Today is the feast day of Saint Catherine of Siena. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
Sienna, in the Tuscan district, is the favored place where, in 1347, St. Catherine first saw the light of this world. Her life from her childhood, was a continual exercise of the choicest virtues, but at the same time, a perpetual communication of divine grace. When scarcely five years of age she was called “the little Saint” on account of her quietness and her love of prayer. Already at that time she greeted the Virgin Mother upon every step of the staircase with the words of the Angels: “Ave Maria!” When six years old, our Lord appeared to her with the Apostles Peter, Paul and John, together with St. Dominic, looked tenderly at her and gave His blessing. This was the beginning of many and extraordinary visions with which the holy virgin was graced until her death. Her heart from this time was filled with intense love of God. She read most carefully the lives of the Saints, and endeavored to follow their example. In her seventh year she consecrated her virginity to God. Her only pleasure was solitude, prayer, work and self-immolation. Persuaded by her sister, she once began to pay more attention to her dresses and to curl her hair after the prevailing fashion of the world. This lasted, however, only a short while, for she became aware during her prayers how much God was displeased with such vanities and how long her pious sister would have to suffer on account of it in purgatory: hence she refrained from it and repented of her folly as long as she lived. Her parents desired her to marry; but she replied: “I am already wedded to a most noble spouse and shall never bestow my love on a human being;” and cutting off her hair she covered her head with a veil. To drive all thoughts of entering a convent out of her mind, her parents burdened her with the entire care of the house, as well as the hardest work, so that no leisure was left her, either for prayer, or devotional reading. This was at first a sore trial to her, but she was told by Christ to build a cell in her heart, where, in the midst of her employments she might pray, namely, by offering her work to God and by pious ejaculations. Following these directions of Christ, her soul became filled with sweet consolation, and she manifested, under the greatest drudgery, a most extraordinary happiness. This caused her parents to change their resolution, and they permitted her to live according to her vocation. Hence, she now began to live in a more retired manner, and with more austerity than before.
Bread, herbs and water were her only nourishment, two bare boards her bed. She was girded by a pointed chain which she Continued to wear until a few hours before her death, when at the instance of her confessor, she laid it aside. She only allowed herself one or two hours of sleep during the night; the remainder she employed in prayer or in the contemplation of the divine mysteries. She scourged herself three times daily, sometimes until she drew blood. These austerities she observed from her eighteenth year until her death. After she had been received into the third order of St. Dominic, she aspired most fervently after sanctification, but Satan endeavored with the most loathsome imaginings and temptations, to trouble the repose of her soul and pervert her thoughts; Catherine, however, increasing her penance and her prayers, withstood him bravely, but still without feeling more relieved or more quiet. At length, when, one day, Christ appeared to her, she said: “O Lord, why hast Thou forsaken me?” “I was in thy heart,” answered the Saviour. “What;” said she, “hast Thou been in my heart which was filled with such abominable thoughts?”; “Hast thou then consented to them? Hast thou been pleased with them?” asked Christ. “Oh, no!” replied Catherine, “it was most painful to me to be afflicted with them.” “And this was thy merit,” said Christ; “I have seen how thou hast battled, and I have assisted thee.” Thus ended her temptations, which were succeeded by the most comforting visions of our Lord, His Blessed Mother and other Saints, the number of which is known only to God. She frequently saw Christ as a lovely little child in the holy Sacrament, for which divine mystery she entertained the most fervent devotion. She partook of it almost daily, but always with renewed piety and shedding a flood of tears. It was very remarkable that the receiving of it preserved also her temporal life, for it is a fact that one year she partook of nothing else but the Blessed Eucharist from Ash-Wednesday until Ascension-day. When she was required, as an act of obedience, to take some food, she suffered so greatly by so doing, that the request was not repeated. After some time, Christ commanded her to be kind and charitable to her neighbors, and she began to nurse the sick with an indescribable loving care. Among others, she attended to two women, of whom one was afflicted with leprosy, the other with cancer. In nursing them she evinced the most perfect self-control.
She pressed the offensive matter out of the sores and cleansed them with water. Feeling disgust, she drank the purulent matter which she had kept in a vessel mixed with water, saying to her confessor that she had never tasted anything more agreeable. Christ appeared to her on the following night, praised her self-mortification and rewarded her with great interior peace and tranquillity. It was hard for her to bear when this very woman, whom she had so tenderly nursed, instigated by Satan, not only complained of her, but slandered her in the whole city. But Christ visited her and presenting to her two crowns, one of gold, the other of thorns, said: “Which of these two do you desire?” Catherine answered: “Lord, I desire to resemble Thee in this life, and it is a joy to me to suffer as Thou didst:” and with these words she took the crown of thorns and pressed it upon her head. Christ, upon this, commanded her to continue her charity towards the sick, which she did with unprecedented patience and kindness. Her love towards those whose souls were diseased, was still more tender, and she offered for such her prayers and many penances, through which means she obtained from God the conversion of many sinners, who otherwise would have gone to destruction. She prayed three whole days for a certain woman who was dangerously sick, and who hated the Saint most bitterly. At last, she said to Christ: “I will not move from this place until Thou givest me this soul.” He graciously complied with her request by converting the woman and giving her a happy death.
