Catarina Benincasa was born in 14th century Siena, Italy, to a cloth-dyer and his wife. She was one of several children, most of whom died young. But Catherine survived, and even as a child pledged herself to follow Jesus as a Dominican sister.
It was a turbulent age for the Church in Europe. The papacy was divided into factions, and one of the popes, Gregory XI, was based in the French city of Avignon. The clergy was corrupt, and war between rival cities made life miserable for ordinary people. The turbulence of the age finds a mirror in the life of this young woman, Catherine, whose life astonishes us with its extraordinary achievements.
In spite of strong family opposition, young Catherine determined to join the Third Order of St Dominic, a group composed largely of widows who followed the Dominican rule even while living at home. Her conviction that she was meant for a higher ‘spiritual life’ was confirmed by a mystical experience she underwent at the age of 19, where she “wedded Jesus as her spouse”. Uniquely too, she received in her body the wounds of the crucified Jesus, the ‘stigmata’. After this, there was no turning back.
Now began Catherine’s public life dedicated to helping the ill and the poor, caring for them in hospitals or homes. Her activities in Siena attracted a group of followers, both women and men, but they also brought her to the attention of the Dominican Order, which interrogated her for possible heresy. Deemed sufficiently orthodox, she began traveling with her followers throughout northern and central Italy, advocating reform of the clergy and challenging people to repentance and renewal. Realizing that this was not possible without a unified papacy, she pleaded with Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, and ultimately succeeded. After Gregory’s death she supported his successor, Urban VI.
This was not an age for educated women, and yet Catherine’s writings are considered classics of their time. She wrote – and dictated – hundreds of letters to important contemporaries. They give us an insight into her thinking and into the politics of the age. Even more significant is her Dialogue of Divine Providence, her spiritual testimony, as recorded by her friends and disciples.
This remarkable woman died in 1380 at the age of 33. No wonder she is honoured with Francis of Assisi as the patron of Italy.