Stay with me, do not go from me and I will be good. I will die happy.
Fra Tommaso Caffarini, spiritual son of the mystic saint from Siena, heard about the sorry fate of the Perugian, Niccolo di Toldi, a young man of noble family, who, while he was in Siena, with too much wine dulling his cerebral common sense, spoke too flippantly and sarcastically about the new Reformed citizen’s government. Justice was severe in those days, no matter the form of government, and, in this case, outrageously cruel. Niccolo was condemned to death for talking stupid. The Sienese had been through a lot of civil strife recently, with warring parties spilling each others’ blood. The new government, the Riformati, was not going to tolerate dissent, especially from a foreigner.
The good priest could not move the angry prisoner, who was enraged at the injustice of it all. Yes, he admitted speaking imprudently, stupidly — but death? — for such a trifle? Not only was he mad at the judges, he was mad at God. Using whatever gifts of persuasion he had and offering abundant prayers, Fra Caffarini was unable to get the fuming young man to confess. Actually, the prisoner had only been to confession once in his life, before his first and only Holy Communion. Fra Tommaso went for help to his spiritual mother, the young Dominican tertiary, a Sister of Penitence, named Catherine. She had prayed for other convicts and won them to grace. In fact, just a short while before, two criminals, real criminals, converted in their last moments. They were on their way to execution, blaspheming and cursing all the while as a vengeful mob taunted them throwing stones at the condemned men in their fetters while they growled back like wild dogs. Suddenly both of them, upon seeing a priest at the scaffold, were drawn to grace and knelt down like lambs before him. They made their peace with God just before the axe fell.
In a letter to her confessor, Raymond of Capua, Catherine relates what happened to Nicolo di Toldi. Our author, Sigrid Undset, provides the account taken from Father Raymond’s biography of our saint.
“Now I know that I shall never again flinch or rest. I have held a head in my hands, and felt a sweetness which the heart cannot understand, the mouth speak of, the eyes see or the ears hear. God has truly shown me secrets which are more holy than all that has gone on before, and which it would take too long to describe.
“You know that I went to visit him, and he gained such great strength and power that he made his confession in the right state of mind. He made me promise for the sake of God’s love I would be with him when the day of execution came . . . The next day . . . I went with him to Mass, and he received Holy Communion, which he had always avoided. . . . He was afraid of one thing — that his courage should fail in the crucial moment. But God’s immeasurable goodness fired such love and longing in him that he could not have enough of God’s presence. He said, ‘Stay with me, do not go from me and I will be good. I will die happy.’ ‘ . . . when I realized that he was afraid I said to him, ‘Courage, beloved brother, for we shall soon go to the eternal marriage feast. . . . I shall wait for you at the place of execution.’ — Oh, my father and my son, then his heart was freed from fear, the melancholy in his face changed to gladness, and in his gladness he said, ‘Where does it come from, such great mercy? Oh, my soul’s joy promises to wait for me at the holy place of execution’ — See what a light had fallen on him — he called the place of execution holy!”
Our author continues from here: “So she waited for him at the place of execution, kneeling in ceaseless prayer, and she laid her own neck on the block ‘but I did not receive what I desired.’ . . . She was as though drunk with joy at the precious promises, so that she saw nothing, although there was an enormous crowd assembled.
“Nicolo came, peaceful as a lamb, and he smiled when he saw that Catherine stood there waiting for him. He asked her to make the sign of the cross over him, and she whispered to him: ‘My dear brother, let us go to the eternal marriage feast, to enjoy life which shall never end.’ She bared his throat, and when he laid his head on the block she knelt beside him. He said nothing but ‘Jesus, Catherine,’ and then his head fell into her hands.”
“I have held a head in my hands.” Sigrid Undset can tell a story like few others. She has the gift of relating events in simple language, but she speaks straight to the heart. The story of Nicolo di Toldi is one of the more spectacular ones among the hundreds of conversion stories that fill the pages of her life, scores of which are given in this incredible biography.
It seems that every time I read a good life of a saint I want to make that one my favorite. I’m sorry about that, Saint Francis. Yes, I know, I’ve said that before. I’ve dropped you down a notch many times, but you always end up back on top. This time, however, you may be in second place for quite a while. Thanks to this magnificent biography written by the Norwegian convert Sigrid Undset, Saint Catherine of Siena is now my favorite.
