St. Catherine of Siena: Woman on Fire

“I, CATHERINE, … write to strengthen you in the precious blood of the Son of God, desiring to see you consumed in the fire of his charity….”

That is the way Catherine of Siena, the fiery young lay Dominican of the mid-14th century, might well have chosen to introduce herself to today's 21st century readers. It was typical of this Dominican saint always to think and speak of herself only in connection with Christ and to present herself that way to others. She was a mystic (who had visions beginning at the age of seven) and a doctor of the Church -- a gifted, powerful and highly influential woman of her time.

We celebrate Catherine of Siena as an international political figure and a feminist hero. We think of her as Eleanor Roosevelt with a halo. We envision her dressed in a 14th century tailored suit, traversing Europe to tell popes and emperors how to conduct their business.

This portrayal contains a germ of truth. But only a germ. Catherine did work mightily to reconcile warring popes and emperors. She did most of the work, however, through letters and on her knees.

To get a more accurate view of Catherine, imagine a scruffy, not so-respectable version of Mother Teresa. Catherine was not a nun, however, but a member of the Dominican Third Order. Thus she followed the life pattern of the Friars Preachers as layperson. Think of her as an old - fashioned Italian matriarch, pious but sharp-tongued, who scandalized as many people as she influenced. (I can identify with her already -- at least with this part. After all, she is one of my patron saints.) Picture this short frail lady, garbed in worn, rough clothes, in some of her typical daily activities which included:

Managing a large household of followers, all of whom called her "Mama."

Living in poverty and begging with her disciples for everything they needed.

Fasting severely (living only on the Eucharist) but always seeing that her friends were well fed. Cooking food, baking bread, and sometimes praying for a miraculous delivery of food.

Praying for many hours at a time, at times seeming to become weightless when deep in prayer. People claim to have seen her floating a few inches off the ground.

Reading the thoughts and knowing the temptations of her associates, even at long distances. She saw people's secret sins and confronted these people, urging them to repent. She touched hearts so effectively that the Friars Preachers had to designate three priests to handle the confessions of her penitents.

Interceding fiercely for hardened criminals in Siena's jails. Even blasphemous prisoners embraced the gospel when she visited them.

Caring for the sick. God healed plague victims when she prayed for them or touched them.

Finally, offering advice to popes and princes. However, she was not so much an international politician as she was a spiritual director, and her venue was not the entire world but a small quadrant in northern Italy. The issue that concerned her most was not governmental but ecclesiastical. Catherine's passion was for the Church At the age of 33, she offered herself as a victim soul to bring about unity within the Church.

~ Excerpted in part from Mystics and Miracles, Bert Ghezzi, Loyola Press, 2002.

For more detailed information on St. Catherine of Siena's life, go here and here.

Here is an excerpt from The Dialogue (Catherine's dialogue with God in which God is speaking to her) which is just beautiful!


Holy Spirit, come into my heart, by your power I journey to You, God, and grant me charity with fear.

Protect me, o Christ, from every evil thought, warm me with Your sweet love, so that each burden seems light to me.

My holy Father and my sweet Lord, help me always in all my endeavors, Christ love, Christ love.

~Composed and written by St. Catherine at Rocca d'Orcia in 1377, after miraculously having learned to write.


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