Siena, in the fourteenth century, was a thriving city in northern Italy situated on the summits of three hills. Here Saint Catherine of Siena, one of the greatest of all the saints of the Catholic Church, was born. Mystic, arbitrator, miracle worker, she decided the fate of the Church for many years to come. Despite her lack of formal education, she had one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day. And, in 1970, because of her outstanding knowledge and sanctity, Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor of the Universal Church. Saint Catherine is the second woman, and the thirty-second saint, who has thus far been raised to this high dignity. We can only marvel that she could achieve so much in a mere thirty-three years on this earth!
Catherine and her twin sister, Giovanna, were born on Annunciation Day in 1347. They were the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth children of Jacopo and Lapa Benincasa. Several of the Benincasa babies died in infancy, among whom was to be counted Giovanna. In fact, the mortality rate for children being very high in those days, only thirteen of Jacopo’s and Lapa’s twenty-five children grew to adulthood.
The Benincasas were both prosperous and pious. The father was a wool-dyer by trade. He and his sons carried on the family business in the basement of their large home, while Lapa, an ever-busy matron, cared not only for her own offspring, but for nieces, nephews, and grandchildren, not a few of whom lived in the Benincasa household. Catherine — the youngest — a charming and beautiful girl — was the “darling” of the family. From her earliest years she possessed a wisdom well beyond her age, and cultivated a number of devotional practices that she taught to her friends. When she was only five, the saint used to climb the stairs inside her house on her knees reciting an Ave Maria on each step. Her mother was certain, as were others, that they had actually seen the child float up the stairs without touching a step. Another fascination that the little girl had was for the Dominican friars in their black and white habits. If she ever saw one of them, she would rush and kiss the ground upon which he had passed.
One evening, when the happy little saint was six years old, she had her first vision of Our Lord. As she and her brother were on their way home from visiting a church, Catherine looked up into the sky and saw an astounding sight. Before her was the Savior of the world sitting upon a royal throne. He was magnificently clad in bishop’s robes with the papal tiara on His head. Beside Him stood three Apostles: Saint Peter, Saint Paul, and Saint John. Our Lord then smiled lovingly at His little friend below, lifted His hand, and blessed her with the Sign of the Cross, as a bishop does. Catherine stood motionless. Her brother, who did not see anything but the brightness, tugged and tugged to try to awaken her from this trance. Finally she came to, and looking again up to heaven, she wept bitterly upon seeing that the vision had vanished.
After this experience Catherine, though only a child, began her never-ending union with God. She started an intense schedule of prayer, combined with astounding acts of mortification in one so young. At table, she would subdue her hunger by slipping generous portions of her meal to her brothers or to the cat meowing beneath her chair. Privately, in her room, she started to discipline herself with a homemade whip, so as to overcome her natural fear of pain. At seven, by a Divine inspiration, Catherine vowed perpetual virginity to Jesus, her chosen Spouse, and asked her Bridegroom and His holy Mother to keep her free from every stain of sin.
Catherine had never told anyone of her vow. As she approached marriageable age, however, her family began to arrange for suitors to call at the Benincasa home. Lapa, especially, was very eager to find a suitable husband for her charming young daughter, in the hope of bringing honor and perhaps some social advantage to her family. She encouraged Catherine to make herself as attractive as possible for the sake of the visiting young men.
Yes, Lapa loved Catherine more than the rest of her children, but this favorite daughter was also the most misunderstood. What was her mother’s consternation, then, when Catherine took no interest in adorning herself, and even went out of her way to avoid being available when such visitors arrived. Not willing to admit defeat, Lapa asked the help of her older daughter, Bonaventura. At Bonaventura’s pleading, Catherine made a few minor concessions, which later caused her much grief. Then suddenly, Bonventura died in childbirth. (It was, however, revealed to Saint Catherine that her sister, who unknowingly had been an obstacle to God’s designs upon her, was saved, but would have to endure a short Purgatory.)
Now, to Jacopo and his sons, the death of Bonaventura made the question of Catherine’s marriage all the more urgent. When they discovered how unwilling the girl was to comply with their objective, they became furious and sometimes violent. To make matters worse, the saint retaliated by cutting off her beautiful golden-brown hair, hoping by this action to be left in peace. On the contrary, this brought on even greater rage. Her misguided loved ones resolved to make life so miserable for the stubborn girl that they were sure she would, eventually, have to give in. So, our little heroine was no longer allowed her own room in which she could pray, nor a moment of solitude. They dismissed the maid and laid all the household duties upon her, while they teased and scolded her mercilessly. But, for this remarkable young lady of thirteen, the hard labor, humiliations, and contempt were a source of joy. She was still enough of a child to turn all her crosses into a game. She would pretend that her father was Our Lord; her mother — the Blessed Virgin; and her brothers — the Apostles. She would then serve them happily as such. No matter how they overburdened her, they could not destroy her peace of soul, her habit of turning her own heart into a cloistered cell, and her resolve to belong to Jesus alone.
