Catherine of Siena lived her remarkable Christian life during the chaos and violence of the fourteenth century. While the medieval order was dying, she labored for peace, reform, and the renewal of the human spirit.

Following Christ’s instruction, Catherine believed it was her duty to reform the church, to evangelize, and to comfort the sick, poor, and condemned. She was an activist in an age when a woman’s religious vocation was supposed to be confined and apart from the world. Warmed by divine love from her intimate experience of God, Catherine proclaimed a personal faith in Jesus Christ that touches contemporary Christians with its conviction and immediacy.

Youthful Devotion

She was born Caterina di Icopo di Benincasa in the spring of 1347. Her home in Tuscany was torn by civil and ecclesiastical conflict. The great Italian city-states, including Catherine’s own Siena, were making an uneasy transition from feudal society and economy to early modern republicanism and commercial capitalism. Catherine and her generation of Italians endured frequent wars and threats of invasion.

Catherine’s birth into a middle-class wool dyer’s family caused scarcely a ripple; she was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. While still a small girl, about 7, Catherine was touched by the extraordinary movement of the Holy Spirit in her community and saw a vision of Jesus with Peter, Paul, and John the evangelist. She announced her determination to live some sort of special religious life. Alarmed, her father Jacobo and mother Lupa tried to divert her into the customary preparation for marriage and children. In spite of coercion and punishment, during which she was forced to act as a maid in her parents’ house, she remained steadfast. At age 15 she even cut off her hair to thwart pressures to marry.

Choosing the “Third Way”

The early death of Catherine’s sister Bonaventura, a model young wife, appeared to seal Catherine’s determination to enter a religious vocation where life might seem more than a brief, transitory experience. The great question was, What kind of religious life?

Catherine did not want to be an ordinary nun, either active or contemplative. And the exotic life of the perpetually enclosed anchorite (see “Terms of the Religious Life) did not appeal to her. Her childhood experiences of religion predicted a mystical approach to the faith. At the same moment, Catherine was an active person, in body as well as mind. Christian service, traditionally offered by religious women to the poor and sick, attracted her.

Her cousin and first confessor, Tommaso della Fonte, was a Dominican priest, and he encouraged her to think in terms of the great mendicant reform orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic. Committed to preaching and service, these begging orders represented the last popular internal reform in the church prior to the Protestant Reformation. In 1363, Catherine joined the Third Order of the Dominicans. Thus, she chose a “third way,” the life of the religious lay woman.

The Third Order provided a satisfying way for lay people to participate in the formal religious life. Catherine could live at home and direct her own activities. She was younger (age 16) than her fellows and rather bossy, but from the first she became an influence and formed her own famiglia, those men and women who found her especially appealing and devout.

Her spiritual family included many old friends, and new people, of whom Bartolomeo Dominici was most important. He joined Catherine in 1368 as her second confessor. Young and brilliant, Bartolomeo encouraged his charge to expand her horizons. During this period, Catherine learned to read. Precisely what she read can only be deduced from her later writings. However, it is clear she read the Bible, especially the Gospels. Her favorite apostolic sources were John and Paul. Of the church fathers, she became familiar with Gregory the Great and Augustine. Her language also reveals that she became deeply familiar with the popular preachers of the day.

Calling for Conversion

From 1370 to 1374, Catherine continued serving the poor of Siena. However, she became increasingly interested in evangelism; the conversion of all sorts of sinners preoccupied her. Catherine did not have a sense of the profound conditions of class and status that defined the people of her time. In a kind, pedantic, scolding way she entreated all people to repent and be saved.

At this moment, Neri di Landoccio Pagliaresi, a Tuscan poet of some fame, joined her spiritual family. He became her secretary and greatly expedited her correspondence. She had not as yet learned to write. To Neri she dictated the letters that carried her ministry throughout Italy.

From these early letters we can discern the great themes of Catherine’s ministry. She wrote to everyone, pleading for personal conversion and public reform. Sermons and advice were directed evenly at family and friends, princes, nuns, warlords, the pope, and quite ordinary sinners whom she did not know but about whom she had heard. The core of her thought was not original, but she provocatively synthesized theological ideas in a fresh and lively rhetoric.

Catherine’s Theology

At the heart of Catherine’s teaching was the image of Christ the redeemer—ablaze with fiery charity, eager sacrifice, and unqualified forgiveness. In Christ’s sacrifice, life was engrafted into death so that we who were dead acquired life. And it was not the cross or nails that held Christ to the tree; those were not strong enough to hold the God-Man. No, it was love that held him there.

Catherine’s theology included these motifs: truth, virtue, and love are primary manifestations of God; love for God and love for neighbor are indivisible; the church is the one indispensable vehicle for continuing Christ’s life in the world.

Catherine became so popular that she was encouraged to attend the general chapter of the Dominicans that met in Florence in 1374. While there, she met a young priest, Raymond of Capua, who was appointed by the head of the Dominican Order as her third confessor. In Raymond, Catherine found her most sympathetic friend and her chief biographer.

