St Catherine of Siena OP
Feast Day: 29th April
Saint Catherine was born in Siena in 1347, being the youngest of 25 children. She lived in a time disrupted by political turmoil, wars, the plague and schism in the Church. It was a difficult time and many people thought the end times were near.
However, it was exactly in this difficult time that God gave one of the greatest lights to the Church, a light shining brightly in the darkness. God touched Catherine’s heart at the early age of six when she had a remarkable experience which may be said to have determined her vocation. She had a vision of Christ seated in glory with the Apostles Peter, Paul, and John. A short time later the little girl made a secret vow to give her whole life to God.
Her family home lived in the shadow of the great Basilica of St Dominic, in her time home to over 100 Dominican friars. She attended daily Mass here and loved as a child to listen to the friars preaching and chanting the divine office. It was from the friars that she learned to venerate the Blessed Virgin and would prostrate herself on the ground with the friars when their sung the Salve Regina at the end of Compline.
She loved prayer and solitude, and even though it was hard to find any silence in the busy household she cherished every moment she could find to pray. In time she was allowed to turn a basement room of the family home into a cell of prayer and it was here the Lord would visit her and speak with her. When she was at the age to get married she cut off her hair to show her family that she really wanted to give her life to God alone. She lived in her own little cell for three years, much to the anger and annoyance of her family. In the Dialogue she wrote that God showed her how to build in her soul a private cell where no tribulation could enter. She also joined the third order of the Dominicans around this time. For three years she spoke only to her confessor and never went out except to the neighbouring church of St. Dominic, where the pillar against which she used to lean is still pointed out to visitors
But eventually the Lord appeared to her and asked her to leave the cell for her wanted her like Mary Magdalene to bring the news of salvation to the citizens of Siena. God called Catherine out of her contemplative life into the world, and it is there that she made such a difference. In her own city of Siena she would become ‘the lady with the lamp’, during the great plague which killed over a thousand people, she would walk the narrow streets of Siena giving out food and nursing those who were dying, she would bandage the sores of the suffering and insist that the dying would receive the last rights from the friars. Catherine brought the light of Christ’s presence to her own people, her lamp was a symbol of her charity. Everyday she attended the hospital and washed and fed those who were abandoned and left to die, in each person Catherine recognised the image of Christ: ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of these, you do it for me!’
Catherine loved the Church as the Bride of Christ and she describes it as the cellar which contains the most precious wine, she saw the church of her time as old bottles covered in dust hidden in the darkness of a cellar. She knew that despite the sins of the clergy of her time and the corruption that lay in the church, the most precious blood was contained within the bottles that represented a fallen humanity. Christ preserved his church despite the sins of his chosen ones and ministers and she never lost sight of the humanity and weakness of her ministers. She loved the church of her time back into existence, sometimes with strong words but always with love.
Her last days were spent with her sisters in Rome and she would spend all day in the old St Peter’s praying at the tomb of the apostles, every evening she would stop in the loggia of the Basilica and gaze upon the great painting by Giotto of the barge of the apostles in the storm with Christ asleep. On her last visit to the basilica, she was so moved in contemplation of praying for the church that in a vision the boat left the painting and rested on her shoulders, finding a harbour and safety on the shoulders of Catherine. The poor creature collapsed with the weight and she recalls that she died in the vision with the burden of the boat resting safely on her body. On her death bed she said that she would gladly die for her church knowing that through her the church and the Pope the sweet vicar of Christ as she loving called him, would have been found harbour and safety from her life.
She died in the presence of her Dominican brothers and sisters in Rome and her body was laid to rest in the Dominican church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, where it rests beneath the high altar to this day. Catherine is a great example of the Dominican charism. Having a very intimate union with God, to whom she gave her full heart, having lived in the quite of her cell, the seed of Gods love was able to grow out and form strong roots. Then she was called out to the world, and was able to share this love with others. One of the mottoes of the Dominican Order is ‘contemplata aliis tradere’, which means to share with others the fruits of contemplation. By being rooted in God, Catherine was able to bring light into the world no matter how difficult the task she was given turned out to be. It is her complete surrender to God made her such a marvellous instrument in God’s hands. She was proclaimed a doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI and co-patron of Europe by Bl John Paul II.