Meanwhile, Catherine’s attachment to the Dominicans continued to grow. She was especially interested in the Sisters of Penitence of Saint Dominic’s Third Order, who had given their lives to the service of God while remaining in the world, at home. They were called the Mantellata. Siena had many of them, and Catherine longed to share their life. One night, in a dream, there appeared to the saint many venerable patriarchs and founders of various religious Orders. These saints, among whom she recognized Saint Dominic, told her to choose an Order to which she would belong so that she could better serve her Lord. Catherine immediately turned to her favorite saint, as he came toward her carrying a robe of the Mantellata. He spoke to her: “Beloved daughter, take courage. Be afraid of nothing, for you shall surely be clothed in this robe which you desire.” Catherine wept for joy. Now that she was sure of her vocation, she went to her parents and informed them of the reason for her resistance to their plans. Jacopo, in his heart, was not surprised. Kindly, he spoke:
My dearest daughter, it is far from us to set ourselves against the Will of God in any way, and it is from Him that your purpose comes. We have learned through long experience that you are not moved by the selfishness of youth but by the mercy of God. Keep your promise and live as the Holy Ghost tells you to live. We shall never disturb you again in your life of prayer and devotion, or try to tempt you from your sacred work. But pray steadfastly for us, that we may be made worthy of the Bridegroom you chose while still so young.
Once again, the beloved daughter of the Benincasa household was given her own cell. Day and night she prayed and meditated. In her eagerness for suffering, the fragile saint exchanged her hair shirt for an iron chain, which she fashioned about herself so tightly that it bit into her flesh. This she wore until her life was nearly ended and her confessor commanded her to lay it aside. Three times a day she applied the scourge to her body: once for her own sins, once for the sins of the living, and once for the souls in purgatory. She ate a bare minimum to sustain life. Indeed, later, food became so repulsive to her that she could not eat anything, and for years she lived on the Holy Eucharist alone. Despite all these sufferings, she once said that her greatest penance at this time was going without sleep. She allowed herself only one half hour of sleep a night. Even this she would eventually relinquish, so that in her last years she lived with no sleep at all — her very life continuing on only by a sustained miracle from God.
Catherine Benincasa was accepted into the Dominican Third Order in her sixteenth year. But before she received her habit, the arch-enemy of souls tried fiendishly to prevent this lily of surpassing beauty from renouncing the world. Instead of using his usual hideous forms, Satan appeared to Catherine as a young man — not to frighten, but to persuade. He tempted her with the pleasures, legitimate ones, that the world has to offer to an attractive and intelligent young woman. The saint was undaunted and threw herself before the crucifix, begging her Bridegroom for help. Suddenly, the Queen of Heaven stood before her, clothed in radiance. She held a cloak covered with pearls that shone like the sun. Catherine bent forward, and Our Lady slipped the garment over her head. A few days later the pure victor received her longed-for habit of the Sisters of Penitence. The white robe stood for purity, the black cape for humility and death.
Like Our Lord, Catherine was to live thirty-three years on this earth. But while Jesus had spent thirty years of solitude in the company of His Blessed Mother and Saint Joseph, Catherine was to spend thirty years of active life in the world. And while Jesus had given but three years to public life, Catherine was to have only three years of solitude. During these three years, her cell was her paradise. She never left it except to go to Mass. Nor did she even speak to anyone but her confessor.
During this solitude, Catherine’s life became almost one continual vision and ecstasy, as her union with God became more and more intimate. On one occasion, Our Lord appeared to her with Saint Mary Magdalen, whom He gave to Catherine as her spiritual mother. For this blessing our saint was immensely grateful, since she considered herself a miserable sinner in need of so glorious an advocate.
Jesus Himself taught Catherine the maxims on which her spiritual life was to rest. “Daughter,” He addressed her, “do you know who you are, and who I am? If you know these two things, you will be very happy.”
Perceiving so clearly her own nothingness, it seemed to this wool-dyer’s child that one ought to receive willingly and patiently everything which seems hard and bitter, out of love for God who created us, sustains us, and offers us everlasting life.
With the Almighty Himself for her teacher, the unlettered child of Siena grew immeasurably in wisdom and in virtue. Her soul was infused with an understanding of the deepest mysteries of the Faith, and she was given a miraculous familiarity with the Scriptures. The most amazing gift in this regard was the infusion by her Spouse of a knowledge of letters into her heart. This enabled her to read the Breviary, which opened for our saint a wealth of spiritual treasures in the Church’s liturgy. At times, as she was reading the Breviary, Our Lord would appear and read the responses, as when two monks recite the office together antiphonally.
Catherine Benincasa’s divine favors were not unaccompanied by suffering. The devil was furious at this holy and chaste young woman, whose name Catarina means pure. There was one terrible occasion when Satan and his cohorts attacked her with a flood of sensual and filthy images. The saint saw before her men and women openly committing disgusting and infamous acts. During these painful temptations, which lasted for days, Catherine was denied the consolation of the visible presence of her Divine Spouse. But she withstood, and prayed ceaselessly, knowing that by this means she would be delivered and strengthened. At last, a whole army of devils took flight in fear. The saint saw before her Christ crucified: “Catherine, My daughter,” He said, “see what torments I bore for your sake; you should not think it so hard to suffer for My sake.” The vision changed, and Jesus stood gloriously before her. Catherine asked, “My Beloved Lord, where were You when my soul was filled with such terrible bitterness?” Jesus replied, “I was in your heart.”
Back to Active Life
It was the last day of the carnival in Siena, a time of festivity which often led even the more virtuous townspeople to fling themselves headlong into sin. The mystic, alone in her cell, prayed and scourged herself vigorously for the revelers. It was at this time that Our Lord rewarded His Spouse with a most unusual favor- a mystical marriage feast. There appeared to her, with Jesus, His Blessed Mother, Saint John the Evangelist, Saint Paul, and David — the poet-king, bearing his harp. Our Lady took Catherine’s right hand and held it up to her Son. Jesus put a ring on her finger. It was adorned with a brilliant diamond and studded with four pearls. Then He spoke to His bride:
I here betroth you as My bride in perfect faith, which for all time shall keep you pure and virgin, until our marriage is celebrated in heaven with great rejoicing. My daughter, from now on you must undertake without protest all the works which I come to demand of you, for armed with the power of faith you shall triumphantly overcome all your opponents.
