(A.D. 1380) Saint Catharine was born at Sienna, in 1347. Her father, James Benincasa, by trade a dyer, was a virtuous man; and, though blessed with temporal prosperity, always chiefly solicitous to leave to his children a solid inheritance of virtue, by his example, and by deeply instilling into them lessons of piety. Her mother, Lapa, had a particular affection for this daughter above her other children; and the accomplishments of mind, and body with which she was adorned, made her the darling and delight of all that knew her, and procured her the name of Euphrosyna. She was favored by God with extraordinary graces as soon as she was capable of knowing Him. She withdrew very young to a solitude a little out of town, to imitate the lives of the fathers of the desert. Returning after some time to her father’s house, she continued to be guided by the same spirit. In her childhood she consecrated her virginity to God by a private vow. Her love of mortification and prayer, and her sentiments of virtue, were such as are not usually found in so tender an age. But God was pleased to put her resolution to a great trial. At twelve years of age, her parents thought of engaging her in the married state. Catharine found them deaf to her entreaties that she might live single; and therefore redoubled her prayers, watching, and austerities, knowing her protection must be from God alone. Her parents, regarding her inclination to solitude as unsuitable to the life for which they designed her, endeavored to divert her from it, and began to thwart her devotions, depriving her in this view of the little chamber or cell they had till then allowed her. They loaded her with the most distracting employments, and laid on her all the drudgery of the house, as if she had been a person hired into the family for that purpose. The hardest labor, humiliations, contempt, and the insults of her sisters, were to the Saint a subject of joy; and such was her ardent love of crosses, that she embraced them all in all shapes with a holy eagerness, and received all railleries with an admirable sweetness and heroic patience. If any thing grieved her, it was the loss of her solitude. But the Holy Ghost, that interior faithful master, to whom she listened, taught her to make herself another solitude in her heart; where, amidst all her occupations, she considered herself always as alone with God; to whose presence she kept herself no less attentive than if she had no exterior employment to distract her. In that admirable Treatise of God’s Providence, which she wrote, she saith:
“That our Lord had taught her to build in her soul a private closet, strongly vaulted with the Divine Providence, and to keep herself always close and retired there; He assured her that by this means she could find peace and perpetual repose in her soul, which no storm or tribulation could disturb or interrupt.”
Her sisters and other friends persuaded her to join with them in the diversions of the world, alleging that virtue is not an enemy to neatness in dress, or to cheerfulness; under which soft names they endeavored to recommend the dangerous liberties of wordly pastime and vanities. Catharine was according prevailed upon by her sisters to dress in a manner something more genteel; but she soon repented of the compliance, and wept for it during the remainder of her life, as the greatest infidelity she had ever been guilty of to her Heavenly Spouse. The death of her eldest sister, Bonaventura, soon after confirmed her in those sentiments. Her father, edified at her patience and virtue, at length approved and seconded her devotion, and all her pious desires. She liberally assisted the poor, served the sick, and comforted the afflicted and prisoners. Her chief subsistence was boiled herbs, without either sauce or bread, which last she seldom tasted. She wore a very rough haircloth, and a large iron girdle armed with sharp points; she lay on the ground, and watched much. Humility, obedience, and a denial of her own will, even in her penitential austerities, gave them their true value. She began this course of life before she was fifteen years of age. She was moreover visited with many painful distempers, which she underwent with incredible patience; she had also suffered much from the use of hot baths prescribed her by physicians. Amidst her pains, it was her constant prayer that they might serve for the expiation of her offences, and the purifying of her heart. She long desired, and in 1365, the eighteenth year of her age, (but two years later according to some writers,) she received the habit of the third Order of Saint Dominic. From that time her cell became her paradise, prayer her element, and her mortifications had no longer any restraint. For three years she never spoke to anyone but to God and her confessor. Her days and nights were employed in the delightful exercises of contemplation; the fruits whereof were supernatural lights, a most ardent love of God, and zeal for the conversion of sinners. The old serpent, seeing her angelical life, set all his engines at work to assault her virtue. He first filled her imagination with the most filthy representations, and assailed her heart with the basest and most humbling temptations. Afterwards, he spread in her soul such a cloud and darkness that it was the severest trial imaginable. She saw herself a hundred times on the brink of the precipice, but was always supported by an invisible hand. Her arms were fervent prayer, humility, resignation, and confidence in God. By these she persevered victoriously, and was at last delivered from those trials which had only served to purify her heart. Our Savior visiting her after this bitter conflict, she said to him: “Where wast thou, my divine Spouse, whilst I lay in such an abandoned, frightful condition?”
