St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)

Fourteenth century Italy was a land made desolate by plague, schism, and political turmoil. It was so black a time that many saints and scholars believed it heralded the end of the world. Yet, in the midst of this confusion, a person was born who was to rise above the troubles of her own time and the passing of centuries, to remain as unforgotten in our day as she was in her own. She is Catherine, Siena’s and Dominic’s best known daughter.

Born of the rising merchant class in busy and warlike Siena, Catherine’s probable future would be marriage, a home and children a life that would be charitable and pious, but not too ascetic. Catherine, however, from babyhood was prayerful beyond all ordinary children, and, when she was six, she had a vision in which she saw our Lord enthroned among the saints. From this time on, earth had no sweetness for Catherine; she would belong to God and to Him alone. To this end, she vowed her virginity to God and strove to find more and more time to spend with Him.

In a big noisy household it was not easy for one little girl to be alone and to pray. Petted and pursued by an indulgent mother, crowded by the affairs of the family and the neighborhood, Catherine treasured each minute of solitude, because it gave her opportunity to pray. Rapt in prayer in the Dominican church near her home, she prayed and planned for the day when she would be old enough to wear the white habit herself. Threatened with marriage, she pleaded, in vain, that her heart belonged to God alone; her parents would not listen to such inconvenient desires.. So Catherine, with typical firmness, cut off the wealth of her lovely hair to show that she meant what she said. Punished by having to wait on the entire family at table, she spiritualized the work by offering each serving to her beloved Jesus. Her father, seeing her in ecstasy, relented of his severity and gave her leave to live as she pleased.

For two years, Catherine dwelt in paradise, in a tiny bare room, large enough only for God and herself. She joined the Third Order, over the protests of the older members of the group, who felt it unwise to accept anyone so young. In ecstasy much of the time, she would have been content to remain forever in her little room but God called her away from its peace and security into the full glare of publicity.

Her hand in God’s, because she was terrified to go alone to the places He asked her to go, Catherine went from hospitals, prisons, and scaffolds, where she sought for straying sheep, to the papal palace, to plead with the chief shepherd himself. Nursing incurables in the public hospital, she became the “lady with the lamp,” who would guide thousands of Dominican sisters to the bedsides of Christ’s poor. Dictating to her followers the marvelous story of her colloquies with Christ, she was the teaching sister, giving to others the fruits of her contemplation; enduring with a prayer and a quiet smile the bitter calumnies of those for whom she had sacrificed and labored, she was the model for anyone laboring at apparently thankless tasks in the Master’s vineyard.

Catherine would gladly have died a martyr, and she almost did. During one of her meditations on the Passion she received the stigmata, and the pain from this nearly crushed the frail body. But Catherine had another mission to perform before her death: to call the vacillating pope back from Avignon to Rome, which she actually did in the face of unbelievable difficulties. Catherine’s life is a concrete example of the Dominican vocation of prayerful action, for it could be said that she was almost never removed from the state of prayer and yet she accomplished, in her brief thirty three years, more work than many lifetimes would comfortably hold.

(Source : Dorcy, Marie Jean. St. Dominic’s Family. Tan Books and Publishers, 1983)