She was also gifted by God with the grace of reading the inmost thoughts of those who approached her: hence her exhortations were always addressed to their weakest spot. If a lascivious person came near her, she always perceived so terrible an odor that she had to cover her nose and mouth. Many other graces God had bestowed upon her, to relate all of which would take too much space. One of the most remarkable of these was, that Christ had impressed the marks of his five holy wounds upon her, but in such a manner that, exteriorly, nothing was to be seen, while she suffered all their pains. She had prayed to Christ for this grace in order that it might remain unknown to the world. The many miracles which she performed on the sick and possessed, and the heavenly wisdom with which she was filled, secured her not only the highest regard of the people, but also of the prelates of the Church, as well as of worldly princes. She was even sent in times of strife and contention, as a messenger of peace, and the effect of her wonderful talents more than surpassed all expectations. At Rome, whither she had been called by the Pope, she became dangerously sick, and during four months she suffered excruciating pain: she ceased not, however, praising and giving thanks to God. The Almighty, whose judgment, though inscrutable, is always just, sent her a last bitter trial after she had received the holy Sacrament; Satan reproached her that in her actions and ecstasies, she had only sought her own aggrandizement. But she overcame the enemy of her peace, and after this anguish of soul, she had a most consoling and tender discourse with Christ, who visibly appeared to her, and into whose hands she breathed her chaste soul in the thirty-third year of her life. Her last words were: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” (2)
Saint Catherine of Siena
(by Fr. Prosper Gueranger 1870)
The Dominican Order, which, yesterday, presented a rose to our Risen Jesus, now offers Him a lily of surpassing beauty. Catharine of Sienna follows Peter the Martyr: it is a coincidence willed by Providence, to give fresh beauty to this season of grandest Mysteries. Our Divine King deserves everything we can offer Him; and our hearts are never so eager to give Him every possible tribute of homage, as during these last days of His sojourn among us. See how nature is all flower and fragrance at this loveliest of her seasons! The spiritual world harmonizes with the visible, and now yields her noblest and richest works in honour of her Lord, the Author of Grace.
How grand is the Saint, whose Feast comes gladdening us today! She is one of the most favoured of the holy spouses of the Incarnate Word. She was His, wholly and unreservedly, almost from her very childhood. Though thus consecrated to Him by the vow of holy Virginity, she had a mission given to her by divine Providence which required her living in the world. But God would have her to be one of the glories of the Religious State; He therefore inspired her to join the Third Order of St. Dominic. Accordingly, she wore the Habit and fervently practised, during her whole life, the holy exercises of a Tertiary.
From the very commencement, there was a something heavenly about this admirable servant of God, which we fancy existing in an angel who had been sent from heaven to live in a human body. Her longing after God gave one an idea of the vehemence wherewith the Blessed embrace the Sovereign Good on their first entrance into heaven. In vain did the body threaten to impede the soaring of this earthly Seraph; she subdued it by penance, and made it obedient to the spirit. Her body seemed to be transformed, so as to have no life of its own, but only that of the soul. The Blessed Sacrament was frequently the only food she took for weeks together. So complete was her union with Christ, that she received the impress of the sacred Stigmata, and, with them, the most excruciating pain.
And yet, in the midst of all these supernatural favours, Catharine felt the keenest interest in the necessities of others. Her zeal for their spiritual advantage was intense, whilst her compassion for them, in their corporal sufferings, was that of a most loving mother. God had given her the gift of Miracles, and she was lavish in using it for the benefit of her fellow creatures. Sickness, and death itself, were obedient to her command; and the prodigies witnessed at the beginning of the Church were again wrought by the humble Saint of Sienna.
Her communings with God began when she was quite a child, and her ecstasies were almost without interruption. She frequently saw our Risen Jesus, Who never left her without having honoured her, either with a great consolation, or with a heavy cross. A profound knowledge of the mysteries of our holy faith, was another of the extraordinary graces bestowed upon her. So eminent, indeed, was the heavenly wisdom granted her by God, that she, who had received no education, used to dictate the most sublime writings, wherein she treats of spiritual things with a clearness and eloquence which human genius could never attain to, and with a certain indescribable unction which no reader can resist.
But God would not permit such a treasure as this to lie buried in a little town of Italy. The Saints are the supports of the Church; and though their influence be generally hidden, yet, at times, it is open and visible, and men then learn what the instruments are, which God uses for imparting blessings to a world, that would seem to deserve little else besides chastisement. The great question, at the close of the 14th Century, was the restoring to the Holy City the privilege of its having within its walls the Vicar of Christ, who, for sixty years, had been absent from his See. One saintly soul, by merits and prayers, known to heaven alone, might have brought about this happy event, after which the whole Church was longing; but God would have it done by a visible agency, and in the most public manner. In the name of the widowed Rome, in the name of her own and the Church’s Spouse, Catharine crossed the Alps, and sought an interview with the Pontiff, who had not so much as seen Rome. The Prophetess respectfully reminded him of his duty; and in proof of her mission being from God, she tells him of a secret which was known to himself alone. Gregory the Eleventh could no longer resist; and the Eternal City welcomed its Pastor and Father. But at the Pontiff’s death, a frightful schism, the forerunner of greater evils to follow, broke out in the Church. Catharine, even to her last hour, was untiring in her endeavours to quell the storm. Having lived the same number of years as our Saviour had done, she breathed forth her most pure soul into the hands of her God, and went to continue, in heaven, her ministry of intercession for the Church she had loved so much on earth, and for souls redeemed in the precious Blood of her Divine Spouse.