“I was with thee,” He seemed to reply.
“What!” said she, “amidst the filthy abominations with which my soul was infested!”
He answered: “They were displeasing and most painful to thee. This conflict therefore was thy merit, and victory over them was owing to my presence.” Her ghostly enemy also solicited her to pride, omitting neither violence nor stratagem to seduce her into this vice; but invincible humility was a buckler to cover her from all his fiery darts. God recompensed her charity to the poor by many miracles, often multiplying provisions in her hands, and enabling her to carry loads of corn, oil, and other necessaries to the poor, which her natural strength could not otherwise have borne. The greatest miracle seemed her patience in bearing the murmurs, and even the reproaches, of these ungrateful and importunate people. Catharine dressed and served an old woman named Tocca, infected to that degree with a leprosy, that the magistrates had ordered her to be removed out of the city, and separated from all others. This poor wretch made, nevertheless, no other return to the tender charity of the saint, than continual bitter complaints and reproaches; which, instead of wearying out her constancy, only moved the Saint to show her still greater marks of sweetness and humility. Another, whose infectious cancer the Saint for a long time sucked and dressed, published against her the most infamous calumnies; in which she was seconded by a sister of the convent. Catharine bore in silence the violent persecution they brought upon her, and continued her affectionate services till, by her patience and prayers, she had obtained of God the conversion of both these enemies, which was followed by a retraction of their slanders.
The ardent charity of this holy virgin made her indefatigable in laboring for the conversion of sinners, offering for that end continual prayers, fasts, and other austerities, and thinking nothing difficult or above her strength. All her discourses, actions, and her very silence, powerfully induced men to the love of virtue, so that no one, according to Pope Pius II, ever approached her who went not away better. Nannes, a powerful turbulent citizen, being brought to our Saint to be reclaimed, all she could say to him to bring him to a right sense of his duty was of no effect: upon which she made a sudden pause in her discourse, to offer up her prayers for him: they were heard that very instant, and an entire change was wrought in the man, to which his tears and other tokens bore evidence. He accordingly became reconciled to all his enemies, and embraced a most penitential life. When he afterwards fell into many temporal calamities, the Saint rejoiced at his spiritual advantage under them, saying: “God purged his heart from the poison with which it was infected by its inveterate attachment to creatures.” Nannes gave to the Saint a stately house which he possessed within two miles of the city. This, by the people’s authority, she converted into a nunnery.
We omit the miraculous conversion of James Tholomei and his sisters, of Nicholas Tuldo, and many others; particularly of two famous assassins going to die with blasphemies in their mouths, and in transports of rage and despair, who were suddenly converted in their last moments, on the Saint’s praying for them, confessed their crimes to a priest with great signs of repentance, and appeared thoroughly resigned to the punishment about to be inflicted on them.
A pestilence laying waste the country, in 1374, Catharine devoted herself to serve the infected, and obtained of God the cure of several; amongst others, of two holy Dominicans, Raymund of Capua, and Bartholomew of Sienna. The most hardened sinners could not withstand the force of her exhortations to a change of life. Thousands flocked from places at a distance in the country to hear or only see her, and were brought over by her words or example to the true dispositions of sincere repentance. She undertook a journey to Monte Pulciano to consecrate to God two of her nieces, who there took the religious veil of Saint Dominic: and another journey to Pisa, by order of her superiors, at the earnest suit of the citizens. She there restored health to many in body, but to a far greater number in soul.
