The Rest of Her

Catherine of Siena
A Passionate Life
Don Brophy
BlueBridge, $24.95, 288 pp.

The head of St. Catherine of Siena, who died in 1380, is on display in a reliquary in Siena’s church of San Domenico. The relic is slightly ghoulish, though in remarkably good shape for being more than six hundred years old. A thumb of Catherine’s is also exposed for veneration in a case nearby. The rest of her body lies in Rome, in a tomb in the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, near the house where Catherine died. I went there to pay my respects and picked up a card that unfolds to reveal a prayer for the intercession of St. Catherine in five languages. The English translation begins: “O God, who adorned blessed Catherine with the particular privilege of virginity and of patience...”

Virginity and patience? There is no reference to Catherine’s fame as a mystic, her status as doctor of the church, her role as adviser to popes and other powerful leaders, her ascetic practices, her service to the sick and the poor. Just a generic description of holiness that could apply to virtually any saint on the books. A curious tourist who happened to pick up that card would learn very little about what made Catherine exceptional, and why her tomb is worth a visit six centuries later.

Don Brophy’s new biography is no devotional text, but it is a much better source for understanding Catherine’s significance. Brophy sifts through versions of her legend—from miracle stories circulated during her lifetime to modern academic evaluations—to give a straightforward...

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About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.