This extraordinary uneducated young women of common birth, a mystic and a visionary, possibly anorexic, ordered popes and cardinals around, dictated their letters, and acted as their intermediary.
Born in 1347, Caterina Benincasa was the 23rd child of a wool dyer in Siena in Tuscany. From the age of 6 Catherine began to see visions and to practise extreme penances. At the age of seven she consecrated her virginity to Christ, and in her sixteenth year she took the habit of the Dominican Tertiaries and lived in a little room in her father’s house as if it were an anchorite’s cell in the desert. The house still stands today.
Catherine took care of the sick and the poor in hospitals or homes. Her activities in Siena attracted a group of followers, women and men. She then began traveling through Italy, trying to reform the clergy and teaching that repentance and renewal could be achieved through ‘the total love for God.
In the early 1370s, she began sending letters to princes and bishops, begging for peace in Italy and for the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome. She carried on a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, asking him to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States.
When the Great Schism between Avignon and Rome broke out in the Church. Catherine supported the Roman claimant, Urban VI. He then summoned her to Rome in 1378, where she spent the remainder of her short life, working strenuously for the reformation of the Church, serving the poor, and dispatching letters on behalf of Urban to kings and bishops across Europe. More than three hundred of her letters have survived
St Catherine died in Rome, on 29 April 1380, having suffered a stroke eight days earlier. Her last political work, accomplished practically from her death-bed, was the reconciliation of Pope Urban VI with the Roman Republic.
She was only 33, and her body was found incorrupt in 1430.