Childhood & Early Life
Catherine of Siena was born Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa, on March 25, 1347, in Siena, Republic of Siena (modern-day Italy), to Lapa Piagenti and Giacomo di Benincasa. Her mother had borne 22 children before her birth. However, almost half her siblings had died during or sometime after childbirth.
Her mother hailed from an artistic family and was the daughter of a local poet. Catherine’s father worked as a cloth dyer and made just enough money to run his household.
Catherine was born along with a twin sister named Giovanna. The sisters were born prematurely, which could be attributed to their mother’s age when they were born. Lapa had conceived them when she was 40 years old. Giovanna died shortly after her birth, but Catherine survived, as her mother herself took special care of her. Catherine eventually grew into a perfectly healthy child.
Catherine was a happy-go-lucky kid, and it was not until the age of 5 or 6 that she had had a proper brush with spirituality. While on her way home after visiting a married sister, she had a vision of Jesus Christ. By the time she was 7 years old, she had decided that she would be dedicating her entire life to the service of Jesus Christ.
Catherine was 16 when she witnessed the death of one of her closest sisters. While she was grieving the loss, her parents suggested she marry her sister’s widower. However, Catherine was staunchly against it. She stopped eating and also cut her hair short as a mark of protest.
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The Dominican Order
In her late teenage years, she wanted to join the ‘Dominican Order,’ but her mother was against it. Her mother took her away to the village of Bagno Vignoni, where Catherine’s health deteriorated. Her mother then allowed her to join the female branch of ‘Dominicans,’ named the ‘Mantellate.’
Lapa requested the sisters of the order to include Catherine in the order. However, Catherine’s inclusion was opposed by the tertiaries, as the order had only consisted of widows till then. Catherine was still taken in, but she was only allowed to practice her faith at home. Meanwhile, Catherine learned to read and write and remained secluded in her family home, in total solitude and silence.
Soon, Catherine began donating food and clothes to the poor. Her family was not financially stable and thus strongly opposed her ways. However, Catherine said that she did not want anything for herself and continued giving away food and clothes without telling her family.
At the age of 21, Catherine experienced her “mystical marriage” with Jesus Christ. She claimed that she was given an invisible ring. While many scholars doubt this claim, there are many who say that she had “received” a ring made of Jesus’s foreskin. Catherine herself had mentioned the “foreskin-as-wedding ring” motif in one of her letters.
This experience had a deep impact on her. Soon, she started going out of her house to help the poor and the needy. She often visited the local hospitals and slums to help people. Gradually, many people began joining her in her charitable deeds.
Catherine found peace in helping others and began traveling to other cities to help the needy. She also gained an interest in politics in her early 20s and worked hard to ensure that the city authorities worked in coherence with the pope.
She made her first long visit to Florence in 1374, in order to get interviewed by the ‘Dominican’ authorities. It is also believed that during this time, she had met Raymond of Capua and had accepted him as her spiritual director and confessor.
After this, she embarked on long travels around Italy to propagate the message of Jesus Christ and to preach the love for God in people’s hearts. She was in Pisa in 1375, and it is believed that she had received stigmata there. Stigmata is a “spiritual occurrence,” in which a person receives marks similar to those of Jesus when he was crucified. However, she claimed that the marks were visible only to her.
Physical travels were not the only way she spread her message. She wrote many letters to influential men and women to propagate her message of Christ. She was also known for her long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI. He held her in high regard. Thus, she was one of the main persuaders who attempted to make the pope return to Rome.
She was also one of the main reasons for the establishment of peace between Rome and Florence. To achieve this, she was sent to Florence by the pope in 1377. However, with the pope’s death in March 1378, violence erupted in Florence. Catherine was still in Florence and narrowly escaped being assassinated. However, owing to her efforts, peace returned between the two cities. Catherine thus went back to Florence.
In November 1378, the “Western Schism” became a huge problem. The “Schism” was a split within the ‘Catholic Church,’ lasting from 1378 to 1417, in which two men (three by 1410) simultaneously claimed to be the true pope. The new pope, Urban VI, invited her to Rome. She met many nobles and wrote countless letters to convince the nobles and cardinals of his legitimacy.
She also completed a few works of writing, which became classics later. She is best known for writing the treatise titled ‘The Dialogue of Divine Providence.’ In addition, many letters written by her are considered to be classics of Tuscan Literature. She had also written many prayers.
Death & Legacy
In the final few months of her life, Catherine of Siena had stopped eating and drinking. She had been practicing abstinence for a long time, but it was the harshest this time around. Her health further deteriorated in 1380, when she became unable to chew or swallow anything. She suffered a stroke just 8 days before her death, which paralyzed her from the waist down.
She passed away on April 29, 1380, in Rome. She was 33 years old at the time of her death.
Centuries later, in 1866, she was declared the co-patron saint of Rome. Pope John Paul II proclaimed her one of the patron saints of Europe in 1999.