On October 4, 1970, Pope Paul VI, the Pope who presided over most of the Second Vatican Council and assiduously implemented its directives, declared Catherine to be a Doctor of the Church along with St. Teresa of Avila. It would seem that Pope Paul believed that these women had a message for the Church in its period of renewal.
Catherine’s Life, (1347-1380)
Because St. Catherine’s ideas are so related to her experiences, the events of her life help to illuminate her teachings. She was born on March 25, 1347, the twenty-fourth child of Mona Lapa and Giacomo di Benincasa, in the city of Siena, part of the Tuscan area of Italy. Giacomo was a dyer of linen and woolen cloth. The family’s large home was located a short distance down the hill from the Dominican Church of San Domenico.
Even as a child, Catherine was intensely conscious of God. She was only six years old when she saw Jesus blessing her from above the tower of San Domenico. Catherine’s growing piety was benignly accepted until, as a young adolescent, her ideas began to conflict with her family’s expectations. Contemporary parents of teenagers, might, at times, wish their offspring were saints. Mona Lapa’s and Giacomo’s experience proves that sanctity doesn’t necessarily make adolescents any easier to rear. When they found a prospective husband for her, Catherine chopped off her hair, discouraging any immediate wedding plans.
To bend her will, Giacomo ordered Catherine to do the work of a family servant, cleaning and cooking for the large Benincasa household. Over the course of a year, Giacomo watched Catherine’s generosity and willingness to serve the family, and he became convinced that God was doing great things in her soul. He concluded that Jesus was the best son-in-law he could hope for. Giacomo gave Catherine a room that was nine by fifteen feet and was set below the kitchen. There she could live and pray undisturbed.
When, however, Catherine asked her parents’ permission to join the third-order Dominican lay women, they still resisted this idea. These women were known as the Mantellate because of the black mantle that covered their habit of a white tunic and coif. Most of them were widows. The Mantellate continued to live in their family homes, gathered for Mass and prayers at San Domenico and engaged in works of charity, especially the care of the sick. The superiors of the Mantellate also feared that Catherine was too young for such a commitment.
Catherine became sick and it seemed that she might die. When her grief-stricken mother promised to do anything to help her recover, Catherine sent her off to plead her case with the superior of the Mantellate. Once Mona Lapa had successfully argued her daughter’s acceptance into the Mantellate, Catherine recovered and was admitted into the Dominican Order when she was sixteen or seventeen.
After becoming a Dominican, Catherine spent three years secluded in her small room, spending her days and nights in continuous prayer and penance, leaving only to go to Mass. Mona Lapa would often visit and cry and at times even claw her own face as she pleaded with Catherine to mitigate her penitential practices. It is worth noting that although Catherine performed extraordinary penances herself, in her writings she cautioned that penance was only an instrument. She taught that God preferred conformity with His will and love because love is infinite and all other human actions, even penitential ones, are finite.
Catherine’s small room became a battlefield where she was taunted by temptations, especially lewd apparitions of demons. Repeatedly she threw herself upon the merciful help of God, affirming, “I trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.” In one of her letters, Catherine recalled that Jesus appeared to her after these trials. She asked Him where He had been in her temptations. He told her that He had been with her and the sign of His presence was that her will resisted the temptations. Catherine came to understand that these temptations were actually God’s way of making her draw closer to Him. She tried to teach this to others, as she did in her letter to a monk in prison: “Think that the goodness of God permits the devils to molest our souls in order to make it humble and to recognize His goodness, and to run back to Him into His sweet wounds, as a little child runs back to the mother.”
Catherine became convinced that following Christ had to involve temptations and struggles: “You, my soul, as a member, ought not to pass by another way than your head. It is not right that under the thorned head there are delicate members.” It was, she came to see, in their struggles, that people grew in virtue: “With what does purity prove itself and with what is it acquired? With the contrary, that is with the annoyance of impurity ….Through the contrary of the virtue, the virtue is acquired….in many storms and temptations.”
After three years of living a solitary life, Catherine had a mystical experience of espousal with Christ, on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, 1368. Christ then instructed her that He wanted her to fly to heaven not only with one wing, the love of God, but also with the other wing, the love of neighbor. Catherine’s biography, written by one of her disciples, the Dominican, Raimondo of Capua, recalls charming stories of Catherine’s works of mercy: her care for the victims of the plague which took the lives of one third of the city, her insistence on providing good wine for the poor, her giving her own tunic to a beggar, her delivering food and wine to a starving family even though she was so sick that she crawled home, her family members locking their possessions away to protect them from her generosity, her attending those sick with cancer, her willingness to nurse a woman who was slandering Catherine’s moral character, and her holding the head of a man as he was executed to keep him constant in his hope.