I must have read at least one other biography of this exquisite Sister of Penitence, but that had to have been a long time ago, because almost everything I read about Catherine Benincasa in Undset’s account was new to me. This is an extremely well written biography, so well written that I had no need to look up the meaning of a single word, with the exception of a handful of foreign ones. This convenience, however, is also due to Kate Austin-Lund who translated it from the original Norwegian.
Background of Madame Undset
There is a good reason why Sigrid Undset should write so well about such an unusual saint as Catherine of Siena. Before taking up the biography the author had written several novels about ordinary, yet complex, characters, who lived both in pre-Christian Scandanavia and Catholic medieval Scandanavia. Kristin Lavransdatter, her most famous work (for which she won the Nobel Laureate in 1928), is a 1400 page, three-part, historical novel about a Norwegian girl who, born to pious Catholic parents, grows up happy, carefree, and innocent, on a prosperous farm in fourteenth century Norway. The protagonist Kristin loses her innocence to a married excommunicate, weds him wearing the virgin’s gown (Part I, The Wreath), raises his and their many children, including eight sons (Part II, The Wife, regains her Faith), and (Part III, The Cross) suffers great loses including her husband’s income and their eighth son, deals with her guilt, and tries to make amends for her sins; in the end she dies from the Black Death while ministering to the plague’s victims.
While writing, actually even before that, Sigrid converted from agnosticism (her parents were atheist intellectuals, although her mother, with no faith, showed up regularly on Sundays at Lutheran services) to Catholic Christianity. She was baptized Catholic in 1924 at the age of forty-two. Even as a young woman, Sigrid had immersed herself in medieval Catholic literature. Her parents had spent many years in Rome and Sigrid began a more serious writing career after moving there in 1909. This was her first experience with a Catholic culture and, although it did not win her soul to grace it did fill her with appreciation for the beauty of Catholic life (and that culture’s accomplishments) and for the antiquity of authentic Christendom.
In Rome Sigrid met Anders Svarstad, an artist, fell in love, and moved with him to London. Here Madame Undset found another love, English literature, and lived in her fantasies in the days of Camelot and the legends of chivalry and romance of King Arthur and his Knights. As a child in Kristiania (Oslo), she had the same fascination for the Icelandic sagas. One would think Sigrid would have ended up as a writer of dreams and myth; however, her novels are neither glamorous nor tragic exaggerations of fanciful lives, they are bluntly realistic. Her own life mirrors that of Kristin Lavransdatter. Although the “daughter of Lavran” was given pious Catholic parents (Sigrid wasn’t) our author committed the same sins, as far as living with a married man (even before his divorce), and the raising of two sets of children (his and theirs) are concerned. Sigrid had to take care of her husband’s three children (which included a son who was mentally handicapped) and three of their own (which included a daughter with the same mental retardation). In Undset’s novel, Kristen separates from her husband after eight children, but there is no divorce (he dies tragically, by murder). In her own life Sigrid eventually did get a divorce in 1919 from her lover the painter, whom she had married in 1912 while they were in Belgium. That marriage was dissolved before her baptism because Svarstad had a wife who was still living at the time.
Sigrid Undset knew suffering and tragedy. She lived through two World Wars, and two invasions of her country — first the Communist Russians and then the Germans. She fled to America from the Nazis in 1940 and then returned to her beloved Lillehammer, Norway, after the liberation in 1945. Living in Brooklyn Heights, New York, our author was very active in St. Ansgar’s Scandinavian Catholic League and wrote several articles for its bulletin. Undset was traumatized by the wars, which had a huge influence on her writing, but it also gave her immense compassion for all who suffered, as well as an appreciation for the value of the Cross.
After writing Kristin Lavransdatter (which was published two years before she entered the Church) and a four volume work, Olav Audunssøn (1925 ) [The Master of Hestviken] and its sequel Olav Audunssen og hans børn (1927) [Olav Audunssøn and his Children] Madame Undset works were unapologetically apologetic in the Catholicity of their themes. In 1934 she wrote The Saga of Saints. Acclaimed as she was, especially after receiving the Nobel prize, Sigrid suffered much criticism in a very secular Norway for embracing the Catholic Faith. She was even lampooned in the press as “Lady Catholic.” But that didn’t bother her. She had a very strong character, which is evident not only in her writings but also in her political activities. For one thing, her detestation of Communism was so strong that she donated her Laureate prize money to the cause of Finnish children who suffered immensely, or were orphaned, during that nation’s resistance against Stalin’s Russian invasion and occupation in 1939. She also wrote virulent attacks against Nazism and so irritated the Nazis that she was advised to get out of Norway before it was too late. When German troops took over her village they smashed her writing desk to splinters. Feminists didn’t like Madame Undset either. She had been inclined to support some of their issues, but never their depreciation of motherhood. They were especially incensed against her when she championed virtuous motherhood as the highest dignity a woman could achieve outside of religious life. She wrote an autobiography, which, in English translation, was titled The Longest Years.
