Before setting out to write this article, I knew very little about St. Catherine of Siena. Even after reading several accounts of her life, I was no closer to feeling a connection to her. If anything, I felt more estranged. Yet I knew that she must have a pretty important place in Catholic history to be declared a Doctor of the Church. Of the countless men and women to go before us, only 35 have received this distinction, St. Catherine being the only layperson.1 What was it that set her apart? More importantly, what could I learn from her? It was only after prayerfully reflecting on her life that I began to find answers to some of these questions.
Born in the 1300’s in Italy to a family of over 20 children, Catherine was a strong-willed child, who from early on had dedicated her life to the singular purpose to love and serve God. She experienced visions and had conversations with the angels, saints, Mary, and even Jesus. Although we might wonder if she simply had an overactive imagination, her conviction was such that she would refuse to eat or even speak if she was asked to do something she felt was contrary to God’s will. It soon became apparent to her parents (as well as to skeptics like me) that she couldn’t have done this on her own or sought out this life. God had chosen her.
When I considered her life as a young woman, this fact became even more obvious. While most girls of 16 during this time were dreaming of marrying and starting a family, Catherine had long since dedicated her life – and her virginity – to Christ. She joined the Dominicans, not as a nun but as a consecrated laywoman, and spent much of her time in prayer. From this point on, even more extraordinary things began to happen in her life! Like Jesus in His hidden years in Nazareth, she had completed a time of preparation and was now ready to go to work. Catherine devoted the next several years to serving the poor and the sick, choosing the most difficult and distasteful of cases. As I read, I began to feel drawn to her in spite of myself. It didn’t matter that she lived centuries before me – she was someone who sought Jesus in the face of the suffering, like Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Though she had no formal education, Catherine also began writing letters to people from all walks of life – from the ordinary citizens of Siena to the princes of Italy – in an effort to heal divisions within the Church and in her country. What’s even more remarkable is that people listened to her! She called for the reform of the clergy and a renewal of the laity, speaking with wisdom and insight that defied her years. Catherine was undaunted by whatever challenges came her way and never stopped to consider her lack of education or training as an obstacle to doing God’s will – she was simply His instrument. But it was her humility and piety that most attracted followers and friends, including Pope Gregory XI with whom she carried on a long correspondence. As a result, she ultimately managed to convince him to restore the papacy to Rome! In all, Catherine wrote over 400 letters, as well as a great mystical work called The Dialogue, a vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven.
Now after reading excerpts from some of her writings, I can see what caught the attention of so many influential individuals: she incorporates eloquent imagery and uses simple analogies to demonstrate the ways of God and how to grow in the spiritual life.2 Yet what I find most incredible about St. Catherine of Siena is her strength of will and unwavering conviction. When she heard God’s call, she responded wholeheartedly. The example of her life reminds us that if we are willing, there is no limit to the ways that God can work in and through us. Through the power of prayer and by trusting in the Holy Spirit, whatever may seem impossible can most certainly be accomplished.
Though St. Catherine of Siena never sought to be famous or powerful, she boldly lived her faith and, as a result, was able to change the hearts and minds of many she encountered. Wherever we find ourselves, we also can be the Lord’s instruments of healing and peace, or forgiveness and mercy. To be a saint means to have faithfully responded to God’s call; beyond that, the stories of their lives are as varied as each of ours. My prayer is that all of us will have the courage to live lives worthy of retelling!
“If you are what you should be, you will set the world ablaze!”
– St. Catherine of Siena
– Kelley Holy
1 In the secular world, the title of doctor is given only after an intense period of study at which time a person is considered an expert in a particular field. To be proclaimed a Doctor of the Church is no different, except that the wisdom and insight may come directly from God rather than formal education. This title also demonstrates that the writings of such person hold great value to the whole Church.
2One excellent source is www.drawnbylove.com.