While serving her neighbors, Catherine continued her intense prayer life. She was so intensely focused on Christ that when she received communion, she became oblivious to everything around her for as long as three hours. At times, the Dominicans at San Domenico, wanting to lock the church and being unable to bring her to consciousness, physically carried her out to the street, without her realizing.
In 1374, the Master of the Dominican Order assigned Raimondo da Capua to be her spiritual director. Catherine had gained a reputation as a peacemaker. She was asked by the leaders of the city of Florence to speak for them with the pope who was living at Avignon, the papal residence in Southern France. While at Avignon, Catherine successfully encouraged Gregory XI to fulfill his wavering resolve to return the papacy to Rome. In December of 1377, after his return to Rome, the Pope sent Catherine to Florence on a mission of reconciliation. On one occasion during her stay in Florence she was attacked by a mob and almost stabbed.
The extent to which Catherine was able to read and write is not known. According to Raimondo, after her unsuccessful attempts to study Latin in order to pray the Office, Catherine received the gift of reading through prayer. This probably happened in 1366, when she was nineteen. Raimondo informs us: “Before she rose from prayer, she was so divinely instructed, that after she rose from the prayer, she knew how to read every word as quickly and easily as someone most skilled. When I witnessed this myself, I was amazed, principally for this reason: I found that when she was reading most quickly, if she were told to read in syllables, she did not know what to say. Indeed, she scarcely recognized the letters.”
Between October, 1377, and November, 1378, Catherine dictated her book, The Dialogue, which is written in the form of a dialogue between God and her soul. In Letter 272, written on October 4, 1377, while she was staying in Val d’Orcia, Catherine describes to Raimondo a particularly vivid vision of Christ as the bridge to God. This letter contains in itself the nucleus of her book, The Dialogue, being similarly constructed around her four petitions with God’s answers.
The fact that the schism is not referred to indicates that the book was finished before she went to Rome. Guiliana Cavallini, who prepared the critical text of Il Dialogo, observes that the book was probably composed over a period of time, with periodic additions without losing the unity of the document.
Catherine’s most extensive writings are her letters. Benedict Hackett, O.S.A., comments: “No woman mystic in medieval times – and there was no shortage of outstanding ones in Germany, the Low Countries, England and Italy itself – equaled her, or can be even compared with her as a correspondent. Certainly, as far as the fourteenth century goes, she ranks second only to Petrarch, an outstanding achievement in itself when one remembers that she had no formal education, and definitely no training in grammar.”
Catherine’s earliest secretaries were her female friends. Later, on occasion, her priest disciples served as her secretaries. Generally, however, her young male disciples did this work. Francesco Malavolti recalls Catherine dictating three different letters simultaneously to Neri di Landoccio, Stefano Maconi and himself: “Indeed, I saw the servant of Christ, Catherine, by the power of the Holy Spirit, dictate many letters at the same time to many scribes and particularly to three together, not only once but innumerable times through many years…She would dictate now in one way, then in another, now with her head covered, now with her head raised high to heaven, her hands crisscrossed, many times she came into ecstasy, while still dictating.” On one occasion, the three secretaries realized that they had each taken down the same passage as though it were for them. Catherine completed her dictation and when the letters were read back, the section seemed to fit into each letter.
Of the letters she wrote within the last ten years of her life (1370-1380), approximately three hundred eighty-two are extant. These were sent to a variety of people including, among others: two popes, cardinals, bishops, a king, queens, rulers of the Italian states, clergy, nuns, friars, monks, mantellate, her mother and brothers, a married couple, widows, a Jewish man, an artist, a prostitute, and a notorious leader of mercenary soldiers. Suzanne Noffke notes that sixty-seven of Catherine’s letters are to political figures, thirteen to royalty, thirty-eight to civic officials, ten to lawyers and six to military leaders.
Catherine dictated most of her letters although she appears to have written some. Caffarini in the Processus, the collection of interviews for her canonization, recalls Stefano’s account of an instance when Catherine wrote: “Rising from prayer with the desire to write, she wrote with her own hand a letter which the same Stefano sent, in which she concluded, in her own dialect, clearly, ‘You know, my dearest son, that this is the first letter that I ever wrote.'”
