Friday, 8 May 2009

Catherine of Sienna

Catherine Benincasa was born in 1347 as one of 25 children (the 23rd). Her father was a wealthy dyer of Sienna. At the age of six she had a vision of Christ in glory surrounded by his saints. It had such a profound effect on her that from that time on she spent most of her life in prayer and meditation. This didn’t please her parents who wanted her to live the ordinary life of a girl of her social class. Eventually however, seeing how serious she was, they gave in and at the age of 16 she joined the third order of St. Dominic (first order = friars, second order = nuns, third order= laypersons). Here she became a nurse and cared for patients with leprosy and cancer, doing the jobs the other nurses did not like to do or tried to avoid.

As she grew in her faith she began to acquire a reputation as someone of spiritual insight, wisdom and sound judgement, and many people from all walks of life came to her for spiritual advice, either personally or through correspondence. There is a book containing 400 of her letters to bishops, kings, scholars, merchants and obscure peasants. She also persuaded many priests who had become corrupt and compromised by wealth and luxury to give away their goods and live more simply.

She also became involved in some of the church politics that were damaging the Church at that time. For example the popes – bishops of Rome – had been living for many years in Avignon in France rather than Rome under the political control of the King of France. (The Avignon Papacy is sometimes called the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy). The whole thing began when King Phillip the Fair of France captured Rome in 1303 and took the then Pope away and put him in Avignon. Catherine visited Avignon in 1376 aged 29 and told Pope Gregory XI that he had no business living away from Rome. He listened to her advice and moved back to Rome. She then acted as his ambassador to Florence and was able to reconcile a quarrel between the Pope and the leaders of that city. She then returned to Sienna where she wrote a book called The Dialog which contains an account of her visions and other spiritual experiences as well as advice about how to cultivate a life of prayer.

Things went wrong again in the papacy when Gregory XI died and the cardinals elected the Italian Pope Urban VI. When he attained office he turned out to be arrogant, abrasive and tyrannical. The cardinals then met elsewhere and declared the first election invalid on the basis that they had made it under severe duress from the Roman mob. They elected a new Pope, Clement VII who then lived in Avignon. Catherine could not stand by and see the Church rip itself apart and she became involved again and worked very hard to try and persuade Urban (the arrogant Pope) to mend his ways and then persuade the others that the peace and unity of the Church required the recognition of Urban as the lawful Pope. Catherine’s letters were remarkable for being both respectful yet severe and uncompromising, one historian stating that she had perfected the art of kissing the Pope’s feet whilst at the same time twisting his arm behind his back.

This time however Catherine failed, dying in the process on April 29th aged just 33. The Papal Schism continued until 1417 greatly weakening the prestige of the Papacy and paving the way for the Protestant Reformation which split the Church a century later.

Catherine was a truly remarkable woman and will be remembered for many things during her short life:
1. As a mystic and contemplative who devoted herself to prayer. However instead of this leading her to step away from the world it had the opposite effect as she became more and more involved with others through her political interventions, her concern for the church and the poor and sick. Through prayer she glimpsed the heart of God – as all true prayer should – and God’s tenderness and love for His creation became hers too.
2. As a councillor and adviser who always made time for whoever came to her, the troubled and uncertain, those with large problems and those with trivial ones, those with religious concerns and those with secular ones. No one was turned away.
3. As an activist who fought tirelessly for the renewal of Church and Society and was unafraid to take a strong stand on the issues affecting society in her day. She never, in the words of the Quakers, hesitated to “speak truth with power” whenever she thought it necessary.

Pope Pius II canonized St. Catherine in the year 1461 and in May 1940 Pope Pius XII made her a joint Patron Saint of Italy along with Saint Francis of Assisi.


Everlasting God, who so kindled the flame of holy love in the Heart of blessed Catherine of Sienna, as she meditated on the passion of your Son our Saviour, that she devoted her life to poor and 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, for ever and ever. Amen.

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