The vision disappeared, but the ring remained always on Catherine’s finger, though it was invisible to everyone but her.
Shortly after this espousal, Our Lord revealed the work He had in mind for the youngest child of Jacopo and Lapa Benincasa. She must labor in the world for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls. Her assignment, difficult enough for a holy man, was deliberately given by Christ to a frail woman. Our Savior explained:
Today I have chosen unschooled women, fearful and weak by nature, but trained by Me in the knowledge of the divine, so that they may put vanity and pride to shame. If men will humbly receive the teachings I send them through the weaker sex I will show them great mercy; but if they despise these women, they shall fall into even worse confusion and even greater agony. Therefore, My daughter, you shall humbly do My will; for I will never fail you; on the contrary, I will come to you as often as before, and I will guide and help you in all things.
Catherine wept when Jesus told her these things.
Corporal Works of Mercy
Catherine always exhibited, even by nature, a very maternal care for anyone in need. While she performed all her chores at home during the night — the washing and mending of clothes, the scrubbing of floors — her day was spent hustling about the city performing all manner of good works. Soon, the poor and needy were flocking to the Benincasa door. The dyer’s daughter gave them alms in abundance, never turning anyone away empty-handed. Many times, miraculously, the provisions in the house were multiplied, so that they never became depleted. No matter how many times a day Catherine tapped the wine barrel to aid a beggar, it always seemed to remain full. And too, even when the saint was bedridden with a fever, she would suddenly be given strength, climb out of bed, and then she would be off carrying excessively heavy loads of necessities to some impoverished family. Sometimes Catherine would perform these charities at night so as not to embarrass the needy. Always she would find the door of the house to which she was going unlocked.
One day she was met by a poor man who was half-naked and suffering terribly from the cold. The holy virgin, having nothing with her except her own garments, hesitated not to give him her tunic. That night Jesus appeared to her wearing her tunic, but now it glittered in jewels. “Daughter,” He said to her, “you clad My nakedness with this tunic, and now I will clothe you.”
Our Lord took from His side a blood-red robe and gave it to His spouse. From that day on the saint never suffered from the cold, though she wore but one garment, even in the most bitter-cold weather.
Much of the young Mantellata’s time was spent in the hospitals, caring for the sick. This good Samaritan never shirked the service owed to others because of their repulsive diseases. The holy virgin always sought out the most miserable and ungrateful invalids and waited on them cheerfully. Once she took care of a snarling leper woman, whose vile remarks were as loathsome as was her affliction. Daily the saint cleansed the terrible wounds with a smile, despite the ingrate’s vicious invectives. Furthermore, her mother, Lapa, was furious at the prospect of the possible infection of her whole family through Catherine’s excessive zeal. Soon the saint noticed the unmistakable signs of leprous infection on her own hands. Nevertheless, Catherine persisted in her duty, not willing to forsake the poor woman in her greatest need. The saint’s kindness and generosity won out, and the woman died repentant in her benefactress arms. Then, all alone, Catherine washed and buried the disfigured corpse. After completing this mission to the very end, even unto death, she marvelled to see that her own hands were as white and beautiful as ever, with no trace of the incurable infection that had been there.
Catherine undertook the care of another poor woman, Andrea, who had a cancerous wound so foul-smelling that no one would enter her room. The saint tried to show no sign of aversion as she daily attended her patient. But one day, as she washed the wound, her body rebelled, and angered at her own weakness, Catherine turned aside and drank the bloody contents of the bowl she had been using to rinse the wash cloth. When her Spouse appeared to her, He rewarded her for this great charity by allowing her to drink the Blood from His sacred side. “Drink of a drink which is not offered to human kind,” He said. “Drink My blood, and you shall taste a sweetness which will fill your whole soul; it shall even penetrate your body, which you have despised for My sake.” Ever afterwards, the saint had a special devotion to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus and, as we shall see especially in her death, Catherine possessed an awesome realization of the price that was paid for the salvation of men.
While the Sister of Penitence was spending herself in helping others, she would herself many times be stricken with strange, preternatural illnesses that no physician could even diagnose, let alone remedy. It was not uncommon, either, for Catherine to go into an almost lifeless state of ecstasy in public, especially after receiving Holy Communion — at times from the hands of Jesus Himself. During these ecstasies her body would become extremely rigid and pale and would rise several inches off the ground, suspended in the air. These prodigies, and other accompanying miracles, naturally led to much talk in Siena, and not all of it was complimentary. The proud began to spread insidious rumors about “a fraudulent woman who pretended holiness and enjoyed attention.” Whether she received praise or reproach, the saint was indifferent to either. She bore all with patience, as she continued her missions of mercy.
Spiritual Works of Mercy
The wasted little mystic of Siena was responsible for the return of thousands of souls to the Catholic Faith. Hardened sinners could not withstand the charity in her exhortations, and many wretched and vile souls left her company with a firm purpose of amendment. Hundreds of people, including many persons of prominence, came to Catherine regularly for advice. Bishops, cardinals, and even popes, as we shall soon see, consulted her. Many of the Beata’s converts, both men and women, remained among Catherine’s growing circle of friends who had taken her for their spiritual mother. These Catarinati as they were called, accompanied their beloved “mamma” wherever she went, eagerly garnering from her the secrets of spiritual perfection.