Undset’s Masterpiece, the Best for Last
To really appreciate this masterpiece of hagiography, it was necessary to give a bit of our author’s background. Catherine of Siena was not published until 1951, two years after Madame Undset’s death. It was three more years before the English translation, which I have before me, was published. She wrote the book as a third order Dominican, a spiritual child herself of the Italian mystic, declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Having relished this biography of the saint so much, when I afterwards researched information on the author I could not help being struck by what might be called (pardon me if I am misusing, or inventing, a term that seems to apply here) “biofeedback.” Sigrid Undset was writing as if she were one of Catherine’s converts. In fact, even with the character Kristin Lavransdatter, one can easily see Sigrid herself, and her own redemptive rebirth, as Kristin sacrifices her life ministering to the victims of the Black Death in Part III of the novel (Saint Catherine did the same during the actual Black Plague only she survived her own infection from the contagion). Using her gift for unaffected prose, orderly chronological composition, and strict historical accuracy, our author, perhaps obliviously, manages to plant her own soul at the feet of Catherine, ministering to the saint six hundred years later as one of the Caterinati who followed her around doing all kinds of good deeds and working with her for the conversion of poor sinners.
For those of you who don’t like reading introductions or prefaces, but always do anyway, you won’t have to with this book. There are neither. Sigrid is off and running with her biography from the very first page. There isn’t even a Table of Contents with chapter titles for the twenty-nine that divide these 335 pages. Right away you are placed in the city of Siena by the sparkling waters of Fonte Brands on the Via dei Tintori (Street of the Dyers) in the home of the fairly successful dyer, Jacopo Benincasa, and his wife Lapa di Puccio. Almost half of the couple’s twenty-five children died at birth or in infancy. Catherine was the twenty-second child, her twin sister, Giovanna, who didn’t survive long, was the twenty-third. They were born on the day the Word was made Flesh, March 25, in the year of Our Lord 1347.
The Early Life of Saint Catherine
As Catherine grew she became extremely pious and, at the age of six, she had a vision of Christ who appeared to her dressed like a bishop above a steeple with a mitre and crosier and vested in a chasuble. Often, during prayers, the young girl would feel as if she were floating, perhaps she was, though in her childhood no one saw her levitated. Later, it was practically a daily sight for her friends to see her elevated in prayer several inches off the ground.
Madame Undset relates with exquisite delicacy the turmoil Catherine caused among all in her household when she cut her hair and announced that she had taken Christ as her Spouse. Were it not for the support she received from her father, who gave her his enthusiastic blessing (and access to all the goods of the house for her works of charity) she could well have been evicted and disowned. It took years before her mother could accept the fact that her beautiful daughter was “different” and would never marry. Catherine’s passionate prayers later saved her mother from an unprepared death when, in a mortal illness, she stubbornly refused the last rites.
Lapa Benincasa, and the Mantellate
What am I saying! Her mother did in fact actually die, unrepentant, and angry with God and her daughter. Catherine had to beg Our Lord and His holy mother to restore her to life, which in His mercy, He did, for the sake of His beloved daughter. After this, Lapa was a changed woman. She ended up joining the pious women, the Mantellate (the Veiled Ones), who, as widows or consecrated virgins (although not members of any order), often joined Catherine in her works of charity. Some of them would also prove to be a heavy cross for Catherine. They did not approve of her falling into ecstasy every morning during and after Mass. They thought she was “faking” it for attention. Furthermore, they were “scandalized” that the dyer’s daughter would run off on her own, without a companion, to do a work of charity. Good grief, she was sometimes even seen sneaking back into her home after dark. Lapa was given a very long life and had to be told by her dying daughter to stop weeping while she sat by her bed during the final weeks of Catherine’s life. She was well into her eighties when her daughter’s Dominican confessor, Raymond of Capua, took down the mother’s most invaluable testimony. The older this mother of twenty-five children grew, the more she wondered if perhaps God was going to punish her with perennial mortality. She once quipped: “I think God has wedged my soul crossways in my body so that it cannot come out.” Fra Raimondo did not complete the biography of his penitent, her “son and father” as she called him, until 1395, fifteen years after Catherine’s death.
