A Brave Peacemaker

Saint Catherine of Siena

Feast Day: 29th April

Catherine Benincasa was a young woman who knew her own mind and was not afraid to speak it - even to popes and princes!

Born in Siena in 1347, the youngest child of a well-to-do dyer, she was a lively child, who also liked to go away by herself to pray. Her devout parents allowed her a small room of her own for private prayer but when Catherine was 12, her family tried to persuade her to dress attractively in order to find a husband. She declared that she would never marry and cut off her beautiful golden brown hair. Her parents punished her by making her do menial household chores and depriving her of her precious solitude, but she learned from the Holy Spirit how to find solitude and peace in her own heart. Her father, because she behaved patiently and humbly, at last relented and allowed her to become a Dominican tertiary.

When she was 19 years old Our Lord appeared to Catherine, encouraging her in her vocation, and assuring her that her faith would be enough to help her through all her difficulties. She combined prayer and contemplation with charitable work for the poor and the sick. Her reputation for holiness drew many people to visit and write to her to ask for her advice and prayers. She persuaded a great many sinners to change their ways, including a wealthy citizen of Siena who, in gratitude, gave her a large house. With the Pope's permission she converted it into a convent where she gathered around her a small group of like-minded friends whom she called her family.

Catherine had her critics, people who doubted her sincerity or disapproved of her involvement in worldly affairs. Raymond of Capua, the Dominican priest who was appointed as her confessor, defended her and became her close friend. So successful was she in bringing about conversions that three more Dominican priests were sent to Siena to hear the penitents’ confessions.

When Catherine was 28 she visited Pisa. While meditating before the crucifix, she felt pain in her hands, feet and side and discovered the marks of the stigmata. The wounds were visible only to her, but were clearly seen on her body after she died. This experience prepared her for another development in her life, involving her in Church and state politics.

Since the election of a French pope in 1314, the papal court had resided at Avignon. In Italy, several of the city-states were divided by political rivalries and quarrels, and in 1375 the two main factions in Florence combined in rebellion against the Holy See. Catherine wrote to the magistrates of the city offering to mediate with the pope. They accepted her offer and she travelled to Avignon to confer with Pope Gregory Xl who was keen to return the Holy See to Rome and asked Catherine’s advice. She boldly told him to follow his own conscience and leave Avignon as soon as possible. When she returned home she wrote numerous letters to him, until in September 1376 he acted on her advice.

Catherine continued to write to Gregory in Rome, begging him to do his best to restore peace in Italy. At his request she again went to Florence, in considerable personal danger, and in 1378 reconciliation with Rome was won. In the same year Gregory died and was succeeded by Urban Vl, but this was not the end of papal trouble.

Back in Siena, Catherine began writing a book which came to be known as the "Dialogues of St. Catherine." Soon she learned that there was schism in the Church between those who supported Pope Urban and a few rebel cardinals who had chosen a rival Pope and gone with him to Avignon. Once again, Catherine took up her pen. She wrote strongly-worded letters to the rebels telling them to do their duty and serve the legitimate Pope. She wrote to kings, princes and heads of state all over Europe urging them to recognise Urban. She bombarded Urban himself with letters, encouraging him and even occasionally reprimanding him. Far from taking offence at her outspokenness, Urban invited Catherine to Rome as his adviser. She spent the rest of her life there, praying and letter-writing in loyal defence of the pope and the Church.

Worn out with her efforts, Catherine suffered a paralysing stroke and died, aged only 33. She was canonised in 1461 and is honoured as a doctor of the Church and patron of Italy.

How much activity Catherine packed into her short life! She achieved this because of her devotion to prayer. May we follow her example of loyalty to the Pope