To help her in her work for the salvation of souls, Catherine had been given the grace of reading hearts. She could see and even smell the beauty or ugliness of souls. Often too, Catherine would receive “messages” that someone had need of her, and she would hasten to a deathbed to help reconcile a needy soul to its Creator.
The story of two conversions we must relate. One day from her window Catherine saw two notorious robbers being led to their executions. So horrible were their crimes that their sentence prescribed torture first before death. Each of the men was chained to a stake and driven through the town in wagons, while the executioners pricked them with red-hot forks and plucked flesh from their limbs with burning tongs. The poor wretches shouted curses in defiance and blasphemed God. Catherine was torn with pity for the two, and begged her Bridegroom to help them as He had done for the Good Thief on the Cross, who also had at first blasphemed. Boldly she demanded it: “Save these two miserable men who were created in Your image and redeemed by Your Precious Blood-or will You permit that they shall first suffer these cruel tortures before they die, and then go to eternal agony in hell?”
Catherine followed the two men in spirit, as their wagons drew them to the place of execution. She could see in the air about them the demons swarming, confident of their prey, and urging them on to greater and more hateful blasphemies. Suddenly, the criminals saw Christ before them. He was crowned with thorns and bleeding from His scourging. Full of sorrow, Jesus looked into the eyes of the poor sinners. Their defiance broke; they called for a priest and confessed. The crowd was astonished at their change of heart. They now were weeping for their sins, singing hymns, and thanking God for their just punishment.
The saint’s zeal for souls was insatiable when it came to her loved ones. At her father’s death, she prayed that he might go straight to Heaven without passing through Purgatory. Her Spouse protested that that was not possible. Catherine insisted -even offering to suffer his lot herself. Suddenly she felt a violent pain in her side as she gazed upon the soul of Jacopo gloriously taking its flight to paradise. That pain remained with her until the day she died. Lapa, her mother, however, had much greater need of Catherine’s powerful intercession. It seemed that the poor woman, for some unknown reason, grew obstinate as she was dying and refused to confess. In such a sad state of soul, she died. Her holy daughter threw herself over her body, pouring out her heart in sorrow, and complaining to her Spouse that he had promised her that no one in her family should pass out of this life unprepared. The saint then begged Our Lord to bring her back to life and spare her for a better time. Slowly life began to return to Lapa’s corpse, and in a moment she was sitting up on her bed in good health. Ever afterwards, her mother stayed close to her side and became one of her most devoted disciples.
Another favor Catherine received from her Beloved Spouse about this time, a favor that any commentary would depreciate because of its simple and profound reality, is the mystical exchange of the Beata’s heart for that of her Lord’s. It happened in an ecstasy and the pain was intense. Jesus opened His beloved’s side and placed His heart in her bosom. Some women who were closest to Catherine testified that she had allowed them to see the scar remaining after the transfer.
Errands for the Bridegroom
Our Lord spoke these words to His spouse:
There are many whose salvation depends on you. The life you have led up to now will be altered; for the sake of the salvation of souls, you will be required to leave your native town, but I shall always be with you — I shall lead you away, and I will lead you back again. You shall proclaim the honor of My name to rich and poor, to cleric and layman, for I shall give you words and wisdom which no one can resist. I shall send you to the Popes and leaders of My Church and to all Christians, for I choose you to put the pride of the mighty to shame by the use of fragile tools.
So a frail woman was to act as an advisor and mediator in a troubled world. The Beata Popolana -“Blessed Child of the People”-as the Sienese warmly referred to Catherine, was to travel about Europe reconciling political enemies, visiting and counseling popes, and working for the good of the Church. She was to send over four hundred letters to important personages — letters which (because of the holiness of their author) would have great influence on the course of medieval history. At first, Catherine did not know how to write, so she dictated her letters (often two or three at a time) to several of her spiritual children, who acted as her secretaries. Later, by an infused gift from the Holy Ghost, she instantly acquired the ability to write, as she had also acquired the knowledge of reading.
A World in Rebellion
For nearly thirteen hundred years, there had existed in the hearts of the faithful a reverent obedience to the only authority visibly established by God Himself on this earth — the Catholic Church under her visible head, the Holy Roman Pontiff. In consequence of this virtue of loyalty, all of Europe had embraced the true Faith, producing, in the thirteenth century, one of the greatest ages of culture and learning that the world has ever known. But at the start of the century in which our saint lived (the fourteenth), a new and sinister spirit arose — a spirit of rebellion against the Vicar of Christ, and in him, a revolt against God Himself.1 Princes and kings began to look to themselves as the ultimate authority on all matters, moral as well as civil; while the people, like lost sheep, offered no resistance to this anti-Christian usurpation of power.
In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII issued his famous bull, Unam Sanctam, in an attempt to stop the rebellion. The Holy Father ended with a thundering infallible pronouncement which would cost him his life: Furthermore, we declare, say, define, and pronounce, that it is wholly necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff This was but a reaffirmation of that authority given by Our Lord Himself to Saint Peter — the authority for which many martyrs (in England and elsewhere) died.