Should Women Take on Missions?

Her return to Siena was darkened by a visitation of the Black Death, which had first struck the city in the year of her birth. Catherine and her followers stayed in town to care for the sick and the dead. (See “The Black Death.”)

When the crisis abated, she began to consider the larger topics of public reform. Doubtlessly, she had heard these discussed in Florence. She contemplated the whole of Italy as an arena for her ministry.

At first, Catherine was hurt by criticism that while she, a woman, might do good, even evangelize, at home under the protection of her relatives and followers, it was shameful for her to contemplate distant missions. Typically, she turned inward to prayer and contemplation. Finally, she was able to report that God had answered her entreaties as follows: “Does it not depend on My will where I shall pour out my grace? With me there is no longer male or female, lower and upper classes, but all are equal in My sight.”

With Raymond and two other comrades, Tommaso and Bartolomeo, she set out for Pisa to preach a crusade. It was natural for Catherine to cherish the crusading principle, the most romantic cause of her age. As the times grew more violent, the crusades also offered hope for an instant solution to the problem of an oversupply of fighting men in Europe. In a letter to the most infamous mercenary of the day, John Hawkwood, she argued that he might be transposed into a hero, a soldier of the faith, if he would quit Italy and turn his weapons on the infidel. Like the greatest of medieval reformers, Francis of Assisi, Catherine dreamed of the liberation of the Holy Land and its restoration to Christian hands.

Spiritual “Betrothal” to Christ

In all her public works, Catherine was sustained by intense mystical experiences. During prayer, she often collapsed in rapture. Indeed, in her letters, and probably in her sermons, Catherine was transported into ecstasy. During one such instance, she envisioned her own spiritual espousal or betrothal to Christ. This was a familiar image for medieval people. It represented to Catherine the union with the Godhead that all mystics sought to achieve through intense and loving contemplation. To modern Christians such imagery may seem inappropriate, but late medieval faith often expressed union with God in terms from the most intimate human union.

Mystical experience always led Catherine back into the world to serve. As she wrote of herself: “ … she addressed petitions to the most high and eternal Father, holding up her desire for herself first of all—for she knew she could be of no service to her neighbors in teaching or example or prayer, without first doing herself the service of attaining virtue.” With virtue, actions were done for God’s sake alone. “The important thing is not to love Me for your own sake, or your neighbor for your own sake, but to love Me for Myself, yourself for Myself, your neighbor for Myself.”

Freeing a Captive Church

In common with most reformers of her day, Catherine believed that the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the papacy was the great ecclesiastical tragedy of the times and the direct source of much clerical corruption. In the early fourteenth century, the papacy had removed to Avignon, divorcing itself from the special sanctity of its Roman roots. Popes became captive to the French monarchy.

In 1376 Catherine attempted to mediate a quarrel between Pope Gregory XI and the city of Florence, which he had placed under interdict. In a series of letters, Catherine boldly instructed the pope on the underlying problems of the church and charged him to return to Rome and deal with them: “Respond to the Holy Spirit who is calling you! I tell you: Come! Come! Come! Don’t wait for time, because time isn’t waiting for you.”

One year later, after Catherine had visited with him in Avignon, Gregory XI finally entered Rome. It was the great moment of her public life. She continued to act for the pope among the people of Tuscany and almost lost her life when, in Florence, she was attacked by an anti-papal mob.

Her Last Effort

During this difficult and dangerous time, Catherine learned to write. She began to describe her mystical experiences in The Dialogue, which she referred to simply as “my book.” Even as her public work failed and her health began to collapse, Catherine’s spiritual life intensified. She dictated to secretaries most of this great summary of her Christian life. Its essence lay in the simplicity of Catherine’s theology:

“A soul rises up, restless with tremendous desire for God’s honor and the salvation of souls. She has for some time exercised herself in virtue and has become accustomed to dwelling in the cell of self-knowledge in order to know better God’s goodness toward her, since upon knowledge follows love. And loving, she seeks to pursue truth and clothe herself in it.”

In 1378 Gregory XI died and was replaced by Urban VI, a difficult and rather cruel man. A rival pope soon appeared. It was the beginning of the Great Schism, and Catherine moved to Rome to assist Pope Urban. In spite of acute disappointment, she was able to complete The Dialogue.

Her public reforms had failed. The papacy was in worse condition than it had ever been. Nevertheless, Catherine’s last effort, The Dialogue remained as a tribute to the grace and power of her experience of God.

Catherine died in Rome on April 29, 1380 leaving the world in greater disorder and pain than she had found it. She left also a record of her splendid personal achievement, a life in Christ, detailed in letters and The Dialogue.

In years to come she would be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, and in 1970 she was made one of two women which that church recognizes as Doctors of Theology. For Christians everywhere, Catherine of Siena provides a special and moving insight into the life of faith.

Caroline T. Marshall is Professor of History at James Madison University in Harrisonburg Virginia, and a contributor to The History of Christianity (Lion, 1977).