Catherine of Siena was given a share in the passion of her beloved Savior. First she was given a crown of thorns, which, when she saw the marks, she begged God that it would be made invisible. So, it was. Sometime later she received the five wounds of Christ’s crucifixion, which were also hidden from human eyes. The pain never left her. When, on April 29, 1380, at the age of thirty-three, her soul left her stiffened and emaciated body, a body which for years was unable to take any food or drink (not even water), her ghastly gray-colored skin, which cleaved to her bones, instantly turned rosy and supple, and the five wounds of her hands, feet, and side, appeared visibly, exuding the most exquisite perfume fragrance.
Saint Catherine’s Mission
Had Catherine not been chosen by God to be His ambassador to kings, queens, diplomats, military officers, bishops, and popes, she would have been canonized for her extraordinary holiness and miracles alone. She would still have been chosen as Italy’s patron saint. She may have even still have been declared a Doctor of the Church on account of the spiritual wisdom and counsels recorded in her hundreds of letters. But what surely qualified her as a doctor was the revelations she received from the Eternal Father, which she simply called The Dialog. These were messages and lessons that she received from God the Father for five consecutive days while in ecstasy. Three secretaries (she had at least seven) took her dictation without interruption day and night shortly before she died. This is Catherine of Siena’s richest legacy. In the dialog God tells this “human soul” that His principal attribute in relation to men is His mercy. This divine mercy is incarnated in His Son, Jesus Christ, who is Mercy Personified. The Father also stresses — so relevant for out time — that the members of the Body of the Church ought not to speak disrespectfully of His sinful ministers, but leave them for Him to judge. Of course, this must be understood as non-constructive judgment, by way of slander. Catherine herself could and did use strong language in criticizing weak religious. It was the better religious, who were nevertheless weak and pusillanimous, that weighed upon her more than the scandalous. The saint who called the pope “Sweet Christ on Earth,” did also warn them of eternal punishment if they failed in their duty.
Saint Catherine worked countless miracles in life and in death. Madame Undset fills scores of pages with them. They are so numerous, and so astounding, that it would better to just say “Get the book” and read about them for yourself. She cured many of the sick and infirm who were brought to her, but her greatest miracles were those of grace. Countless souls, even those whom she had never met, were won to repentance because of her intercession. They still are. However, when people would bring the possessed to her house Catherine was not so benign. The first time this happened she hid from the beseeching party and had to be practically dragged to the battle. For a battle it was. The saint protested that she had enough demons of her own tormenting her and she didn’t need any more. How could she say such a thing? She is a saint, is she not? Yes, and that is why she wanted nothing to do with someone else’s demons. She had experienced the burden of their obsession and, although she always defeated the diabolic assaults, it was no picnic. It was spiritual torment. But every victory made her rejoice and grow in grace. And, despite her protests, she never sent any one away who needed an exorcism. In fact, although God allowed certain evil spirits to assail her for her own greater perfection, those who afflicted others she cast out effortlessly at her first command.
Two Saints, Two Mystics, and the Avignon Captivity
Saint Catherine and Saint Birgitta of Sweden (+1373) did everything they could to try and convince the last two of the French Avignon popes, Clement VI and Innocent VI, to return to Rome and reform the Church, but they steadfastly refused even though they knew that the two mystics who challenged them were sent by God. They were both more afraid of the French King than their Creator. When Clement died in 1352, Birgitta (Catherine refers to her as a countess) cried: “Blessed be this day, but not this pope.” Her daughter, Saint Catherine of Sweden also worked for the return of the papacy as an ally of her Italian namesake. She died the year after our Catherine.
Catherine Works to Win Italian Support for the French Pope
Although this is not an inspiring part of the book, Catherine’s mission, spiritual and diplomatic, to effect the reformation of the Church and bring peace and unity to it by first getting the pope to return to “his local diocese” — for then and only then could he speak with the full credibility of his office as universal pastor — is the most important part of her life’s work. Her dealings with worldly Catholic potentates, her own Sienese, Roman Italians, Napolitani and Florentini, Milanese, Umbrians, Pisans (on her mission here she received the stigmata), and Perugians, Guelphs and Ghibellines, are such a heavy cross for her. So much promise and so many ensuing disappointments weighed down her soul and caused her to blame all the miseries, all the internecine wars, all the apparent failures with inconstant men, lay and clergy, on her own sins. Truly, as Madame Undset so beautifully relates the history with its causes, Catherine of Siena carried the Church on her shoulders up until the hour of her death.
