Catherine of Siena: Saint and Rebel
St. Catherine of Siena was many things: a visionary, a force of compassion, a rebel, a woman who helped reunite the church. Sister Jacqueline de Verteuil describes how St. Catherine became all this and more through surrendering to her faith in God.
"I believe in the communion of saints." This is the creedal statement we say at our Eucharistic Celebrations each week. We profess our faith in our Church, which includes the saints in heaven who are an active part of the Universal Church. But who are these saints? What were they like? What can we learn from them?
On April 29, the church celebrates the feast day of one of them — St. Catherine of Siena. Let us take a peek into her life story.
Catherine was the youngest of a large family in Siena. At an early age, her parents, Giacomo and Lapa, noticed the extraordinary gifts of this young child. At six years old, she loved solitude, going to quiet places and talking to God. She had mystical experiences at times, seeing guardian angels.
At 12-years-old, her parents tried to arrange her marriage, but she protested by cutting her hair off. She was punished for this by being made the servant of the family, deprived of the use of her personal room and the solitude she loved. Catherine bore this humiliation with patience and joy. Her heart became her room where she met her God.
At age 18, she became a Third Order Dominican where she continued her conversations with God in her solitude. She said one day, "I saw the secrets of God." In a vision, she saw herself as the Bride of Christ with the Infant Jesus giving her a wedding ring. But this did not prevent Catherine from being active in works of mercy reaching out to people in need of relief from poverty and illness. People flocked to her for her wisdom and advice.
The Doctor of the Church
There were disagreements in the church at that time. The Pope had left Rome for Avignon. Catherine knew that God was not happy about this disunity in the church. Through her letters, advice and persistence, she managed to convince the Pope to return to Rome. Because of her service and wisdom, she was named Doctor of the Church. However, Catherine suffered many trials throughout her life, including ill health and calumny from ungrateful people she served. She bore it all with patience and prayer. Her enemies later retracted their slanders. Through all of this, Catherine continued in her steadfast desire to serve God in the poor and suffering.
Although Catherine's faith experience and spirituality differed in expression from ours today, we can learn from her prayer life as a contemplative in action. Catherine never hesitated in her outreach to serve the poor. While totally surrendering to God's will for her, she had the courage of her convictions and acted on it. Catherine said of herself, "My nature is fire." When she saw what was to be done, nothing could stop her from doing it. She was a woman of her time and of ours.
She left us a legacy in her Dialogues, her account of her spiritual experiences. Below is an adapted version of her prayer.
Prayer of St. Catherine
When I dwell in the cell of self-knowledge, I do not discover a little nugget of lonely selfhood, but I discover myself loved into existence.
God replied to Catherine, "It was with providence that I created you, and when I contemplated my creature in myself, I fell in love with the beauty of my creation."
By Jacqueline de Verteuil CSJ