The third category of Catherine’s writings is her prayers. Yves Congar, O.P., has called Catherine’s prayers “theology turned into doxology.” Catherine’s disciples were accustomed to hearing her pray vocally. Catherine’s letters and The Dialogue are replete with prayers. In addition to these prayers, twenty-six prayers were recorded by Catherine’s disciples during a period from the vigil of the Assumption in 1376, when Catherine was at Avignon, until January 30, 1380, while she was in Rome. Nineteen of the prayers are from a fourteen month period during her stay in Rome from Dec. 21, 1378, to Jan. 30, 1380. Bartolomeo Dominici, one of her Dominican disciples, described the origins of the written prayers:
Having consumed the host, her mind was lifted up to God, so that she immediately lost the use of her senses…and so daily for nearly three hours and more she remained totally absorbed and insensible…Frequently also, fixed in this ecstasy, while speaking with God, she brought forth profound prayers and devout entreaties in a clear voice… And the prayers for the greater part were put into writing, word for word: some actually by me, and even more by others, when she, as was said, brought them forth in a clear and distinct voice….For in no way did the speech and the sense of the words seem to be of a woman but the doctrine and thoughts of a great doctor.
In April, 1378, Gregory XI was succeeded by Urban VI. The new pope’s harsh attempts at reform alienated a group of the cardinals, who challenged his election some months later. They elected an anti-pope, thus beginning the Western Schism. In November, Pope Urban asked Catherine to come to Rome and to work for peace in the Church. In her letters to Gregory XI and then Urban VI, Catherine writes with great reverence, referring to the pope as “Christ on earth” and even using the affection term “Babbo” or “Daddy.” Yet she is also very direct as to what was wrong in the Church and what the popes needed to do personally. As she continued on in Rome, her health deteriorated. She would drag herself to St. Peter’s to spend her days praying for the Church. After late February of 1380 she was no longer able to walk. Then, on April 29 of that year, she died, surrounded by her disciples.
The Love of God:
The major theme that runs through all of Catherine’s writings is God’s love for us. Catherine’s understanding of God’s love is founded on the basic relationship between God and us: the stark truth that existence belongs to God alone. This theological principle is at the heart of Catherine’s spirituality. She frequently repeats this principle, as when, for instance, the Father states in The Dialogue: “Everything is made and created by My goodness, because I am the one who is, and without Me nothing is made, except only sin which is not.”
God is the one who is! It would be difficult to overestimate how important this truth is for Catherine. In his biography of Catherine, Raimondo of Capua, her confessor and disciple, affirms that the primary principle in her understanding was the one given to her by Jesus early in her spiritual life: “You are that one who is not: I am that one who is.”
We are the ones who are not! Our first reaction on hearing that might be that God is telling us that we are insignificant. Yet this simple sentence holds a fundamental truth: God is! Only God exists of Himself! Every one else receives existence as a gift.
Many of us just assume that we exist and that we are entitled to be – but that ignores the obvious. We didn’t give ourselves life. We were given life. Catherine urges her readers to examine the ramifications of that fact. She tells her mother, Monna Lapa, to make an effort to see the generosity of God who has given her life and every gift that follows upon life: “You ought to strive, with true and holy attention, to know that existence is not your own, and to recognize that your being is from God, and the many gifts and graces you have received and receive every day.”
Everything is a gift, everything we have; everything we have had or will have is a gift. There is no reason why we should have anything. This can make us feel very fragile because we don’t have a handle on anything but in another way that can make us feel very blessed. All we need to do is to look around at the people we love in our family. There is no reason why any one of them should be in our lives. We can look around at our homes. There is no reason why we should have any of the things we love. The gifts and graces we receive every day are all given by God.
Our existence is not a haphazard matter of chance; it is a personal and loving gift. Catherine tells us that the reason God created each one of us is that He fell in love with the very idea of us. We read in one of her prayers: “You eternal God, saw and knew me in Yourself, and because You saw me in Your light, then, fallen in love with Your creature, You drew her from Yourself and created her in Your image and likeness.”
God fell in love with the very idea of us! When we are discouraged by life, we wonder what purpose we have on this earth. For Catherine, it is very simple. We are here because God fell in love with the very idea of us. That’s a different way to look at some of the people we work with, or live with, or pass in the streets. They exist because God fell in love with the very idea of them.
As we have seen, Catherine begins with a fundamental philosophical principle, “You alone are who is, and being and every gift beyond being I have from You, which You gave Me and give me for love and not as owed.” Her God is not a distant creator or uncaused First Cause but a God who yearns for those He has created. For Catherine, God is crazy with desire for us; God thirsts for us, God hungers for us.
Love is the only reason why any person exists. She writes: “If we knew ourselves not to exist in ourselves, we would never fall into pride. We have received our existence only from God because we never prayed God that He might create us. He was moved by the fire of His Divine Charity, through the love that He had for His creature, looking upon us within Himself, falling in love with our beauty and with what His hands had made.” God looks into us and sees beauty! Very often that’s not what we see in ourselves. Catherine is overwhelmed by the extravagance of this love, and exclaims: “I confess and I do not deny that You loved me before I was and that You love me unspeakably much, as if crazy for Your creature.”
Catherine reminds us that not only was our life given to us by God’s love but also the fact that we have sprung from our parents’ love for each other: “Realize that the first garment which we had was love, because we were created in the image and likeness of God only through love. And so a person is not able to be without love for he is made only of this love because whatever he has, in soul and in body, he has through love since his father and his mother had given being to their child, that is, of the substance of his flesh, by the grace of God, only through love.”
Catherine sees each person as an image of the Trinity especially in the three powers of the soul, memory, understanding, and will, an idea which has traces in the thought of St. Augustine. Thus, she prays: “You say, eternal Father, that the person who considers himself finds You in himself because he is created in Your image: he has memory to retain You and Your blessings, sharing in this of Your power. He has the understanding to know You and Your will, sharing of the wisdom of Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and he has the will to love You, sharing the mercy of the Holy Spirit. And so You not only created humanity in Your image and likeness, but also in You in each way You have his image, and so You are in him and he in You”
Since our nature reflects God’s nature, we understand ourselves in God: “In Your nature, eternal Deity, I will know my nature. And what is my nature, inestimable love? It is fire because You are nothing other than a fire of love, and You have given to us from this nature because through a fire of love, You created us. And so You created all the other creatures and every created thing through love.”
Our nature is fire! We were created by love for the purpose of loving. As she tells us in The Dialogue, “The soul is not able to live without love. but always wants to love something since she is made for love because I created her through love.” But we can choose to love God or to love ourselves: “The tree of your soul, is a tree of love because it was created by God through love and so is of love and it is not able to live with other than love, that is with the holy love or with the sensitive selfish love of oneself.”
Catherine is mystified that God would create us, even though God knew the sin of Adam and the suffering that would follow:
In Your light I have known that You have preseen every thing. Then, eternal Father, why did You create this Your creature? I am greatly amazed by this, and truly I see, just as You show me, that for no other reason You made him except that with Your light You saw Yourself constrained by the fire of Your charity to give us being, not stopped by the iniquity that we would commit against You, eternal Father. Then the fire constrained You, O ineffable love. Truly in Your light, You saw all the iniquity which Your creature would commit against Your infinite goodness. You looked as if You didn’t see, but You fixed Your eye on the beauty of Your creature, with whom You have fallen in love as a crazy person and one drunk with love, and with love You drew her from Yourself, giving her being in Your image and likeness. You, eternal Truth, have made clear to me Your truth, that is, that love constrained You to create her. Truly You saw that she would offend You, Your charity did not wish that You might fix Your eye on this sight. Then You lifted Your eyes from this offense which would be, and You fixed it solely on the beauty of Your creature, for if You had set Your primary focus on that offense You might have forgotten the love with which You created us. This sin was not hidden from You, but You fixed Your love on us, because You are nothing other than a fire of love, crazy over what You have made” (Oratio IV).
Catherine not only sees God as a “fire of love” but also as being drunk and crazy with love. Catherine searches for words that will describe the irrational quality of God’s love for us.
Only God really satisfies our nature: “So sensible created things are not able to satisfy humanity because they are less than humanity, but only God is that one who is the Creator and maker of all the created things and that one is able to satisfy [us].”
