Today we celebrate the feast of Saint Catherine of Siena, a religious, a mystic, and a Doctor of the Church.
Saint Catherine was born at Siena, in the region of Tuscany in Italy. When she was six years old, Jesus appeared to Catherine and blessed her. As many parents do for their children, her mother and father wanted her to be happily married, preferably to a rich man. But Catherine wanted to be a nun. So, to make herself as unattractive as possible to the men her parents wanted her to meet, she cut off her long, beautiful hair. Her parents were very upset and became very critical of her. But Catherine did not change her mind: her goal was to become a nun and give herself entirely to Jesus. Finally, her parents allowed it, and her father even set aside a room in the house where she could stay and pray.
When Catherine was eighteen years old, she entered the Dominican Third Order and spent the next three years in seclusion, prayer and works of penance. Gradually a group of followers gathered around her—men and women, priests and religious. They all saw that Catherine was a holy woman and they flocked to her for spiritual advice. During this time she wrote many letters, most of which gave spiritual instruction and encouragement to her followers. But more and more, she would speak out on many topics and would stand up for the truth. Because of this, many people began to oppose her and they brought false charges against her, but she was cleared of all of wrongdoing.
Because of her great influence, she was able to help the Church navigate a rocky period of two and eventually three anti-popes, men who claimed to be the pope but were not legally elected. She even went to beg rulers to make peace with the pope and to avoid wars. At one point, Saint Catherine convinced the real pope to leave Avignon, France, where he had been staying in exile, and return to Rome to rule the Church, because she knew that this was God’s will. He took her advice, and this eventually led to peace in the Church.
Catherine had a mystical love of God, and his goodness and beauty was revealed to her more and more each day. She wrote of God, “You are a mystery as deep as the sea; the more I search, the more I find, and the more I find the more I search for you. But I can never be satisfied; what I receive will ever leave me desiring more. When you fill my soul I have an even greater hunger, and I grow more famished for your light. I desire above all to see you, the true light, as you really are.”
Saint Catherine is one of just three female Doctors of the Church, being named so by Pope Paul VI in 1970. Doctors of the Church are men and women saints who have written great works of theology and spirituality. There are just four women who are Doctors of the Church: Saint Catherine, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Therese of Liseaux, and Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Saint Catherine is also the co-patron saint, with Saint Francis, of Italy.
I love the story of Saint Catherine is amazing for a couple of important reasons. First, it shows that God wants to be friends with us. God reached out and called Saint Catherine in a special way, but he calls each of us in our own special way to be his friends. Second, Saint Catherine’s story shows the important contribution of women to the Church. Many people think the Church does not value the contribution women, but nothing is further from the truth. Over time, countless women have contributed so much to what the Church knows about God and the spiritual life. Without the witness of the women who came to the tomb after Jesus was buried, we would not have known the Good News that he rose from the dead. Without the contribution of Saint Catherine, our understanding of God’s fierce love for people would be much poorer.
So we have much for which to be grateful on this feast of Saint Catherine. Through her intercession may we all have a deep appreciation and love for the depths of the mysteries of God.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!