“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
-- St. Catherine of Siena
Saint Catherine was born as Caterina di Jacopo di Benincasa on March 25th, 1347 in Siena, Republic of Siena (modern Italy). Her mother Lapa was a poet and her father Jacopo a cloth drier. Saint Catherine was a twin - tragically her sister Giovanna died shortly after birth in the care of a wet nurse. Both of the twins had been born prematurely.
As a child, Saint Catherine was known for her happiness and contentment, so much so that the family began calling her Euphrosyne (which is Greek for joy). At the age of only five, Saint Catherine and her brother were walking home from visiting their married sister when she suddenly experienced a vision. In her miraculously vision, Saint Catherine could see Jesus Christ seated in glory with Saint Peter, Saint Paul and Saint John standing next to him. This first miraculous vision so changed her life that Saint Catherine dedicated her life to God a year later. This total devotion to God was tested heavily by the death of her sister Bonaventura.
Bonaventura while giving birth leaving her husband a widow. As she mourned her sister's death, Saint Catherine received upsetting news - her family asked her to marry Bonaventura's widower. Saint Catherine strictly opposed this and immediately began an intense fast. To further solidify her wishes against the marriage or any marriage in the future she cut her long hair extremely short, much to the dismay of her mother. Saint Catherine began to buck the tradition of the time for women - on one hand she refused marriage and on the other refused to join a convent. She chose instead to live a prayerful and spiritual life outside the convent's walls similar to the life of the Dominicans.
“Start being brave about everything. Drive out darkness and spread light. Don’ look at your weaknesses. Realize instead that in Christ crucified you can do everything.”
Saint Catherine fell ill with an illness that caused a rash across much of her body, a terrible fever and intense pain. Her mother brought her to the baths in Bagno Vignoni to help restore her health and relented in Saint Catherine's wish to join the Mantellate - the local association of devout laywomen. By joining this group, Saint Catherine was not only able to live her solitary life of prayer but was also given the opportunity to learn how to read and write. It was during this time she also learned a technique for dealing with trouble in her life -
"Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee."
In this inner cell Saint Catherine would make her father a representation of Jesus and her mother a representation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. By doing so she saw the opportunity for serving them, a way to increase spiritual growth. At 21 Saint Catherine experienced what she would refer to as a "Mystical Marriage with Jesus". In her vision she also heard the words of Jesus who told her to abandon her inner, withdrawn life and enter into the public life of the world to carry out His will. She rejoined with her family in activities and began to care for the ill and poor either in their own homes or the hospitals they were receiving care in. She soon attracted a group of pious followers around her.
In May of 1374 Saint Catherine travelled to Florence where she met Raymond of Capua who she asked to be her spiritual director and advisor. Following the success of her to trip to Florence, Saint Catherine began travelling with her followers to several towns in northern and central Italy, advocating reform for the clergy and repentance through total love of God. In 1375 she travelled to Pisa and used her now considerable influence to help sway the city and and the nearby city of Lucca to not join in the alliance with the anti-papal league. It was here in Pisa that Saint Catherine first bore Stigmata. In 1376 Saint Catherine was sent as the ambassador of the Republic of Florence to Avignon in an attempt to make peace with the Papal States. She was able to convince Pope Gregory XI, the last Avignon to return to Rome which he did in 1377.
In November of 1378, Saint Catherine was summoned to Rome when the Western Schism began. In Rome she advocated for Pope Urban VI, tirelessly convincing nobles and cardinals of his legitimacy. The many years of extreme fasting began to take a visible toll on her health and Raymond soon stepped in as her spiritual director, asking her to begin eating properly. Saint Catherine found that she could no longer eat and had extreme difficulty drinking. On February 26th, Saint Catherine informed Raymond that she had lost feeling in both legs. On April 20th, Saint Catherine experienced a terrible stroke, leaving her completely paralyzed from the waist down.
On April 29th, 1380, Saint Catherine said her final words:
"Father, into Your Hands I commend my soul and my spirit."
Saint Catherine was initially buried in the cemetery of Santa Maria sopra Minerva near the Pantheon but was moved at the request of Raymond to the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva when several miracles at her grave were reported. Her head was inserted into a gilt bust of bronze and the incorrupt head was entombed in the Basilica of San Domenico at Siena. On June 29th, 1461, Pope Pius II formally canonized her a saint. On October 1970, Pope Paul VI named Saint Catherine a Doctor of the Church alongside Saint Teresa of Avila.
Her feast day was originally set for April 29th when it was inserted into the General Roman Calendar in 1597. In 1628 the feast day was moved to April 30th as it conflicted with Saint Peter of Verona's feast day but in the 1969 revision it was moved back to April 29th. Pope Pius IX declared Saint Catherine to be the co-patroness of Rome on April 13th, 1866. On June 18th, 1939, Pope Pius XII named her a joint patron of Italy (alongside Saint Francis of Assisi). Saint Pope John Paul II made her one of Europe's patron saints along side Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and Saint Bridget of Sweden.