the staying of the body than he who does less, inasmuch as neither virtue nor merit consists therein; for otherwise he would be an evil case, who for some legitimate reason was unable to do actual penance. Merit consists in the virtue of love alone, flavoured with the light of true discretion without which the soul is worth nothing.”

“Dearest daughter, as I took your heart away from you the other day, now, you see, I am giving you mine, so that you can go on living with it for ever.”

“Out of mercy you have washed us in his blood, out of mercy you have wished to converse with creatures. O crazed with love! It did not suffice for you to take flesh, but you also wished to die!… O mercy! My heart drowns in thinking of you: for no matter where I turn to think, I find only mercy.”

“Love follows knowledge.”

“You, God, made yourself lowly and small to make us great!”

“For you, high eternal Father, loved me without being loved by me.”