The King of France, Philip the Fair, responded by sending an army to capture the Pope. Boniface was in Agnani, the city of his birth, when the forces arrived. The townspeople treacherously opened the gates of the city and delivered up, by betrayal, the grief-stricken Pope. The brave Vicar of Christ died thirty-five days later as a result of the beating he received at the hands of Philip’s thugs. He was a martyr for his own God-given authority.2 The wrath of God was enkindled at this sacrilegious and patricidal outrage. Philip the Fair died with the curse of God upon him, consumed by a mysterious illness that could not be diagnosed or alleviated. The city of Agnani fell into ruins as one calamity after another befell it, and plague after plague decimated its traitorous population. All of Europe was devastated for a whole century by the Hundred Years’ War, the Black Death, heresies, and corrupting superstitions. Within a year after the death of Boniface in 1303, the new pope Benedict XI negotiated a peace with the French king and his court. Six years after his brief eight months reign, however, a French Cardinal was elected, Pope Clement V, who left Rome and took up residence in Avignon, France. For nearly seventy years afterwards, seven consecutive Popes, all of them French, ruled the Church from Avignon.3 Though the holy visionary, Saint Bridget of Sweden, who died in 1373, had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the popes by strong admonitions to return to Rome, her efforts did bear fruit in the work of her successor, Saint Catherine of Siena.
The Ambassador Begins Her Travels
In the Spring of 1374, Saint Catherine was summoned to appear at the General Chapter of the Dominican Order. Accompanied by several of her companions, the saint set out for Florence and arrived there in May. The most significant aspect of her trip was meeting Blessed Raimondo of Capua. This holy priest was to become Catherine’s spiritual director, secretary, and one of her most devoted spiritual children. Since, in God’s Providence, he had just been appointed lecturer at the Dominican monastery in Siena, he joined the saint and her companions in the journey back to her home town.
At the time of their return, Siena was under a brutal scourge of the Black Death. Day and night, carts rattled through the streets stacked with blue-black corpses. When the disease struck its victim, death usually followed within a few hours. It was terrible indeed. As the panic spread, many priests and monks lost their courage and fled to the safer countryside. Catherine and her friends set to work fearlessly — valuing the souls of their neighbors more than their own mortal lives. Again, cures followed our heroic Beata, including that of Raimondo himself and of another holy priest who had contracted the disease. Though one-third of the people of Siena had been carried off in the dreadful plague, a countless number of them had received the grace of conversion through the intercession of Saint Catherine and the dedication of her Catarinati.
By autumn the scourge had been lifted, and Catherine, ill from overwork, was taken to Montepulciano for some fresh air and recuperation. While she was in the city, the convent sisters who accompanied Catherine on her pilgrimage to the tomb of Saint Agnes, the patron saint of that place, relate the story of how Saint Agnes. whose body lay incorrupt on her bier, politely lifted her foot when the Sienese mystic bent to kiss it.
Back in her home town Saint Catherine was visited by Alfonso da Vadaterra, the confessor of Saint Bridget of Sweden. This Spaniard, now a Bishop, had been sent by the pope from Avignon to give the Beata the papal blessing, and to ask for her prayers and support. The reigning Pontiff, Gregory XI, was planning to call for another Crusade to retake the Holy Lands from the Mohammedans, who had usurped it from the Christians by sword centuries before. Catherine readily took up the matter with a stream of letters to kings, statesmen, and well-known military leaders. She advised them first to be converted to the true love of God, and then to arm themselves for the holy cause. Clearly this mystic, who spoke to Our Lord regularly as one would to a friend, was certain that the cause of such a crusade was a just and even a holy one.
At this time, Saint Catherine wrote her first letter to Pope Gregory, whose piety and good intentions were buried in an exaggerated love for his relatives and his French homeland. She spoke to him of martyrdom and the need to take steps to end the corruption within the Church no matter what the cost.
Serving the Pope’s Cause
While the popes willingly languished in Avignon under the secular power of the French king, they seemed to give up their supreme authority, causing great harm to the Church and to all Christendom. Because he was under the control of one country, the rest of the world lost confidence that the pope would act as a father to all. (Up until the century before, the popes were of many different nationalities and never allowed such partisanship to affect their universal role of spiritual shepherd.) Rather than being united under one head, the countries of Europe were quarreling and setting out to war against one another. The clergy of Rome and the Papal States were greatly discontented that they had lost their traditional role in the administration of the Church. As a consequence the nobles once more came into power, and Rome and all of Italy were thrown into anarchy and disorder.
Pisa was one of several of the Tuscan republics that threatened to fall from obedience to the pope. Saint Catherine went there, in 1375, to serve the Holy Father’s cause. She was accompanied by several of the Mantellata, including her mother (who had also donned the habit), and three Dominican fathers: Raimondo, Bartolomeo Dominici, and Tomaso della Fonte. Pope Gregory himself had ordered that three priests should always accompany the saint to hear the confessions of the countless souls who flocked to her in need of spiritual healing.
In the Middle Ages the popular heroes were the saints, and Catherine and her companions were greeted as such when they arrived in Pisa. While she was here the mystic of Siena wrote a series of important letters, one to the Queen of Hungary and another to Queen Joanna of Naples, urging them to support the crusade. A band of mercenaries also received a letter from her, encouraging them to stop plundering the countryside and to redirect their energies from the cause of the devil to that of Christ.
Due to our saint’s influence, Pisa did remain loyal to the pope for a while. It was during this eventful visit to Pisa that Catherine was marked with the wounds of her Beloved, the stigmata of the Passion. The day was Laetare Sunday. After receiving Holy Communion from Raimondo, Catherine lay prostrate for a long time in ecstasy. Suddenly she was lifted up, and holding out her palms, she fell back to the ground as though mortally wounded. Five jets of blood shot through the air and pierced her hands, feet, and side. But upon perceiving that the marks were visible, the saint implored that this sign be removed and only the pain remain. The jets of blood were then transformed into streams of light. The pain being now too intense, Catherine begged her Savior for strength, as she could not bear it without supernatural assistance. That assistance did come, and all her remaining life the worn-out little saint endured the agony of the invisible wounds, which in some miraculous way actually made her stronger.
