Catherine – Saint on the Streets of Siena


Faithful Through the Ages

Catherine – Saint on the Streets of Siena
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At age sixteen, Catherine
of Siena (1347 – 1380) joined the Third Order of St.
Dominic, spending her
days nursing the poor—particularly lepers and victims of
the
plague.

The daughter of a prosperous fabric dyer, she was the third
youngest of her
father’s twenty-five children. From the age of four she
meditated and prayed,
and at seven she took a vow of virginity. Against her
parents’ objections, she
cut her long hair so as to be unattractive to the
man with whom marriage had
been arranged. During these years she was
sustained by visionary experiences.
On one occasion, during a pre- Lenten
carnival, demons tempted her with the
feminine and marital joys she was
denying herself. While friends and family
and neighbors ate and drank and
danced in the streets—typical pleasures of a
medieval community—she was in
her dark cell. Suddenly Jesus and the Virgin and
other saints appeared. Jesus
put a gold ring on her finger, and Catherine
became his bride.

From
then on she held to strict asceticism, wearing a hair shirt and pelvic
chain
and residing in a secluded cell. But she gradually moved out into the
streets
of Siena among lepers and the plague-infected. On one occasion, as she
knelt
over a woman and drained pus from the woman’s putrid sores, she was
overcome
by the sickening stench. Guilt-stricken by her revulsion, she reached
for the
bowl of pus, lifted it to her lips, and drank it, later insisting that
it was
the sweetest taste she had ever known.

While some consider Catherine
mentally unstable, others were deeply moved by
her selfless acts of service.
Like other Catholics of her day, she was deeply
troubled by the volatility of
the papacy—and thus the church itself. In 1309,
more than forty years before
she was born, the papacy, prompted by carnage in
Rome, had moved to Avignon.
Opponents of the newly elected pope had threatened
his life, so the French
king of France kidnapped and secured him in France.
His successors continued
to live in Avignon for nearly seventy years—a period
known as the Babylonian
Captivity of the Church by those demanding that popes
return to Rome. Critics
rightly regard the Avignon papacy as a puppet of the
increasingly powerful
French regime, and not until 1377, did Pope Gregory XI
return the papacy to
Rome.

During this time, Catherine sought to convince the pope to depart
from
Avignon, the “Babylon of the West.” With some twenty devoted followers,
she
led a march to Avignon. She was granted an audience with the pope but
only
after she was found by papal officials to be neither insane nor a
heretic. She
offered a readymade solution: launch another Crusade. Gregory IX
countered
that the church needed to settle its internal strife before going
to war, but
Catherine argued that the best way to solve the problems at home
is to declare
war on the enemy. That Catherine, according to one historian,
“dominated Pope
Gregory and to a lesser extent Urban VI” is an unwarranted
conclusion. She was
one among many who urged the pope to return to Rome. But
her tenacity in
serving the poor and challenging the hierarchy of the church
solidified her
fame.

Through revelations, she sought to confirm church
tradition not clarified in
Scripture. Medieval theologians from Anselm to
Aquinas, for example, had
argued that Mary was conceived sinless and remained
so all her life, ever
remaining a virgin. Aquinas had summed up the common
belief: “As a virgin she
conceived, as a virgin gave birth, and she remains a
virgin forever.” Through
a vision, Catherine confirmed the tradition and
offers an additional detail:
that Mary was not perfected until three hours
after her conception. But her
revelation was trumped by theologian Duns
Scotus, who insisted that Mary was
perfected at the instant of
conception.

Catherine, who died in her early thirties, was canonized by
Pope Pius II in
1461. More notable, however, was her elevation by Pope Paul
VI in 1970 to
Doctor of the Church, along with Theresa of Avila, the first
women to be so
named. She was recognized again in 1999 by Pope John Paul II,
who named her a
patron saint of Europe.

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