Our Risen Jesus, Who took her to her eternal reward during the Season of Easter, granted her whilst she was living on earth, a favour, which we mention here, as being appropriate to the mystery we are now celebrating. He, one day, appeared to her, having with Him His Blessed Mother. Mary Magdalene, she that announced the Resurrection to the Apostles, accompanied the Son and the Mother. Catharine’s heart was overpowered with emotion at this visit. After looking, for some time, upon Jesus and His holy Mother, her eyes rested on Magdalene, whose happiness she both saw and envied. Jesus spoke these words to her: “My beloved! I give her to thee, to be thy mother.” Address thyself to her, henceforth, with all confidence. I give her special charge of thee.” From that day forward, Catharine had the most filial love for Magdalene, and called her by no other name than that of Mother.
Let us now read the beautiful, but too brief, account of our Saint’s Life, as given in the Liturgy.
Catharine, a virgin of Sienna, was born of pious parents. She asked for and obtained the Dominican habit, such as it is worn by the Sisters of Penance. Her abstinence was extraordinary, and her manner of living most mortified. She was once known to have fasted, without receiving anything but the Blessed Sacrament, from Ash Wednesday to Ascension Day. She had very frequent contests with the wicked spirits, who attacked her in divers ways. She suffered much from fever, and other bodily ailments.
Her reputation for sanctity was so great, that there were brought to her, from all parts, persons who were sick or tormented by the devil. She, in the name of Christ, healed such as were afflicted with malady or fever, and drove the devils from the bodies of them that were possessed.
Being once at Pisa, on a Sunday, and having received the Bread of heaven, she was rapt in an ecstacy. She saw our crucified Lord approaching to her. He was encircled with a great light, and from His five Wounds there came rays, which fell upon the five corresponding parts of Catharine’s body. Being aware of the favour bestowed upon her, she besought our Lord, that the stigmata might not be visible. The rays immediately changed from the colour of blood into one of gold, and passed, under the form of a bright light, to the hands, feet, and heart of the Saint. So violent was the pain left by the wounds, that it seemed to her as though she must soon have died, had not God diminished it. Thus our most loving Lord added favour to favour, by permitting her to feel the smart of the wounds, and yet removing their appearance. The servant of God related what had happened to her to Raymund, her Confessor. Hence, when the devotion of the Faithful gave a representation of this miracle, they painted, on the pictures of St. Catharine, bright rays coming from the five stigmata she received.
Her learning was not acquired, but infused. Theologians proposed to her the most difficult questions of divinity, and received satisfactory answers. No one ever approached her, who did not go away a better man. She reconciled many that were at deadly enmity with one another. She visited Pope Gregory the Eleventh, (who was then at Avignon,) in order to bring about the reconciliation of the Florentines, who were under an interdict on account of their having formed a league against the Holy See. She told the Pontiff that there had been revealed to her the vow which he, Gregory, had made of going to Rome. a vow which was known to God alone. It was through her entreaty, that the Pope began to plan measures for taking possession of his See of Rome, which he did soon after. Such was the esteem in which she was held by Gregory, and by Urban the Sixth, his successor, that she was sent by them on several embassies. At length, after a life spent in the exercise of the sublimest virtues, and after gaining great reputation on account of her prophecies and many miracles, she passed hence to her divine Spouse, when she was about the age of three and thirty. She was canonized by Pius the Second. (2)
Among Catherine’s principal followers were Fra Raimondo delle Vigne, of Capua (d. 1399), her confessor and biographer, afterwards General of the Dominicans, and Stefano di Corrado Maconi (d. 1424), who had been one of her secretaries, and became Prior General of the Carthusians. Raimondo’s book, the “Legend”, was finished in 1395. A second life of her, the “Supplement”, was written a few years later by another of her associates, Fra Tomaso Caffarini (d. 1434), who also composed the “Minor Legend”, which was translated into Italian by Stefano Maconi. Between 1411 and 1413 the depositions of the surviving witnesses of her life and work were collected at Venice, to form the famous “Process”. Catherine was canonized by Pius II in 1461. The emblems by which she is known in Christian art are the lily and book, the crown of thorns, or sometimes a heart–referring to the legend of her having changed hearts with Christ. Her principal feast is on the 30th of April, but it is popularly celebrated in Siena on the Sunday following. The feast of her Espousals is kept on the Thursday of the carnival.
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. (4)
She was canonized in 1461, made patron of Italy in 1939, and was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. (7)
Image: crop of Saint Catherine of Siena; artist: Baldassare Franceschini; circa 17th century (8)
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff