Wednesday, April 30, 2008

St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine's feast day was really yesterday, but better late than never!

St. Catherine of Siena is sort of a popular saint for modern consecrated virgins living in the world, as she is one of the very few female saints in the Middle Ages era who lived her vocation as a spouse of Christ outside of a cloistered monastery. She was Dominican, but instead of being a second-order nun (like the Dominican Nuns of Summit, NJ, who also have a blog) she was rather a member of a non-enclosed women's third-order group (which would be roughly equivalent to today's active Dominican sisters, like the Nashville Dominicans or the Dominican Sisters of Mary).

But although today St. Catherine would probably be considered a religious (she considered herself one) and not a consecrated virgin technically speaking, there is a lot about her life that I find personally relevant and inspiring.

That being said, her life story is more phenomenal and extraordinary than those of even most saints! We do know quite a bit about her because her spiritual director, Bl. Raymond of Capua, wrote an extensive biography. Even though most of the recorded events of her life sound like medieval, made-up, pious legends, if you actually read the book you can see the pains which Bl. Raymond took to verify what he recorded. He names witnesses to everything, and then gives his assessment as to how reliable those witnesses were.

St. Catherine was born in 1347 to a middle-class family in Siena, Italy, the twenty-third of twenty-four children. She had her first vision of Christ when she was six years old, and afterwards decided to dedicate her life to God. As a girl her piety was so "over the top" that it drew a lot of attention from the neighbors. In her own household, she created a good deal of family strife when as a young teenager she refused to marry the suitor her parents had chosen for her, and when she requested her own room so that she could spend the majority of her time in prayer and solitude.

Her family did eventually come around though, especially when her father looked in on her when she was praying once and saw a white dove floating over her head!

When she was maybe fourteen, she had a vision in which she was mystically espoused to Jesus (He gave her a ring that stayed on her finger, but which only she could see). After this, she left her cell so that she could perform acts of charity for other people. A few years later, she joined the local Dominican third order association, despite the objections about her young age. Subsequently, she developed a following and was called "Mother" by almost everyone who knew her (the one exception being her own natural mother, who wouldn't stand for it).

The rest of her life story is filled with miracles and heroic acts of kindness. She also dictated several books, which allowed her to be named one of the first two female Doctors of the Church.
But perhaps her most notable deeds were her ultimately successful efforts to end the Avignon Papacy by persuading the Pope to move back to his own proper See at Rome. This was a huge accomplishment in the preservation of the Church's unity, and it profoundly effected the course of history. To provide continued consolation and encouragement for the Holy Father St. Catherine stayed with him in Rome, where she died when she was only thirty-three. For this reason, St. Catherine is the patroness of the city of Rome.

Obviously, I am not aspiring to be a miracle worker or someone who tells pontiffs what to do. But I find that reading about St. Catherine does help me not to lose my nerve! Sometimes I feel awkward because I have such an unusual vocation, or I worry that my efforts to live a prayerful life irk some of my classmates.

Still, I remember what St. Catherine once said, "If we were all what we were meant to be, we would set the world on fire." I think that if we do our best at every moment to do what we believe God wants (no matter what!), we can trust that He will do wonderful things through us.

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