St. Catherine of Siena: 30 April

Br. Columba Maria

Caterina Benincasa was born on 25 March 1347, the second of twins, and the twenty-fifth child, thirteen of whom survived infancy.

Her father Giacomo, a merchant, was a very pious man; and, although initially mistrustful of Catherine’s divine favours, he came in time to be completely supportive, and forbade any of his household to obstruct Catherine’s very generous almsgiving. At his death, Catherine prayed so unceasingly to God for his direct flight to heaven, that she finally prevailed, in return for a grievous pain in her side that never left her.

Her mother Lapa was not so gentle with her blessed child and died shortly after her husband in uncertain dispositions. Catherine again prayed unceasingly to the Almighty for her return from death for greater security. Again, Our Lord granted her request, telling her to tell Lapa that “for her unwillingness to die now, the day will come when she will sigh for death and not obtain it.”

Catherine was always very ardent in prayer and, at five years of age, going up the stairs meant saying an Ave on each step on her knees. Soon, ascending or descending the same stairs, more than once she was noticeably being borne through the air. The first of Catherine’s multitude of mystical gifts manifested itself one day on her way home with her brother Stephen, when, above the church of Saint Dominic, she saw a vision of Our Lord with a tiara and, in pontifical robes, in company with Ss. Peter, Paul, John the Evangelist and several men in white. Our Lord blessed her and continued to look tenderly at her until her brother, who saw only his sister in a trance, disturbed her.

At six years of age she consecrated her virginity, through the Blessed Virgin, to Jesus. To sustain this holy combat she added fasting and watching, and ate no meat, slipping it to the cat instead. Her family were at first determined to find her a husband, but Catherine opposed them vehemently, cutting off her hair at one point. This struggle ended when her father came across her in prayer with a dove hovering over her.

Catherine herself saw St. Dominic in a vision, offering her the habit of his Third Order. At 17, Catherine was duly clothed in the black and white habit and entered the company of the other Sisters in Siena, pious women still living in the world, albeit considerably older than our Saint. For three years she lead a retired life, speaking almost exclusively to Her Spouse, who filled her with mystical gifts, not without bodily suffering, culminating in a vision of a mystical marriage in 1370, where Jesus placed a ring on her finger. At her death, this finger remained erect and firm while the others were soft and supple. On another occasion, Jesus revealed in a vision His taking of her heart, replacing it two days later with His own: the union of her will with His. Our Lord also granted her the gift of unbloody (luminous) stigmata. A little later again, around the feast of the Assumption, she entered a sustained trance that many thought was her end. But four hours later, she opened her eyes and looked around. She cried for three whole days. When St. Raymond of Capua, her long-time confessor, asked her the reason she answered:

The desire I felt at that time to be united to my sweet Spouse was so great that it could not be resisted, and seeing as I did by my own experience how great was the love our Saviour bore me, and what intolerable pains He suffered for my sake, I was wholly overcome with the force of such ineffable kindness, and my heart broke in sunder; for which cause, my soul was delivered out of this body, and had the fruition of His divine Majesty… I saw the pains of hell and of purgatory so great that no tongue of man is able to declare them. I saw also the bliss of heaven and the glory of my divine spouse, which only to think of fills my soul with a loathing for all things that are in the world. And when I had conceived a certain hope that now I was past all pains and cares to a state of everlasting gladness, our Lord said to me, ‘Daughter, seest thou these unhappy sinners, and transgressors of my laws: on the one side, what joys they have lost, and on the other side, what pains they have found? For this cause have I showed these things to thee, because I will have thee return to the world to declare to My people their sins and iniquities and the great peril that hangeth over them if they will not amend.’

Thus began for Catherine her public life. Many hardened sinners were converted on meeting her. As she might often say, “We may sometimes escape the eyes of men, but never those of God. You committed such a sin, in such a place, at such a time, and that is the reason Satan troubles your soul and hinders you from confessing.” Whom she could not convert with words she converted by her prayer and penance.

Nor were her labours confined to individual souls. At this time the world was divided in almost every sphere. The very papacy was seated at Avignon, under French sway. Sometimes for religious reasons, often for political gain, many kingdoms sided for or against the pope and the Church. Catherine visited Pisa, Lucca, and Florence to counsel these important cities as to their eternal interests. The resolution of many feuds and the restoration of peace in these hitherto unhappy places has been attributed to her intervention. At all costs, war was to be avoided and Catherine saw the end of the exile and a Crusade as the best means. She visited Avignon, and finally convinced Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, stepping over his own father who tried to convince him to stay.

Through all these months of travel, with her retinue of religious priests and nuns, and other devotees including her aging mother, she was sustained almost entirely by the Blessed Sacrament. On many occasions, it was seen to fly from the Priest’s paten to her tongue. She was often seen in the air in ecstasy during her thanksgiving. "Apostle of daily Communion" is one of her many titles.

When Pope Gregory died and was succeeded by Urban VI, almost immediately the French cardinals tried to retract and get back to Avignon. They did not stop short of electing an anti-pope. Catherine never deviated from asserting that, since the cardinals had crowned him and supported him in the beginning, they had either perjured themselves then or now, and thus Urban was certainly the true pope. When the people of Rome wavered and even plotted to lynch the pope, only Catherine’s prayers and penances averted what she saw would be a monumental scandal for the whole world.

She willingly gave her life for the Church, her heart “squeezed out over the bride of Christ.” Her body is in Rome, where she died on the Sunday before the Ascension, on 29 April 1380, with her Feast the day after. Her mother survived to see her daughter’s head return in triumph to Siena.

Bathe yourself in the blood of Jesus Crucified. Hide yourself in the open wound of His side, and you will behold the secret of His Heart. There the sweet Truth will make known to you that all He did for us He did out of love. Return Him love for love!

—St. Catherine

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