Gregory XI Returns to Rome
The Church’s history is glorious as are the lives of so many popes. Blessed Benedict XI was the pope who preceded the nearly seventy years of what is called “the Avignon captivity of the popes,” and Blessed Urban V, thanks to the imprecations of Saint Birgitta, ended it in 1367. But only for three years. He left Rome and returned to Avignon in 1370 and died shortly thereafter. Finally, in 1376, Catherine went personally to Avignon to plead with Pope Gregory XI. He received her graciously and, after telling him something that she would have had no natural way of knowing, he was convinced that she was sent by God. Nevertheless, the French Pope would not leave his native country for two more years, so attached was he to the luxury and security of the palace fortress and to his family. Before he finally left Avignon he excommunicated the principal leaders of the government and military in Florence for revolting against his authority, and to make matters worse he placed the city under interdict. Saint Catherine was in Florence when the hammer fell. Madame Undset does a magnificent job explaining how, in the middle ages, an interdict could bring down a Catholic city, not only spiritually, but economically and militarily. An interdicted city would become so disrupted that it was open game for conquest by rival forces who were free to attack it with virtual impunity. Our author’s description of Gregory’s humble entrance into the Eternal City riding on a mule amidst the jubilation of the people, especially that of Saint Catherine, allows the reader to feel he is a part of the celebration. Unfortunately for all, Gregory died in March of 1378, only a few months after his return home.
Not So Urbane Urban VI
It was the next pope, Urban VI, an Italian, Bartolomeo Prignano, who even more fully heeded Saint Catherine’s entreaties, and began the reform of the universal Church and Christendom in earnest. Urban had all the qualities Catherine had hoped and prayed for in a pope at this crucial time, except for one. He did not act like “Sweet Christ on earth.” Urban was merciless and severe. His severity and haughtiness cost him, not only the loyalty of the French cardinals who validly participated in his election, but also that of many Italians, including Roman cardinals. No matter how hard the indefatigable Dominican tertiary tried through letters, personal audiences, and ceaseless prayers to get the pope to pursue patience, moderation, diplomacy, mercy, and compromise in all things but sin, Urban preferred himself as his go-to counselor. In spite of his stubbornness he truly loved Catherine. He once had her address the Sacred College in Rome at the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, where he and the cardinals were forced to adjourn when the French army took over Castel San Angelo and lay siege to the city. After her encouraging words Urban said: “See how we tremble while she [he called her “piccola donzella” (little maiden)] is strong and calm.”
Great Western Schism
What followed from the no-nonsense policies of the reforming pope [our author relates not only those dealing with insubordinate cardinals but also those involving statecraft as head of the papal states], was the Great Western Schism, which lasted from 1378-1417. It is important to note that there were no doctrinal or moral issues involved in the split(s). For a period there were three contending claimants to the Petrine pontificate: one in Avignon, one in Rome, and one in Pisa. At issue was the cardinals’ freedom (or lack thereof) during the papal election of April 8. Even saints were for a time confused on account of misinformation, exaggerations, and/or false testimonies. Saint Vincent Ferrer didn’t withdraw his support for the Avignon anti-popes [the last of whom was Cardinal Pedro de Luna, a fellow Spaniard, Benedict XIII] until 1416 when King Ferdinand convinced him to do so after Benedict refused to abdicate along with the willing and true pope, Gregory XII, so that, with a vacant Holy See, a new pope could be elected in peace. This was achieved at the Council of Constance when Gregory XII did officially abdicate and Saint Martin V was elected.
Catherine only lived to see two years of the western schism, but those were the most painful years of her life. When, despite all of her pleading for their support for the true pope whom they had freely elected, the Italian cardinals literally sneaked out of Rome and with a total of thirteen they went to Fondi and elected Cardinal Robert of Geneva pope in opposition to Urban. Robert took the name Clement VII and moved back to Avignon.
