Saint Catherine of Siena, (March 25, 1347 – April 29, 1380), was a tertiary of the Dominican Order, and a Scholastic philosopher and theologian.
She also worked to bring the papacy of Gregory XI back to Rome from its displacement in France, and to establish peace among the Italian city-states. Since June 18, 1866 she is one of the two patron saints of Italy, together with St. Francis of Assisi. On October 3, 1970 she was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI, and on October 1, 1999 Pope John Paul II named her as a one of the six patron saints of Europe, together with Benedict of Nursia, Saints Cyril and Methodius, Bridget of Sweden and Edith Stein.
Catherine is said by her confessor and biographer Raymond of Capua O.P.,’s Life to have had her first vision of Christ when she was age five or six. With her brother she was on the way home from a visit to a married sister, and is said to have experienced a vision of Christ seated in glory with the Apostles Peter, Paul, and John. Raymond continues that at age seven, Catherine vowed to give her whole life to God.
Her older sister Bonaventura died in childbirth. While tormented with sorrow, sixteen-year-old Catherine was now faced with her parents’ wish that she marry Bonaventura’s widower. Absolutely opposed to this, she started a massive fast, something she had learnt from Bonaventura, whose husband had not been considerate in the least. Bonaventura had changed his attitude by refusing to eat until he showed better manners. This had taught Catherine the power of fasting. She disappointed her mother by cutting off her long hair as a protest against being overly encouraged to improve her appearance in order to attract a husband.
Catherine would later advise Raymond of Capua to do during times of trouble what she did now as a teenager: “Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee.” In this inner cell she made her father into a representation of Christ, her mother Lapa into the Blessed Virgin Mary, and her brothers into the apostles. Serving them humbly became an opportunity for spiritual growth. Catherine resisted the accepted course of marriage and motherhood, on the one hand, or a nun’s veil, on the other. She chose to live an active and prayerful life outside a convent’s walls following the model of the Dominicans. Eventually her father gave up and permitted her to live as she pleased.
As a tertiary, she lived outside the convent, at home with her family like before. The Mantellate taught Catherine how to read, and she lived in almost total silence and solitude in the family home. Her custom of giving away food and clothing without asking anyone’s permission cost her family significantly but she demanded nothing for herself. By staying in their midst, she could live out her rejection of them more strongly. She did not want their food, referring to the table laid for her in Heaven with her real family.