A Messenger of Peace: St. Catherine of Siena

For my summer holiday I went to Italy for three weeks. It was just as I had remembered. The cultural heritage there is overwhelming. Every landscape in Tuscany is like a beautiful painting, every street corner has a long history, and one can sense the presence of many great minds of the past. One of the beautiful towns in Tuscany is Siena, a medieval town that nowadays is mostly known for its horse race in the town centre – the Palio.

On this visit to Siena, however, my mind and my heart were opened to a special woman in the town’s history: Catherine of Siena. This extraordinary woman has left her mark on Italian and Church history. Therefore, I thought that it might be beneficial to share this story of Catherine with others, especially in this time of renewed insecurity and wars.

 

Catherine’s childhood

Catherine Benincasa was born in 1347 with her twin sister Giovanna. The Benincasa family was unusually large (24 children, of which Giovanna died right after her baptism) and well-known for its Christian faith. When Catherine was a year old, the Black Death was already raging – and eventually eliminated one third of Europe’s population. Among the plague victims were the parents of a ten-year-old boy Tommaso della Fonte who, shortly afterwards, was adopted into the Benincasa family.

Early in Catherine’s life it was evident that she was a very devout little girl. At the age of six, she said she had her first vision of Jesus. Shortly after this her adopted brother Tommaso decided to enter an order of monks, the Dominician friars. Inspired by Tommaso’s example, and by the stories she had heard of the holy martyrs, the virgins, and the fathers of the desert, Catherine decided that she too, wanted to retire into solitude to love and serve God.

 

Conviction

One day, after a day of prayer on the outskirts of Siena, Catherine felt that God wanted her to do just this: leave the world behind, live in solitude, and listen to Him. She realised, then, that everything compared to God was insignificant and utterly empty. Only He could make her truly happy.

Catherine wanted to join a special order (The Third Order of St. Dominic) established for lay people, that is, ordinary churchgoers. Members could contribute to the work of spreading the faith and defending the Church. Catherine’s mother, however, strongly opposed the idea, and because Catherine was still so young, her mother’s approval was needed. Soon Catherine fell sick and told her mother that she could only recover if allowed to join the Mantellate (this is what the Order was known as in Siena, because they all wore a black “mantello” or cape over a simple white tunic). Finally, her mother felt obliged to let her daughter follow her intuition.

 

From contemplation to action

So Catherine entered the order and eventually became the greatest member in the history of the Mantellates. Still, no one could have predicted such an important career for this humble and illiterate girl. For the next three years she lived in retirement and silence, leaving her house only when it was necessary to participate in Mass and to receive spiritual direction from her adopted brother, Tommaso della Fonte, who, by this time, had become her mentor and confessor.

After Catherine’s years of contemplation, it became clear to her that she must go out into the world for active ministry among the people. Indeed, Catherine was very loving toward her to-be vast spiritual family, especially the poor and the sick. The patients she spoke with declared that just seeing and listening to her brought them inner tranquillity.

In addition to the spiritual, Catherine was also active in the political sphere of life. She was an amazing messenger of peace in Italy, skilled in eliminating discord and removing hatred from the human heart. And hatred existed, unfortunately, abundantly in 14th century Tuscany.

 

A spiritual and political activist

Catherine was convinced of the importance of Christendom’s unity. The attack on Rome by French troops, earlier in 1303, had marked the end of collaboration between French kings and Italian popes that had lasted for nearly 200 years. By this time, the papacy had been forced to operate in Avignon for some 70 years. Catherine believed that the main cause of the murderous struggles in Europe and Italy was the prolonged absence of the pope from his natural place of residence, Rome.

In the spring of 1376, the Florentine government sent her to Avignon as an ambassador of Florence. Pope Gregory XI had recently excommunicated the Florentines, and Catherine was sent to meet him in person, for peace talks. She managed to convince Gregory of the importance of returning to Rome, which he then did the very next year (1377). Early in 1378, Catherine was sent on another peace mission, this time to Florence, by Pope Gregory himself. Peace was achieved later that year. This important accomplishment is said to have prevented the religious and political ruin of the country. Again, Catherine’s most reliable weapons were love and forgiveness.

 

Catherine’s death and canonization

Catherine spent her remaining life in Rome, working hard for the reformation of the Church, serving the poor and afflicted, and dictating letters on behalf of the new pope. Catherine was so occupied in protecting the interest of the Church, that she hardly had any time for herself. Her health was rapidly decreasing and, during the last months of her life in 1380, she suffered many pains and hardships. Her last political work, practically accomplished from her deathbed, was the reconciliation of Pope Urban VI with the Roman Republic.

She was only 33 years old when she passed away.

Catherine left behind a great many disciples who remembered her as a woman of extraordinary personal charm, which prevailed through all her life’s hardships. By following her teaching and example, her disciples continued the work she had started.

The official process of Catherine’s canonization began in 1411, but was suspended due to the Great Western Schism. Catherine was finally canonized in 1461 by a Sienese Pope, Pius II. Catherine was then declared a Saint. Other Catholic acknowledgements have followed. In 1866 St. Catherine was declared Co-Patroness of Rome and, in 1939, she became Patroness of whole of Italy. Her final (and the most prestigious) title in the Catholic Church, Doctor of the Church, was given to her just recently, in 1970.

Catherine believed in – and led people to understand – the power of forgiveness. Are we humble enough to learn something from the life of this young woman?

 

                                                                                         Published in the Values magazine

 

Download and read the article with illustrations from here: St. Catherine of Siena.

 

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