Siena was a prosperous city and the people were very proud of their city. They filled it with beautiful churches and public buildings. Christian charity was also deep and the rich and the common people provided for the sick, the poor and the lonely. St Catherine of Siena lived in a quiet, beautiful and modest family. Her father, Jacobo Benincasa was a wool dyer and her mother Lapa di Puccio di Piagenti had 25 children. Many died at a young age. Catherine and her twin sister Giovanna were #23 and 24 born on March 25, Annunciation Day. Giovana died as a child.
The mother loved Catherine immensely but their personalities clashed. Lapa was very simple : Catherine was full of ideas. She was the darling of the family. She was serious but happy, attractive and charming. She was full of spiritual energy and many fell into her influence as she was a natural leader. At a young age of 5 she taught herself the Angelus and would pray as she played and worked.
At the age of 6 she had a vision of Jesus on a throne with Sts Peter, Paul and John. With the blessing of Jesus that night she became mature and extraordinarily sensible. She had a foretaste of heaven that night. She especially learned the way of St Dominic and the Desert Fathers. She wanted to work on saving souls. At the age of 12 she vowed chastity.
Her family insisted on a marriage for Catherine, and with her devotion to God and her hunger and thirst for “eternal life”, Catherine refused. Only God could satiate this hunger and thirst. “I must obey God before men. I have a Bridegroom who is so rich and powerful that He will not let me suffer want, but will surely provide me with all I need.” She had a vision from the Lord and finally she told her parents, “I promised my Saviour, my Lord Jesus Christ, and His blessed Mother that I would always remain a virgin….” .
She practiced a lot of corporal self discipline .Her mother cried over Catherine’s physical discipline and did try to show her the worldly things she was missing out. The devil, too, had a share in the temptations that Catherine endured. Finally, her mother gave in and pled the Sisters of Penitence to allow her daughter to enter the order. At that time only women ripe in years were being accepted. After interviewing Catherine they found her pious, mature and understanding. She finally received the white robe and veil which stand for purity of body and soul, and the black cape which is the symbol of humility and death to this world. She entered in 1366 as a lay person the Dominican Sisters of Penitence of St. Dominic’s third order.
For three years she lived in solitude in the family home, only leaving to attend Mass. In the years to come she would show how limitless is the "love possessed by a soul which has dived into the sea of heavenly love".
At first Catherine thought her visions were from the devil but her Bridegroom understood her doubt, and promised to teach her how she could always tell the difference: how to “differentiate between visions sent by Him and the mirages which the enemy of mankind could conjure up"…. “My visions (said the Lord) are always accompanied at first by a certain amount of fear, but as they unfold they bring a growing feeling of security. First comes bitterness, but later come strength and consolation. The visions which come from the devil create at first a feeling of security and sweetness, but they end in terror and bitterness. My way is the way of penitence. At first it seems hard and difficult to follow, but the further you pursue it, the happier and sweeter it appears. The way of the devil, on the other hand, is sweet and happy to begin with, but as the soul pursues the way of sin it goes from bitterness to bitterness, and the end is eternal damnation.”
She exuded spiritual joy. She was attacked by the devil with unpure and unchaste thoughts. She could not read but suddenly one day she could read. It is unclear if she could write. She dictated her thoughts her visions. Her heart's desire was to be one with Him in perfect belief and faith. Christ replied, “I shall make you My betrothed in perfect faith.”
One day during carnival time, with Catherine alone in her cell the Lord appeared and said “I will celebrate the solemn marriage feast with your soul. I shall betroth you to Myself as I have promised.” Around Christ there now appeared His blessed mother, the apostle St. John the Evangelist and St. Paul, and David the poet-king bearing a harp upon which he played beautifully.
The Lord then asked her to help Him with the salvation of souls. She started to be more with the people. She was spoken ill of, such as she meddled too much. She became aware of the poor and would give away the goods of her family (with her father's permission, tho the rest of the family had to hide their personal property.) Her episodes of ecstasy were more frequent and more prolonged.
There were some who were scandalous of her actions. But after a while the little flock who believed in Catherine’s holiness grew. They gathered round this young woman whom they loved because she was always patient, cheerful and smiling; she talked to them of God’s love so wisely. and so beautifully, and she was so concerned for them. To many she was their Spiritual Mother.
Like St. Martin and St. Francis, Catherine saw her Bridegroom in the persons of all beggars. One time Jesus appeared to her as a beggar. She worked as a nurse at the local hospital. She helped many souls convert before they died. She could read people's souls. She even cared for patients who behind her back spoke ill of her. Catherine did not lose her focus, which was her Bridegroom. After all the ingratitude of mankind has never prevented God from pouring out His mercy.
There was a civil war and it left the city of Siena with a great deal of uncertainty. Many miracles happened when Catherine prayed and many flocked to see her. She received the stigmata during her ecstasy.
Many conversions of hardened criminals, vain and pompous monks could be attributed to Catherine and her praying during her ecstasy. During this time of unrest, the pope self exiled to Avignon. There was fighting among the Roman people and the Germans over who would be pope. Her death-agony began when the Romans rebelled against the Pope and threatened to take his life. She had visions of the devils roaming around Rome. She had visions of the devils circling her, angry at her interference. However, she was able to convince the pope to return to Rome.
“She warned her disciples insistently that they must never condemn others or indulge in vain talk against their neighbours. If we see them doing things which we know are great sins, we must nevertheless leave God to judge them—let us pray for them, humbly and piously, with real and tender sympathy.”
Upon her death, Those who watched over her saw the white, dying face become radiantly happy, her dim eyes suddenly shine like two stars. She died on April 29, 1380.
She is a Doctor of the Church, a title given by the Catholic Churc to saints who made a significant contribution to theology or doctirne through their research, study or writing. "The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena" is a Catholic Classic. St Catherine of Siena dictated this while in ecstasy and while in dialogue with God. Saint Catherine of Siena was the second woman to be given the title of Doctor of the Church by the Catholic Church mainly because of her writings. Her "Dialogue" helps one understand God's plan of salvation through Jesus Christ, the meaning of life, and how to live a good Christian life.
(Sigrid Unsted, Catherine of Siena, the Kindle edition. Ignatius Press)