Raymund of Capua and two other Dominicans were commissioned by Pope Gregory XI, then residing at Avignon, to hear the confessions at Sienna of those who were induced by the Saint to enter upon a change of life; these priests were occupied day and night, in hearing the confessions of many who had never confessed before; besides those of others who had acquitted themselves but superficially of that duty. Whilst she was at Pisa, in 1375, the people of Florence and Perugia, with a great part of Tuscany, and even of the ecclesiastical state, entered into a league against the Holy See. The news of this disturbance was delivered to Catharine by Raymund of Capua, and her heart was pierced with the most bitter sorrow on account of these evils, which she had foretold three years before they came to their height. The two furious factions of the Guelphs and Gibellines, which had so disturbed and divided the state of Florence, then a powerful commonwealth, united at last against the Pope, to strip the Holy See of the lands it possessed in Italy. The disturbance was begun in June, 1373, and a numerous army was set on foot; the word “Liberta“, inscribed on the banner of the league, was the signal. Perugia, Bologna, Viterbo, Ancona and other strongholds, soon declared for them. The inhabitants of Arezzo, Lucca, Sienna, and other places, were kept within the bounds of duty by the prayers, letters, and exhortations of Saint Catharine, and generously contemned the threats of the Florentines. Pope Gregory XI, residing at Avignon, wrote to the city of Florence, but without success. He therefore sent cardinal Robert of Geneva, his legate, with an army, and laid the diocese of Florence under an interdict. Internal divisions, murders, and all other domestic miseries amongst the Florentines, joined with the conspiracy of the neighboring states, concurred to open their eyes, arid made them sue for pardon. The magistrates sent to Sienna to beg Saint Catharine would become their mediatrix. She could not resist their pressing entreaties. Before she arrived at Florence, she was met by the priors or chiefs of the magistrates, and the city left the management of the whole affair to her discretion, with a promise that she should be followed to Avignon by their ambassadors, who should sign and ratify the conditions of reconciliation between the parties at variance, and confirm every thing she had done. The Saint arrived at Avignon on the 18th of June 1376, and was received by the pope and cardinals with great marks of distinction. His Holiness, after a conference with her, in admiration of her prudence and sanctity, said to her:
“I desire nothing but peace. I put the affair entirely into your hands; only I recommend to you the honor of the church.”
But the Florentines sought not peace sincerely, and they continued to carry on secret intrigues to draw all Italy from its obedience to the Holy See. Their ambassadors arrived very late at Avignon, and spoke with so great insolence, that they showed peace was far from being the subject of their errand. God suffered the conclusion of this work to be deferred in punishment of the sins of the Florentines, by which means Saint Catharine sanctified herself still more by suffering longer amidst a seditious people.
The Saint had another point no less at heart in her journey to Avignon. Pope John XXII, a Frenchman, born at Cahors, bishop, first of Frejus, then of Avignon, lastly of Porto, on being made pope in 1314, had fixed his residence at Avignon, where John’s successors, Benedict XII, Clement VI, Innocent VI, and Urban V, also resided. Pope Gregory XI, elected in 1370, continued also there. The Romans complained that their bishops had for seventy-four years past forsaken their city, and threatened a schism. Gregory XI had made a secret vow to return to Rome; but not finding this design agreeable to his court, he consulted the holy virgin on this subject, who answered: “Fulfil what you have promised to God.” The pope, surprised she should know by revelation what he had never discovered to any person on earth, was immediately determined to carry his good design into execution. The Saint soon after left Avignon. We have several letters written by her to him, to press him to hasten his return; and he shortly afterwards followed her, leaving Avignon on the 13th of September, in 1376. He overtook the Saint at Genoa, where she made a short stay.
At Sienna, she continued her former way of life, serving and often curing the sick, converting the most obstinate sinners, and reconciling the most inveterate enemies, more still by her prayers than by her words. Such was her knowledge of heavenly things that certain Italian doctors, out of envy, and with the intent to expose her ignorance, being come to hold a conference with her, departed in confusion and admiration at her interior lights. The same happened at Avignon some time before, where three prelates, envying her credit with the pope, put to her the most intricate questions on an interior life, and many other subjects; but admiring her answers to all their difficulties, confessed to the pope they had never seen a soul so enlightened, and so profoundly humble as Catharine. She had many disciples: amongst others, Stephen, son of Conrad, a senator of Sienna. This nobleman was reduced by enemies to the last extremity. Seeing himself on the brink of ruin, he addressed himself to the Saint, who, having first made a thorough convert of him from the world and its vanities, by her prayers, miraculously, on a sudden pacified all his persecutors, and calmed their fury. Stephen, from that time, looked upon as dust all that he had formerly most passionately loved and pursued; and he testified, of himself, that by her presence, and much more by her zealous discourses, he always found the divine love vehemently kindled in his breast, and his contempt of all earthly things increased. He became the most fervent amongst her disciples, made a collection of all her words as oracles, would be her secretary to write her letters, and her companion in her journeys to Avignon, Florence, and Rome; and at length, by her advice professed himself a Carthusian monk. He assisted her at her death, and wrote her life at the request of several princes; having been witness of her great miracles and virtues, and having experienced often in himself her spirit of prophecy, her knowledge of the consciences of others, and her extraordinary light in spiritual things.
