Question: "Who was Catherine of Siena?"
Answer: Catherine Benincasa was born in Siena, Italy, on the Day of Annunciation in 1347. Catherine was the youngest or second-youngest of over 20 children (exact numbers vary depending on the source) and survived a twin who died shortly after birth. Her father was a wool dyer and housed extended family in an estate that stands to this day. As a child, Catherine loved spending time alone with God in prayer and teaching other children. When she was six, she had her first purported vision of Christ while walking with her brother to a married sister’s house. At the age of seven, she secretly dedicated her life to God. When she was twelve, in obedience to her mother, she briefly spent time dressing to attract a husband but quickly reverted to a plainer style, cut off her hair, and vowed to never marry. Her punishment was to do the menial tasks around the house, which she accomplished with such joy that her father relented.
Catherine of Siena lived an ascetic life even while surrounded by family. Her room was a small cell where she spent much time praying, fasting, and scourging herself. Eventually, her family allowed her to join the Dominican order as a tertiary—a layperson who resolves to live according to Dominican values in the secular world. This allowed her to take on the discipline of a Dominican while remaining at home. Catherine ate and slept very little and only left home to visit the nearby church. Her alleged visions, both of Christ’s encouragement and demonic attacks, increased. After three years speaking only to her confessor, she claimed to have had a vision of Christ, Mary, and the angels. In the vision, Mary took Catherine’s hand, and Jesus put a ring on her finger in a spiritual marriage ceremony. Jesus then told Catherine that her years of training were over and she was to go into the world and serve others.
Catherine of Siena’s service to the public was remarkable. She started by nursing patients with the vilest diseases. Her dedication and cheerful demeanor attracted a group of monks, priests, artists, and one sister-in-law who joined her in the work. Catherine claimed to be able to read the thoughts of her associates and know their temptations even when separated from her. In her work of helping the sick and visiting prisoners, many miracles were claimed, which eventually brought Catherine to the attention of church leaders who used her negotiating skills to resolve arguments throughout Italy. Arbitrating personal grievances quickly led her into politics. Catherine encouraged Pope Gregory XI to crusade against the Turks, acted as his representative to the rebellious Florentines, and convinced him to return to Rome from Avignon. During the early days of the Great Schism that followed Gregory’s death, Pope Urban VI was so taken with Catherine’s written admonishments that he brought her to Rome to advise him personally. Catherine spent her last years there, working on behalf of the poor and sick and writing letters on behalf of the Pope, culminating with his reconciliation with the Roman Republic.
Catherine of Siena died at the age of 33, most likely due to her extreme asceticism. She left behind The Dialogue of St. Catherine and four hundred letters, many of which were written in a trance. Catherine was canonized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church in 1461 and was later declared one of the patron saints of Italy. Her feast day is April 30.
Catherine of Siena’s joy in service is certainly commendable, as is her willingness to help those in direst need. However, Catherine’s asceticism, mysticism, and Catholicism are problematic. In one of her many personal visions, she claimed Jesus gave her a “wedding ring” (made either of jewel-encrusted metal or of His foreskin), but only she could see it. Sometime later, she said she received the stigmata—again only she could see the wounds she bore. She also claimed to have drunk Christ’s blood straight from His side. It’s hard to say where the visions came from. Was she hallucinating from starvation (she sometimes survived only on a daily Eucharist) and lack of sleep? Was she the victim of demonic deception? Did she suffer from mental illness? God has never told anyone to fast so much that they died of malnutrition. The Lord has nothing to do with a desire to flagellate oneself. And there is nothing in the Bible that supports the Catholic idea of women “marrying” Jesus in the context of their dedication to Him.
When considering Catherine of Siena or any other inspiring leader, we must always compare his or her teachings to the Bible (1 Thessalonians 5:21). Truth does not come from dream-like conversations with the apostles, beating oneself with a whip, or wearing invisible rings. Truth is the Word of God (John 17:17). It is objective, not subjective. It is found in the Bible, not in personal experience. Discernment in all things is key.