Catherine Benincasa was the youngest of twenty-five children of a wealthy dyer of Siena. At six years, she had a remarkable vision that probably decided her life’s vocation. Walking home from a visit, she stopped on the road and gazed upward, oblivious to everything around her. “I beheld our Lord seated in glory with St Peter, St Paul, and St John.” She went on to say, later, that the Savior smiled on her and blessed her.
From then on, Catherine spent most of her time in prayer and meditation, despite her mother’s attempts to force her to be like other girls. To settle matters, Catherine cut off her hair, her chief beauty. The family harassed her continually; but in the end, convinced that she was deaf to all opposition, her father let her do as she would: close herself away in a darkened room, fast, and sleep on boards. Eventually, she was accepted as a Dominican postulant.
Catherine had numerous visions, and was also tried most severely by loathsome temptations and degrading images. Frequently, she felt totally abandoned by the Lord. At last, in 1366, she had a vision in which the Savior appeared with Mary and the heavenly host, and espoused her to himself, so ending her years of lonely prayer and struggle. She became a nurse, as Dominicans regularly did, caring for patients with leprosy and cancer whom other nurses disliked treating.
Opinion in Siena was sharply divided about whether she was a saint or a fanatic, but when the Bishop of Capua was appointed her confessor, he helped her win full support from the Dominican mother house. Catherine was a courageous worker in time of severe plague; she visited prisoners condemned to death; she constantly was called upon to arbitrate feuds and to prepare troubled sinners for confession.
During the great schism of the papacy, with rival popes in Rome and Avignon, Catherine wrote tirelessly to princes, kings, and popes, urging them to restore the unity of the Church. She even went to Rome to press further for the cause.
Besides her many letter to all manner of people, Catherine wrote a Dialogue, a mystical work dictated in ecstasy. Exhausted and paralyzed, she died at the age of thirty-three.
Adapted from Lesser Feasts and Fasts
Everlasting God, you so kindled the flame of holy love in the heart of blessed Catherine of Siena, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Savior, that she devoted her life to the poor and the sick, and to the peace and unity of the Church: Grant that we also may share in the mystery of Christ’s death, and rejoice in the revelation of his glory; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
The propers appointed for the commemoration of Catherine of Siena are published on the Lectionary Page.