No Salvation Outside the Church
As Sigrid Undset points out more than once in her biography, Saint Catherine of Siena believed that there is no salvation outside the Church. When she relates the story of the trouble Pope Urban V was having with the Visconti family who ruled Milan in the 1370s she comments as follows after inserting Saint Catherine’s moving appeal to Bernabo Visconti to leave the clergy of Milan alone and give the love of God first place in his heart. “ ‘[God] alone has the right to sit in judgment over His unworthy servants — and we must continue to turn to them to receive the sacraments which God has given to His Church to administer for the sake of our salvation.’ Catherine, who was willing to offer herself to torture and death if God would receive her as a peace offering for the reformation of the Catholic Church, believed as firmly as St. Birgitta — and all other saints — that there is no salvation outside the Church.”
If I may be so bold to assume, judging from Sigrid’s emphatic interjection here, our humble Norwegian author and convert, “Lady Catholic,” also believed that there is no salvation outside the Church.
Take Me, O Lord
If she was not to be a martyr, Catherine had repeatedly asked her Spouse if He would accept her as a sacrificial victim, an oblation, a holocaust, for the Church. Since her childhood every day she lived a good part of her day in ecstasy. For years now she had the privilege from her confessor, Fra Raimondo, of receiving Holy Communion daily. After every Communion she would be taken up in a rapture. Jesus, Mary, and the saints were her daily companions for over twenty years. For the last few years of her life she lived solely on the Eucharistic Bread of Life.
“My nature is fire,” she cried out in an ecstasy. Many years before, even before receiving the stigmata, Jesus had granted a very peculiar desire of His “beloved daughter.” She had asked that He replace her heart with His. One might say that such talk is beyond any literal sense, that it is simply the stuff of mystics, un-understandable, un-explainable, and leave it at that. Only in Catherine’s case there were witnesses, seven of them. They were the closest of her female friends, the so-called “Caterinati,” who were always with her. They all testified that they heard her prayer and they saw an intense agony follow, and she allowed them to see the scar that appeared afterward visibly on her side.
Prior to this, as a young woman, Catherine was mystically betrothed to her divine Spouse. Jesus put a ring on her finger, which only His beloved Catherine could see.
Catherine’s prayers for total immolation now grew more intense. The Roman people had become so incensed at Pope Urban for the way he treated their cardinals that certain rebels determined to kill him. Jesus revealed the plot to His beloved daughter. He told her that He would allow their crime of patricide as a punishment upon them “My justice,” He said, “cannot tolerate their abominations.” Catherine pleaded “Take me, Lord” in exchange, “Take me.” Jesus and Catherine spoke now intellect to intellect, in spirit. No longer did He speak to her in words, nor she to Him, but by concepts, like the angels.
Jesus accepts. Suddenly, as if overnight, the Eternal City became calmer. Catherine still managed to get up every morning and walk to Saint Peter’s for Holy Mass. At the end of her last day at Saint Peter’s, after Vespers, she was unable to walk and had to be carried back home and put to bed after an entire day in ecstasy. She would not rise from those boards again except to sit up once to receive Holy Communion on Easter Sunday.
Now her body began to look like a corpse. Her skin cleaved to her bones, turning dark, and her face was puckered and sullen. She was bent over and her frame seemed greatly reduced in height. Her limbs stiffened. What was happening to our saint? From her appearance and the expression in her eyes and her moans, it must have been that demons were allowed to let lose upon her, beating her to a pulp, as they were allowed to do at times to other stigmatists who were chosen to “fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ” (Colossians 1:24).
From her residence in Rome she dictated several more letters to Pope Urban, to her fellow Dominican and confessor, Fra Raimondo, who was on a mission to win the King of France to the true pope’s cause, and to other spiritual children whom she knew needed her final counsels. Father Raymond would later be elected Superior General of the Order and end up on the opposite side of the miracle working Dominican preacher already mentioned, Vincent Ferrer.
Jesus spoke to her before she wrote her final letter to the pope. “I permit him to cleanse the Church with the violent means he uses and with the fear which he awakes in his subordinates, but others shall come who shall serve the Church with love, and they shall make her rich. He [Urban] shall be for the Bride what fear is for the soul, for the soul is first cleansed of its vices by fear, but later it is filled and adorned by love.” Again, “Say to My Vicar that he must try to make his nature milder and that he must be willing to grant peace to all those who are willing to be reconciled to him. Say to the cardinals, the pillars of the Holy Church, that if they really wish to compensate for all that has been laid waste, they must unite and stand together, so that they form a cape to cover their father’s faults.”