Saint Catharine wrote to Pope Gregory XI, at Rome, strongly exhorting him to contribute by all means possible to the general peace of Italy. His Holiness commissioned her to go to Florence, still divided and obstinate in its disobedience. She lived some time in that factious place, amidst daily murders and confiscations, in frequent danger of her own life in many ways; in which she always showed herself most undaunted, even when swords were drawn against her. At length she overcame that obstinate people, and brought them to submission, obedience, and peace; though not under Gregory XI, but his successor, Urban VI, as her contemporary historian informs us.
This memorable reconciliation was effected in 1378; after which Catharine hastened to her solitary abode at Sienna, where her occupation, and, we may say, her very nourishment, was holy prayer, in which intercourse with the Almighty, he discovered to her very wonderful mysteries, and bestowed on her a spirit which delivered the truths of salvation in a manner that astonished her hearers.
Some of her discourses were collected, and compose the treatise On Providence, under her name. Her whole life seemed one continued miracle; but what the servants of God admired most in her was the perpetual strict union of her soul with God. For, though obliged often to converse with different persons on so many different affairs, and transact business of the greatest moment, she was always occupied on God, and absorbed in Him. For many years she had accustomed herself to so rigorous an abstinence, that the Blessed Eucharist might be said to be almost the only nourishment which supported her. Once she fasted from Ash-Wednesday till Ascension-day, receiving only the Blessed Eucharist during that whole time.
Many treated her as a hypocrite, and invented all manner of calumnies against her; but she rejoiced at humilitations, and gloried in the cross of Christ, as much as she dreaded and abhorred praise and applause. In a vision, our Saviour is said, one day to have presented her with two crowns, one of gold and the other of thorns, bidding her choose which of the two she pleased. She answered: “I desire, a Lord, to live here always conformed to thy Passion, and to find pain and suffering my I repose and delight.” Then eagerly taking up the crown of thorns, she forcibly pressed it upon her head. The earnest desire and love of humilitations and crosses was nourished in her soul by assiduous meditation on the sufferings of our divine Redeemer. What, above all things, pierced her heart was scandal, chiefly that of the unhappy great schism which followed the death of Gregory XI in 1378, when Urban VI was chosen at Rome, and acknowledged there by all the cardinals, though his election was in the beginning overawed by the Roman people, who demanded an Italian pope. Urban’s harsh and austere temper alienated from him the affections of the cardinals, several of whom withdrew; and having declared the late election null, chose Clement VII, with whom they retired out of Italy, and resided at Avignon. Our Saint, not content to spend herself in floods of tears, weeping before God before these evils of His church, wrote the strongest and most pathetic letters to those cardinals who had first acknowledged Urban, and afterwards elected another; pressing them to return to their lawful pastor, and acknowledge Urban’s title. She wrote also to several countries and princes in his favor, and to Urban himself, exhorting him to bear up cheerfully under the troubles he found himself involved in, and to abate somewhat of a temper that had made him so many enemies, and mollify that rigidness of disposition which had driven the world from him, and still kept a very considerable part of Christendom from acknowledging him. The pope listened to her, sent for her to Rome, followed her directions, and designed to send her with Saint Catharine of Sweden to Jane, Queen of Sicily, who had sided with Clement. Our Saint grieved to see this occasion of martyrdom snatched from her, when the journey was laid aside on account of the dangers that were foreseen to attend it. She wrote, however, to queen Jane, likewise two letters full of holy fire to the king of France, also letters to the king of Hungary and others, to exhort them to renounce the schism.
We pass over the exstacies and other wonderful favors this virgin received from heaven, and the innumerable miracles God wrought by her means. She has left us, besides the example of her life, six treatises in form of a dialogue, a discourse on the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin, and three hundred and sixty-four letters, which show that she had a superior genius, and wrote perfectly well. Whilst she was laboring to extend the obedience of the true pope, Urban VI, her infirmities and pains increasing, she died at Rome on the 29th of April, in 1380, being thirty-three years old. She was buried in the church of the Minerva, where her body is still kept under an altar. Her skull is in the Dominican church at Sienna.