The Italian mystic St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was a woman of intense prayer and close union with God. She was also active in political affairs and influenced the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome.
The twenty-third child of the Benincasa family, Catherine was born in Siena. She was a cheerful, bright, and intensely religious child, who later said she had vowed her virginity to Christ at the age of 7 when she had her first vision of Him. At 13 she joined the Dominican Sisters of Penitence in Siena. By the time she was 20, Catherine had become so widely known for her personal holiness and asceticism that she attracted a group of spiritual disciples—priests and laymen, men and women.
The many letters she dictated during the next 10 years show that her interest broadened from the religious to the political affairs of the time. The city-state of Florence was at war with the Pope and was torn by opposing factions. In 1376 Catherine was persuaded to act as a mediator and bring peace to Florence. She visited Pope Gregory XI at Avignon, which had been the seat of the papacy for over half a century. Catherine believed that peace would not come to Italy until the Pope returned to Rome. Pope Gregory himself wanted to move the papacy back to Rome but he had been unable to summon sufficient courage in the face of considerable opposition from his advisers. Catherine's deep spirituality and insistent words provided just the right kind of gentle, forceful persuasion.
In 1377 the Pope returned to Rome. But he died a year later and his successor, Urban VI, was harsh, unyielding, and antagonistic. Catherine kept in touch with him, once writing, "For the love of Jesus crucified, Holy Father, soften a little the sudden movements of your temper." The Pope did not follow her advice and lost the allegiance of the cardinals. Declaring that he had not been validly elected, they returned to Avignon to elect another pope. This was the beginning of the Great Schism. Catherine was crushed, and she attempted to win the allegiance of some political leaders to Urban. Her strength failed, however, and she died in Rome on April 29, 1380, surrounded by her spiritual "children." She was canonized in 1461.
Catherine wrote of her religious experiences in a series of "dialogues" with God. This work, which became an Italian classic, is still read with respect.
Of the many biographies of Catherine available in English, two of the best are Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena (trans. 1954), which stresses her spiritual importance, and Michael de la Bedoyère, The Greatest Catherine: The Life of Catherine Benincasa, Saint of Siena (1947), which shows the woman as she appears in her letters.
Baldwin, Anne B., Catherine of Siena: a biography, Huntington, Ind.: Our Sunday Visitor Pub. Division, 1987.
Meade, Catherine M., My nature is fire: Saint Catherine of Siena, New York, N.Y.: Alba House, 1991.
Noffke, Suzanne, Catherine of Siena: vision through a distant eye, Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1996.
Raymond, of Capua, The life of … Sainct Catharine of Siena, Ilkley Eng.: Scolar Press, 1978.