The Third Sunday of Lent Catherine became paralyzed the waist down. She received visitors from her bed of wood for the next several weeks, giving advice and prayers, until the Sunday before Ascension Thursday, April 29, when she began to enter into her death throes. Dominican Father Bartolommeo Domenici had offered Mass in her room and given her Communion and the last rites on Easter Sunday. She confessed and received Extreme Unction again just before entering into a semi comatose state.
Our author describes the final moments of her beloved Saint Catherine. Her friends were called to her bedside and Father Giovanni Tantucci, upon her signal, gave her the papal absolution in articulo mortis of all guilt of sin and temporal punishment due to sins forgiven.
“But after a while the unconscious woman began to be restless. She lifted her right arm and let it fall on the blanket again and again, while she repeated: ‘Peccavi, Domine, miserere mei.’ It looked to those who stood around her bed as though she fought with terrible demons: her face darkened, she turned her head from side to side and looked away as though she would escape some awful sight. All the time she murmured: ‘Deus in adjutorium meum intende.’ — God come to my help. Suddenly she cried, ‘with holy recklessness’: ‘My own honor? Never! But the true glory of Christ Crucified.’”
“She had fought and won the last battle. Those who watched over her saw the white, dying face become radiantly happy, her dim eyes suddenly shone like two stars. . . . The virgin smiled: ‘Praise be our beloved Savior.’
“Catherine continued to pray till the last moment, for the Church, for Pope Urban, for her children. She prayed with such intense love that her disciples thought that not only their hearts, but the very stones must break. ‘Beloved, You call me, I come. Not through any service of mine, but through Your mercy and the power of Your blood.’ She made the sign of the cross and cried, ‘Blood, blood . . .’ Then she bowed her head. ‘Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit.’ And as she said it, she gave up her spirit. Her face became as beautiful as an angel’s, radiant with tenderness and happiness.”
In 1461, Catherine of Siena was canonized by Pope Pius II, Anea Silvio Piccolomini, who was from Siena. As a layman, Il Signore Piccolomini had led a dissolute life, siring two sons from two of his many affairs. He was converted while working in some diplomatic capacity for Pope Eugene IV whom he had earlier opposed in many ways, including his giving support to an anti-pope, Felix V, and his favoring of the heresy of conciliarism. He had actually accompanied the would-be anti-pope to the Council of Basle (1439), which passed a canon affirming the heresy. After his conversion, Piccolomini studied theology, was ordained a priest, and was soon afterwards consecrated bishop of Siena. No doubt Catherine prayed for him from heaven, because, after he was elected Pope Pius II, he re-condemned conciliarism (it was condemned at the Council of Florence, 1441) and his own previous errors, writing a Bull, which, in effect, said, “that was Enea, listen now to Pius.”
Saint Catherine of Siena certainly fits into no mold of commonality for all the saints that graced the history of the Church. Other than that extraordinary holiness, which every saint must have, the mystic from Siena defies comparison with any other — certainly with any other female saint. I am not saying that she is the holiest female saint after Our Lady, I am just saying she is unique and I think that is why our rather unique author chose her fellow Dominican tertiary to write about. Catherine is an anomaly. She said things, did things, and was commissioned by God and His Vicar to do things that you wouldn’t expect a female saint to say and do. She called the pope “Sweet Christ on earth” and, at the same time, threatened him with hellfire for his weaknesses. While on a mission from God to bring Pope Gregory XI from Avignon back to Rome, one of the first things she said to the pope was that she could smell the stench of the sins of his corrupt court in her little cell in Siena. She waited for a condemned penitent at the scaffold and put her own head on the block. She knelt beside him as the axe fell. She caught his severed head in her arms. Her last words were the same as Our Lord’s, so was her age at death, that is because she was so transformed into Him and had His Sacred Heart beating in her breast. But what she cried out just before she surrendered her soul is so deep a mystery, so profound a realization of the value of the Precious Blood of Jesus, that no human words can explain so rending a sigh of expiration: “Blood, blood!”
O Catherine, how full of God was your life! How true were your words: Vidi arcana Dei! (I have seen the secrets of God!)
Saint Catherine of Siena, pray for us, and pray for our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.
I consider this book the greatest biography ever written about a saint. Not only does one learn about an extraordinary woman but one also learns about a slice of Church history that is essential to know well in order to be a more effective lay apostle in Our Lady’s Holy Militia. You can purchase Sigrid Undset’s biography of Saint Catherine of Siena from our website bookstore here.