The holy apostle returned to Siena and, after a short stay, she was sent again by the pope to promote his cause in Lucca. From Lucca, she wrote a long letter to Pope Gregory, giving him a serious warning that if he did not shoulder his great responsibilities like a man, the terrible evils from which the Church of Christ was suffering would worsen. She, as was her way, begins her letter in the name of Jesus Christ and gentle Mary. She addresses the pope as her dearest father in Christ, and identifies herself as “God’s servant’s servant and bondwoman.” The saint then goes right to the point and informs her spiritual father that it was he who is responsible for the abuses that are draining the life of the Church. She encourages him to be a “good and faithful shepherd who is willing to give a thousand lives for the glory of God and the salvation of His creatures”; and to imitate his patron Saint Gregory for, “he was a man as you are, and God is always the same as He was. The only thing we lack is hunger for the salvation of our neighbor, and courage.”
With regard to appointing good shepherds in the Church, the saint continues in the same letter: “I believe it would be more to the honor of God and better for yourself if you would always take care to choose virtuous men. When the contrary is done, it is a great insult to God and a disaster to Holy Church. We must not be surprised afterwards if God sends us His chastisements and scourges, for it is but just.”
And finally, Catherine urges: “Go forth and carry out with holy zeal the good resolutions you made. Come back to Rome and start the great crusade.”
She ends by humbly asking his blessing and begging his forgiveness for all she has dared to write. Her last words are always the same and are in no sense empty: “Sweet Jesus, Jesus Love,” — a phrase whose exact meaning is difficult to render in English, as the saint’s letters were written in Tuscan with an amazing eloquence in expressing this musically-oriented language of the Italian peasants.
The Heartbroken Arbitrator
In Florence, two angry factions, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, had united in a league against the Holy See. Other towns began to follow suit. In autumn, 1375, the Florentine army marched into the Papal States to strip the pope of his temporal domains. The number of towns being lost to the pope continued to increase, and in ten days time the tally was at ten. While on her way home from Lucca, Catherine received the sad news that even Siena had allied herself with the Florentines. She was struck with grief, but told her friends that it was too early to weep. Then she prophesied, “You see how lay folk rise against the Holy Father, but it will not be long before the clergy do the same. When the Pope really begins to reform the morals of the clergy, they will rebel and split the Church of Christ.”
On December 21, Pope Gregory appointed nine new cardinals, seven of whom were French. The saint’s advice had been ignored. Almost immediately afterwards, Pisa and Lucca joined in with the Florentine League. Again she wrote to the pope, even more forcibly, and concluded: “My soul, which is united to God, burns with thirst for your salvation, for the reformation of the Church, and the happiness of the whole world . . . Remove to Rome and raise the banner of the crusade, and you will see the wolves change to lambs.” She ends, “Oh, Father, I am dying of sorrow and cannot die.”
On March 20, Pope Gregory placed Florence under ecclesiastical interdict. Its citizens thus became outlaws. Their competitors could now enslave them and seize their possessions. No Masses could be said, and only a few priests were left authorized to attend to the dying and baptize the babies. The good townspeople, strong in faith, took the pope’s censure to heart and walked the streets in penitence, scourging themselves as they sang the Miserere. This interdict, along with internal divisions and a brutal civil war, provoked the Italian republic to sue for peace. They sent to Siena for Catherine.
Full of confidence in the holy Sienese woman, the people of Florence asked her to be their mediatrix with the pope. They left the management of the whole affair to her judgment and promised to follow her to Avignon. Arriving in the French city in June, Catherine was graciously received by Pope Gregory, who also put the process of reconciliation in her hands. Unfortunately, the Florentines, for the most part, did not prove to be sincere. At home, intriguers continued to confuse the people and worked at alienating all of Italy from loyalty to the Holy See. The promised ambassadors from Siena arrived in Avignon late, and when they came they had no authority to make peace. Thus was our saint tried the more by this inconstant and seditious people.
The Saint Succeeds
Catherine, undaunted, was determined that her trip to Avignon would be worth while. She spoke directly with the pope, openly condemning the abuses practiced by priests and prelates, the luxury of the papal court, and the many vices which flourished under his very eye. Gregory inquired how Catherine could know about certain specific things he knew to be true. The saint replied, “to the glory of Almighty God I am bound to say that I smelt the stink of the sins which flourish in the papal court while I was still at home in my town, more sharply than those who have practiced them, and do practice them every day here.”
When the Vicar of Christ asked her what was God’s will concerning him, the saint replied: “Who knows God’s will so well as your Holiness, for have you not bound yourself by a vow… Fulfill what you have promised to God.” Pope Gregory was greatly shaken. For while still a cardinal, he had made a vow that if he were ever elected pope, he would return to Rome. But he had never told a single person! On September 13, 1376, a day or two after Catherine had already left for home, Pope Gregory XI departed from the papal palace in Avignon — forever.
On January 17, 1377, the pope, seated on a white mule, entered the eternal city of Rome. The Romans, who had remained loyal to the Vicar of Christ, were wild with delight. Such was the unbelievable jubilation that greeted the pope that even the French cardinals could not restrain their tears. Meanwhile, the holy Sienese mystic was everywhere mobbed by devout people who wanted to see the woman who had persuaded the pope to return to Rome. She, who had seen a vision of those souls she would save, recognized them as she met them. God had even revealed to her that He had granted the Blessed Virgin Mary a special request that no sinner who devoutly recommended himself to her would ever be condemned to hell.
