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 Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life 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, carefully sourced, highly readable account of her life. He notes that Catherine’s adviser, confessor, and biographer, Blessed Raymond of Capua, refers to her as “The Virgin” in his written account. “Such is the language of traditional piety,” Brophy explains. But in Brophy’s view, “the passive implications of ‘virginity’…fail to capture her spirit. Her so-called vow of virginity had little to do with sexuality and everything to do with commitment. It was less a denial of sex than an affirmation of passion”—a condition of her desire to give herself entirely to Christ.

A vision of Jesus that Catherine experienced at age six led her to aspire to contemplative life, seeking in the midst of a busy home (she had more than twenty siblings) a place “to pray in without interruption or distraction.” After a few years of solitary prayer and fasting, Catherine emerged from her “hermitage,” sensing that she was called to balance prayer with service: “On two feet you must walk my way,” she heard Jesus telling her. Winning the right to live out that vocation on her terms—first, resisting her parents’ desire to see her marry, and then gaining entry into a Dominican tertiary order, the Mantellate, despite not being a widow—was an early victory for Catherine’s legendary strength of will. Joining the Mantellate, Brophy says, was Catherine’s way of finding support in a religious community without becoming “trapped” by the cloistered life of a nun. “Catherine identified herself with the male disciples who had been entrusted with the risky business of preaching the word to an unbelieving, sometimes hostile, world.” She had more than virginity and patience to offer.

When Catherine was a year old, Siena was hit hard by the Black Death; the unfinished expansion of the city’s cathedral (a project abandoned in 1348 as Siena lost half its population) still stands as testament to the devastation. The plague returned in 1374, and Catherine joined her sister Mantellate in caring for the sick and dying. By then she had developed a reputation and a following—a famiglia to whom she was known as “Mamma.” Her legend includes a number of miraculous cures of those in her retinue. Catherine’s active service in the community, Brophy says, “was founded on a passionate belief that intimacy with the divine was available to all persons and that her ‘marriage’ was a commission to bring everyone into its embrace.” That conviction, and political unrest among the Italian states, spurred Catherine to travel to other Tuscan cities, and ultimately to Rome, on diplomatic missions. Though the shifting power dynamics and the various short-lived ruling factions can be mind-boggling, Brophy does his best to help the reader make sense of the political upheavals that occasioned Catherine’s travels.

When it comes to miracle stories and other testimonies to Catherine’s sanctity, Brophy is respectful but not overly credulous. Conflicting reports in historical sources are noted, and likely embellishments are gently set aside. (He documents his sources thoroughly in an appendix.) Brophy also eschews the condescension and sensationalism that sometimes mar contemporary retellings of historic lives. He acknowledges that certain aspects of fourteenth-century piety sound “bizarre” to modern readers—such as Catherine’s fixation on the blood of Jesus (“I…long to see you drowned and transformed in his overflowing blood” is a typical encouraging note) and her notion that Christ’s foreskin was a “wedding ring that joined Jesus and humankind.” However, Brophy is careful to place such ideas in context, providing enough background to help the reader see how Catherine may have understood herself, and how her prayers and exhortations may have sounded to her contemporaries.

At times Catherine’s voice can sound arrestingly modern. “What belongs to the poor is being eaten up to pay soldiers,” she wrote to Pope Gregory XI, “who in turn devour people as if they were meat!” (“I am not saying this to lecture you,” she added deferentially—he was the pope, after all.) But her antiwar activism was inconsistent. Though troubled by the pope’s strong-arming the people of Tuscany, she was gung-ho for a crusade to the Holy Land, and encouraged others to be ready to give their lives in that cause.

Catherine has become a patron for those who seek reform in the church, thanks to her forceful letters and pointed prayers. Her aim in writing was often to remind leaders of their duties, both religious and secular (although in medieval Italy there was little distinction). She was indeed passionate for reform—as well she might be, given the state of the papacy in her lifetime—but she advocated for change within the established framework of the church. The pope, however pusillanimous, was “Christ on earth,” and defiance of his authority was heresy. “The reform she had in mind was moral rather than systemic,” Brophy writes, “since, like most of her contemporaries, Catherine tended to look upon church structures as God-given.”

In addition to her letters and prayers, Catherine’s literary legacy includes a lengthy mystical work, The Dialogue, which records a conversation between God and “a soul.”  With its heavy reliance on elaborate metaphor, The Dialogue is not easy to summarize, but Brophy gives a useful account of its contents while also placing its composition in context. Catherine worked on the manuscript as she traveled around Italy attempting to make peace. At times she complained in prayer of her weariness with travel, and the responses always came in the same image-rich language: “Continue to eat at the table where I have put you,” she recorded having heard God say.

Summoned by Pope Urban VI, Catherine and her famiglia traveled to Rome in 1378. Brophy’s account of her final months is moving. We see her triumphs (including the marvel of her “addressing the pope and his court in solemn assembly”) as well as her failures (cooperating with the “squalid” papal plot to overthrow the queen of Naples “was not Catherine’s finest hour”) and her physical suffering. She was only thirty-three when she died on April 29, 1380, paralyzed after a series of breakdowns and weakened by the radical fasting she had undertaken for most of her life.

When I looked again at that holy card I picked up at Catherine’s tomb in Rome, I noticed that the prayer in Italian was entirely different from the one printed in English, Spanish, French, and German. The Italian prayer addresses Catherine directly, and makes no mention of “virginity” or “patience,” appealing instead to “you who merited to resemble the suffering Christ in your zeal for the salvation of souls.” It asks Catherine to “pray to God with the strength of your loyalty and your love that we know how to do his will from which derives our peace.” Then, seemingly inspired by her pilgrimage to Rome and the physical agony that led her to her tomb in Santa Maria sopra Minerva, it concludes, “Intercede for us, pilgrims in time, that the health of the body does not come at the expense of our true good.” Unlike the others, the Italian prayer is clearly inspired by the distinctive Italian saint whose name it invokes. And it focuses on what may have been Catherine’s most significant saintly trait: her radical and unwavering commitment to doing the will of God.


From the dotCommonweal blog: The Rest of Her, cont.

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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Published in the 2011-04-22 issue: View Contents
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