St. Catherine of Siena: Mystic and Reformer

Catherine of SienaSt. Catherine of Siena: Mystic and Reformer (Feast day: April 29)

Catherine was born in Siena, Italy in 1347, into a very large family, she died in Rome in 1380. In this short life of just 33 years this young women achieved marvelous things for the Church. When Catherine was 16 years old, motivated by a vision of St. Dominic, she entered the Third Order of the Dominicans.

While still living at home, she confirmed her vow of virginity made privately when she was still an adolescent and dedicated herself to prayer, penance and works of charity, especially for the benefit of the sick. Hence her life has been full of personal motivation and enthusiasm that came from a deep sense of God and prayer. The short quotes below gives us a glimpse into her philosophical, theological and human insights. We can confidently say that these thoughts are possible only with inspiration from God and wisdom drawn from prayer.

“Love follows knowledge. The human heart is drawn by love.”

“God is more willing to pardon than we have been to sin.”

“Do not be satisfied with little things, because God wants great things!”

 “If you are what you should be, you will set world ablaze.”

“We trust and believe in what we love.”

 “Love transforms one into what one loves.”

St. Catherine of Siena is one of the three female Doctors of the Church. Though this proclamation was six days after St. Theresa of Avila, St. Catherine lived 202 years before St. Theresa herself. (Catherine died on April 29, 1380 and promoted as the Doctor on October 3, 1970; Theresa died on October 4, 1582 and promoted as the Doctor on September 27, 1970). The other Doctor of the Church is St. Theresa of Lisiuex proclaimed in 1997.

Talking about her life and achievement Pope Benedict XVI expressed the following sentiments in a public audience: “When the fame of her holiness spread, she became the protagonist of an intense activity of spiritual guidance for people from every walk of life: nobles and politicians, artists and ordinary people, consecrated men and women and religious, including Pope Gregory XI who was living at Avignon in that period and whom she energetically and effectively urged to return to Rome.”

She travelled widely to press for the internal reform of the Church and to foster peace among the States. It was also for this reason that Saintly Pope John Paul II declared her Co-Patroness of Europe and said: “…may the Old Continent never forget the Christian roots that are at the origin of its progress and continue to draw from the Gospel the fundamental values that assure justice and harmony.”

The greatest contribution of St. Catherine is the reform she initiated into her Religious Order and in the Universal Church. Like the other reformers of the Church, Catherine too suffered rejection and opposition in her struggle to being about the needed reforms. Some even thought that they should not trust her and was subjected to public interrogation.

Her Order appointed Raymund of Capua, a learned and humble Friar and a future Master General of the Order, as her spiritual guide. This saintly priest who became her confessor was more like her “Spiritual Son” who later wrote her biography.

Great reformers are often without much formal education. They did not have sophisticated degrees in philosophy and theology, but surely they were burning with the zeal for God and His Church. They wanted to accomplish something for God within their short life and within their given limitation. But the outcome of their life and ministry are too great to imagine.

Catherine reported to have “mystical marriage” with Jesus her Lord and Master. In a vision that was ever present in Catherine’s heart and mind, Our Lady presented her to Jesus who gave her a splendid ring, saying to her: “I, your Creator and Saviour, espouse you in the faith, that you will keep ever pure until you celebrate your eternal nuptials with me in Heaven.” (as recorded by Raimondo da Capua).

This ring was visible to her alone. In this extraordinary episode we see the vital centre of Catherine’s religious sense, and of all authentic spirituality: Christocentrism, which is having Christ as the centre of her life and mission. For her Christ was like the spouse with whom a relationship of intimacy, communion and faithfulness exists; he was the best beloved whom she loved above any other good.

This profound union with the Lord is illustrated by another episode in the life of this outstanding mystic: the exchange of hearts. According to Raymond of Capua who passed on the confidences Catherine received, the Lord Jesus appeared to her “holding in his holy hands a human heart, bright red and shining”. He opened her side and put the heart within her saying: “Dearest daughter, as I took your heart away from you the other day, now, you see, I am giving you mine, so that you can go on living with it forever”. Catherine truly lived St. Paul’s words, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20).

Her holiness was not confined to herself alone. It benefited the whole church. When the fame of her holiness spread, she became the protagonist of an intense activity of spiritual guidance for people from every walk of life: nobles and politicians, artists and ordinary people, consecrated men and women and religious, including Pope Gregory XI who was living at Avignon in that period and whom she energetically and effectively urged to return to Rome. She was canonized on 29 June 1461and her feast celebrated on 29 April.

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