The realization of this love seems to have increasingly grown in Catherine:
I, Catherine, write to you and comfort you in the precious blood of the Son of God, with the desire to see you burning and inflamed and consumed in His most burning charity, knowing that one who is burned and consumed by this true charity, does not see himself. This is what I wish that you do. I invite you to enter into a peaceful sea, through this most burning charity and deep sea. I have found this now anew – not that the sea is new but it is new to me in the feeling of my soul, in that word, ‘God is love.’ Just as the mirror portrays the face of a man, and the sun his light upon the earth, so this word portrays in my soul that everything is solely love, because it is not done other than for love and therefore He says, ‘I am God, love.’ From this is born a light into the inestimable mystery of the Word Incarnate, who by the strength of love was given with such humility that it confounds my pride. It teaches us not to look only at his actions, but at the burning love of the Word given to us. This tells us to do as the one who loves, who, when a friend comes with a present, does not look at the hands for the gift which he brought, but he opens the eye of love and gazes at the heart and the affection of his friend. And so He wishes that we do, when the supreme, eternal, more than tender goodness of God visits our soul. Having been visited with immeasurable blessings, immediately open your memory to receive that which the understanding understands in the divine charity. Lift up your will with most burning desire, and receive and gaze upon the consumed heart of the sweet and good Jesus, who is the giver. So you will find yourself inflamed and vested with the fire and the gift of the blood of the Son of God.”
The fact that God has loved us so much already is the proof that God will continue to love us: “He who has loved us before we were and with love created us in His image and likeness, is not able to not love us, and not to provide in our each need, in soul and body.” Everything that God allows to happen to us, happens because of this love: “[He] Who loved us before we were, because He wished that we share in His supreme and eternal Goodness. And therefore that which He gives us, He gives us for this end.”
God’s tremendous love requires a response from us: “You know that we are all debtors to God because what we have, we have only through grace and through inestimable love. We never asked that He might create us: moved therefore by the fire of love, He created us in His image and likeness, creating us in such dignity that the tongue is not able to say nor the eye to see nor the heart to realize how great the dignity of man is. This is a debt that we have drawn from God, and this debt He wishes should be rendered to Him, that is love for love. The just and fitting thing is that whom he sees to love him, he loves.”
The very purpose of her writings is the salvation of the reader whom she hopes to draw to God by illustrating God’s love: “For the creature loves his Creator as much as he considers himself to be loved by Him. So all the coldness of our heart does not proceed from any other cause save that we do not consider how much we are loved by God.” The appreciation of being loved spurs a progressive movement from imperfect self-centered love to a generous love that imitates God’s love.
This realization of being loved comes about through “continuous prayer,” that includes actual prayer but also denotes a general attitude of openness to God. Self-knowledge is an essential foundation for continuous prayer because through it we realize our dependency on God for existence, as well as our lack of appreciation of God’s goodness.
Since everything that is, except sin, is a gift, the natural response to the giver is love. Catherine instructs us to respond to love with love: “Love, love! See that you were loved before you loved.”
By Dennis Vincent Wiseman, O.P., December 15, 2017
 Letter 4, I.
 Letter 38, I.
 Letter 211, III.
 As Suzanne Noffke points out the number of letters differs depending on whether one includes the same letter as it is sent to two different people and whether one considers T371 to be actually a continuation of T373. See Suzanne Noffke, O.P., The Letters of Catherine of Siena, vol. I, trans. Suzanne Noffke Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000, xiii, n.2.
 Our being is based on God’s gratuity: “Let us see that He is whom is infinitely good, and we are those who are not through ourselves. Because our being and every grace which is given above our being is from Him; we are through ourselves wretched and miserable” Letter 13, I. She also writes: “You know, dearest mother, that we are like a field of the earth, where God through his mercy has thrown his seed, that is the love and the affection with which He created us, drawing us out from Himself, only for love and not for obligation. We never asked Him that He created us, but moved by the fire of His love, He created us that we would enjoy and taste His supreme eternal goodness, and in order that the seed make fruit and nourish the plants, He gave us the water of holy baptism” Letter 138, II. This was written to Giovanna d’Angio, Queen of Naples, in late June 1375.
 Il Dialogo, CXXXIV, 423.
 Letter IX, VI, 22. Catherine wrote this letter to Bartolomeo della Pace Smeducci da Sanserverino, the Lord of San Severino in the Marches, who was the captain general of the armies of the Italian communes against the foreign mercenaries who were ravaging the cities. This letter is the first of the letters found by Gardner. Noffke locates this letter between November and December, 1375.