Back in Siena, the saint continued to care for the sick, cast out demons, reconcile enemies, and exhort condemned prisoners to make amends, often waiting for them at the place of their execution. The Pope, who was by now convinced of the sanctity of this extraordinary woman, placed his total reliance upon her. The communication between them was continuous. Gregory called Father Raimondo to Rome and asked Catherine to go once again to Florence to mediate for peace. While there, an attempt was made on her life. Just as the would-be assassin was about to strike with a knife, he began to tremble; then he turned and ran. Thus were Catherine’s hopes for martyrdom defeated. However, amidst this constant danger (for feelings were very tense) the saint did succeed on her mission, and reconciled the rebels to the pope’s cause.
Triumph Turned Bitter
Then, on March 27, 1378, unexpectedly, Pope Gregory died. Sixteen cardinals, four of whom were Italian, met in Rome to elect a successor. During their deliberations, they could hear the hysterical mob outside, demanding a Roman. After a few weeks in conclave they elected Bartolomeo Prignano, an Italian. Taking the name Urban VI, the new pope was more than eager to carry out the reforms so needed in the Church.
While in Florence, Saint Catherine wrote her first letter to the new pontiff. In it, she recommends a blending of justice with mercy, and a careful selection of holy advisers who were not afraid of death. Due to her ability to read the hearts of even those far away, the saint already knew that the pope was carrying out his intentions with a demeanor much too harsh and a total lack of tact.
On July 28th, the final peace treaty was signed between the pope and the Florentines. Catherine left for a retreat in Siena. There, she learned of the tragic fulfillment of her prophecy. The French cardinals grew displeased about the reforming crusade of Urban and his refusal to return to France. Though they had agreed to his election, now they charged that the election was invalid, since the cardinals in conclave had been pressured by the people. Another conclave was held in France by the discontented element, and they elected one of their own, Clement VII, who took up residence in Avignon. So the Great Western Schism was begun.4
Catherine was inconsolable. A flood of tears fell steadily down her face, revealing a heart broken with grief. She blamed herself and her sins for the tremendous evils besetting the Church. Having such an uncommon knowledge of the Perfection of God, Catherine saw the attributes of the holiest of creatures to be as nothing in comparison. Nevertheless, despite her pain of heart the saint set herself to the task of ending the division. More letters than ever issued forth from the mystic of Siena. She wrote letters of consolation and encouragement to Pope Urban, advising him to continue his reforms with kindness, to be patient in suffering, and to surround himself with true servants of God. In one letter to the pope, the saint pointed out the reason for the revolt: “When I look at the places where Christ should be the very breath of everything, I see before you, who are Christ on earth, a hell of abominations. All are infected with self-love, which causes them to rise in rebellion against you…
Catherine sent strong letters to the rebellious cardinals rebuking them sharply for having become traitors to their great responsibility as high dignitaries of the Church — because of love for temporal things. Reprimanding them for their cowardice in calling invalid an election — in which they had participated — only after the Pope had corrected them in their failings, the seraphic virgin exhorts them with eloquence to return to the fold. Finally she ends one long letter in her typical style of complete respect for authority: “Do not believe that I wish you any evil when I hurt you with my words; care for your salvation is what makes me write . . .”
A barrage of communications left Catherine’s cell for the leaders of the world as well. Calling the schismatics “incarnate devils,” the saint exhorts them, “for the good of the Church and the salvation of their souls,” to renounce the schism and support the legitimate Pontiff. It was at this time that Saint Catherine dictated, while in a five-day ecstasy, her famous treatise -now known as The Dialogues. The spiritual knowledge that Our Lord had poured into her soul during her entire life was now revealed in concentrated form on paper. Her secretaries took down her every word as they came from her lips. This book, which took only five days to write, has come to be recognized as one of the most instructive writings on the supernatural reality ever recorded in the history of the Church.
The Voice of Peter
There was no artificial division between religion and politics in the Middle Ages. All problems concerning the community, good or bad government, the welfare or misery of the people, were in the final analysis religious problems. Saint Catherine believed it as something taken for granted that political situations were but the outcome of the citizens’ spiritual life. Thus, in all her letters to secular leaders, she stressed the importance of a holy life and its eternal recompense. Of everyone she demanded, on her Bridegroom’s authority, obedience and submission to His Church and to His Vicar.
It is necessary in understanding Catherine to appreciate her zeal, inspired by God, for papal authority and unity — and this in a woman who had to work with weak and imprudent pontiffs. Gregory XI was pious, but his self-love and attachment to home and country led to weakness and indecision when dealing in important matters. On the other hand, Urban VI was obstinate and headstrong. Although he was very pure, he was harsh of temperament, imprudent, and merciless at times. The holy virgin begs him to exercise forgiveness in dealing with others, as well as to surround himself with good counselors to balance his own deficiencies.
And yet all of Catherine’s exhortations were delivered with the deepest humility, recognizing in those she was instructing her lawful superiors. To admonish a sinner, even if he be one’s superior, Catherine considered her duty. But, to rebel against the pope, or the Church hierarchy, even because of their sins, Catherine considered an even more damnable sin.
Of the Pope, our saint said, “He has the power and the authority and there is no one who can take it out of his hands, because it was given to him by the first sweet Truth.” Catherine never tired of repeating the necessity for salvation of being united to Christ’s Vicar. Consequently, our saint’s life work was a labor against the spirit of revolt, which was entrenched in the world of her time, and though it may have gone underground for a time, it has surfaced more hideously than ever today. Her defense of the pope’s authority was such that, during the schism, she herself was accused of religious disobedience for placing her loyalty to the pope over that of her own religious superior, who disagreed with Catherine as to who was the legitimate pontiff. The saint fully understood that only through the voice of Peter could anarchy be avoided in Christendom, and the problems within the Church corrected; and as in the Church — so in the world! If this was true in the fourteenth century it is no less true today.
