Feast of Saint Catherine of Siena
St. Catherine of Siena was born during an outbreak of the plague in Siena, Italy in 1347. She was the 25th child born to her parents (although only half of her siblings survived childhood), and was in fact a twin. Her sister also died during delivery. St. Catherine lived a spiritual life that is frankly, hard to relate to with a modern spiritual lens. Her experience was rich with mystical experiences (even as young as at the age of six!), a childhood betrothal to Christ, harsh asceticism, and frequent ecstatic visions. While still an adolescent she dedicated herself to prayer, penance and works of charity, especially for the benefit of the sick. She often smuggled food from her own home to share with the poor.
In a vision Catherine frequently received was one of Our Lady presenting her to Jesus who gave her a splendid ring, saying to her “I, Your Creator and Savior, espouse you in the faith, that you will keep ever pure until you celebrate your eternal nuptials with me in Heaven.” The ring was visible to her alone.
When Catherine was 16 years old, motivated by a vision of St Dominic, she entered the Third Order of the Dominicans, the female branch known as the Mantellate. An active public apostolate grew out of her contemplative life. Her letters, primarily containing spiritual instruction, began to take increasing positions on public affairs.
Of St. Catherine, Pope Benedict wrote: “When the fame of her holiness spread, she became the protagonist of an intense activity of spiritual guidance for people from every walk of life: nobles and politicians, artists and ordinary people, consecrated men and women and religious, including Pope Gregory XI who was living at Avignon in that period and whom she energetically and effectively urged to return to Rome.”
St. Catherine was also endowed with ‘the gift of tears’. Her tears expressed an exquisite, profound sensitivity, a capacity for empathy and tenderness.
Again, Pope Benedict describes the gift “Many Saints have had the gift of tears, renewing the emotion of Jesus himself who did not hold back or hide his tears at the tomb of his friend Lazarus and at the grief of Mary and Martha or at the sight of Jerusalem during his last days on this earth.”
Catherine’s lack of inhibition about defending her Church is inspiring. Her boldness in being an active participant in politics and it’s relation to the direction of the Church are both admirable and galvanizing. At a time when women’s voices were inaudible among the din of political outrage, Catherine comes as a clarion voice of reason and authority. I can’t help but ponder the gifts of the Holy Spirit Catherine employed; and why we perceive them so unattainable today as we too battle to defend our Church.
Although her spiritual journey in a modern context seem difficult to relate with, her writings and spiritual wisdom are highly relevant. Reposition her words into modern context and she is a downright firecracker!
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
“We've had enough exhortations to be silent. Cry out with a thousand tongues - I see the world is rotten because of silence.”
“Speak the truth in a million voices. It is silence that kills.”
“Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear.”
“Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.”
“All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, "I am the way.”
“Love follows knowledge.”
Catherine ranks high among the mystics and spiritual writers of the Church. She was canonized in 1461 and in 1939, she and Francis of Assisi were declared co-patrons of Italy. Pope Paul VI named her and Teresa of Avila doctors of the Church in 1970. Her spiritual testament is found in The Dialogue.