To The Eternal City
On the first Sunday of Advent, 1378, Saint Catherine arrived in Rome, having been summoned by Pope Urban to be close at hand so that he could more readily seek her advice. This would be her last trip, for it was here in Rome, the See that she had so dedicated herself to defend, that she would die. Here the saint was reunited with her beloved Raimondo before their final separation — when the Pope sent the holy priest to King Charles of France, who had sided with the antipope. The pontiff asked Catherine if she would speak to the assembled cardinals. She spoke with tremendous inspiration and greatly edified all. She explained how God’s Providence watches over every faithful individual, especially at times of great suffering and turmoil in the holy Church. “Be not frightened (by the troubles),” the saint stressed, “but persevere and work for God without fear of men.”
Everyone was greatly moved. Pope Urban, in complete admiration replied:
See brothers, how guilty we must appear before God, because we are without courage. This little woman puts us to shame. And when I call her a little woman, I do not do so out of scorn, but because her sex is by nature fearful; but see how we tremble, while she is strong and calm, and see how she consoles us with her words. How could the Vicar of Christ be afraid even though the world rise against him? Christ is stronger than the whole world, and it is impossible for Him to fail His Church.”
In Rome, Catherine’s apostolate of good works continued, and her letters to dignitaries in no way diminished. She was, by the wish of the pope, to go with Saint Catherine of Sweden (the daughter of Saint Bridget of Sweden) to Queen Joanna of Naples to encourage her to side with the true pope. It was a dangerous mission, and at the last moment Urban cancelled the trip, thus again disappointing the Mantellata’s hopes for martyrdom. But she wrote the queen a strong letter, warning her that if she did not submit to the pope and quit her immoral life, a tragic death would overtake her. The warning went unheeded and the unfortunate queen died a terrible death.
Then, in January of 1380, a devastating blow hit the Beata. The Romans themselves rebelled against Pope Urban and threatened his life. The saint, her spirit crushed, and her frail body barely maintaining the ghost, began to enter into her death agony. Years with no food other than the Holy Eucharist, little sleep, and constant pain amidst remarkable labors, had made the very life of the saint a visible and continuous miracle. But the tragedy afflicting the Mystical Body of Christ hurt the saint more than her own sufferings. “Oh Jesus,” she prayed, “let all the parts of my body, all the marrow of my bones, be beaten and pounded together; only restore Thy Church to her comeliness and beauty.” Her prayers were answered. Catherine collapsed to the floor, her skin all black and blue, and the weight of the sins of the Church upon her shoulders.
For months she lingered on. As death approached, her spiritual children gathered around the saint’s bed to receive her last words. With her eyes fixed on the crucifix, she made the Sign of the Cross and cried, “Blood! Blood!” She bowed her head and sighed, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” and her soul took its flight to heaven. Catherine was thirty-three years old when she died — the same as her Beloved Spouse. The day was April 29th. The year 1380.
“Blood! Blood!” Who can fathom the language of a crucified mystic dying of love for God? What pen can even begin to give an adequate explanation as to why this victim soul would speak such words at her death? Who but a true Catholic would even know where to begin to understand what it means to share in Christ’s Passion — to suffer like, with, and in the Redeemer?
Christ Our Savior had poured out His all for us. His servant, Catherine, knew, perhaps more than anyone else on earth in her time, the preciousness of that Sacred Blood shed for men on Calvary. She knew, as no one else knew, who Infinite Love was, Love that so generously and freely suffered. She knew what the shedding of that Divine Blood really meant.
The Justice of God is awesome when one considers Calvary. So is His Mercy. Every time we hear men speak lightly about salvation, as if God spent nothing in granting it, or as if God had to grant it, one can only think of the blessed Catherine, her skeletal body disfigured by the beatings of demons, about to give up her spirit with those startling words upon her lips: “Blood! Blood!”
- This same spirit of revolt has continued through the ages to the present day. In the fourteenth century it resulted in the Avignon Captivity (so called) of the popes, which brought on the Great Western Schism: a period of such confusion that there appeared three claimants for the papal throne. The attendant evils of this prolonged schism led, in 1517, to the far more disastrous Protestant Revolt. The Protestant Revolt, opening the door to self-deification, led to the Masonic French Revolution in 1789, and its unspeakable Reign of Terror, after which the cohorts of Satan continue to our day to plot the destruction of the Catholic Church and Christian civilization. So powerful (naturally speaking) are these enemies of God that they now openly and boldly speak of their plans for a “new world order” — the reign of Antichrist!
2. Interesting to note is that this pope, so hated by the liberals, when his tomb was opened three hundred years after his death, was found incorrupt, his skin still perfectly and firmly set against his face and his hands virtually lifelike.
The popes of the Avignon Captivity (1305-1377) were: Clement V, John XXII, Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, Blessed Urban V, and Gregory XI.
In 1409, many more bishops came together at an unlawful council in Pisa and elected yet another antipope who took the name Alexander V. Both antipopes and the legitimate pontiff were followed by successors, until at last an ecumenical council was held at Constance to settle the problem. The lawful pope, Gregory XII, humbly resigned for the cause of unity; the two antipopes were deposed; and a new pope was elected. He took the name of Martin V, and due to his holiness most of all, he succeeded in reuniting the Church under one head. The Great Western Schism lasted from 1378-1417.