The Contagious Compassion of Catherine of Siena
These are disturbing times: We cannot escape news of the global AIDS crisis, the impending flu pandemic, the plight of political prisoners, the resurgence of ethnic cleansing and genocide, and the failure of leaders. The last century's fascination with progress has given way to longings for hope and belonging.
Harvard historian Clarissa Atkinson has observed, "Today, an awareness of dangers we can't seem to stop makes us, in some ways, more like medieval people than like our own great grandparents." If so, there may be no better mentor for us than the medieval saint and Doctor of the Church, Catherine of Siena. She lived in a time of almost apocalyptic fear. The Black Death and the institutional convulsions of the Catholic Church caused a devastated populace to cry out. Catherine stepped courageously beyond her own fears and society's conventions to heal the sick, speak truth to papal authority, and build a network characterized by dialogue and reconciliation in Christ's name.
Rebel in Rearing
Catherine Benincasa was born in 1347, probably the 23rd of 25 children. As a young girl, she was known for her unquenchable cheer and golden brown hair. At age six, while walking home from church with siblings, she had a vision of Christ smiling and blessing her. The sense of affirmation that God was calling her to ministry was powerful and permanent.
Though her mother longed for a "normal" daughter, Catherine refused to be stereotypically feminine. On one occasion, she frantically chopped off her hair in hopes of being rejected by a suitor and being taken seriously by her family. She was steadfastly devoted to God's call and even dreamed of joining a monastery disguised as a boy. She did not want to marry or become a nun, yearning instead to serve God in her own way.
After great perseverance, she persuaded her family to let her join the Third Order of Saint Dominic at the age of 16. She participated in the community's devotional activities (in addition to her own stringent disciplines) while she lived at home, largely in her room. Seeking purity, humility, and communion with God, she wrestled for three years to gain dominion over her heart and fleshly impulses. Hers was a total surrender, with Word and sacrament as the foundation.
These three years concluded with a fervent awakening to the needs of the world outside. God led her away from thinking that she could not help her neighbor without losing her mind ("I want only to do good," she thought, "but let it be my way.") And he gave her a devotion that reflected Jesus' words: "Not my will, but yours be done." Arguably, the supreme test of her Christian character was her response to the most devastating pandemic in human history—the Black Death—and its aftermath.
"They Died by the Hundreds"
In the mid-1330s, there were initial reports of a widespread epidemic in China. Traders carried the infection to the Middle East and Europe. Contemporaries called it "the Great Mortality" and "the Black Death" because the skin of sufferers would often become blackened from infected lesions and hemorrhages beneath the skin. As more than half of the local population in many areas died, traditional social systems broke down and economies were left in upheaval. Dread and depression shrouded the land. One survivor in Siena described the scene:
Father abandoned child, wife husband, one brother another, for this illness seemed to strike through the breath and sight. … Members of a household brought their dead to a ditch as best they could, without priest, without divine offices … and they died by the hundreds both day and night. … I, Agnolo di Tura, the Fat, buried my five children with my own hands. And there were also those who were so sparsely covered with earth that the dogs dragged them forth and devoured many bodies throughout the city. There was no one who wept for any death, for all awaited death. And so many died that all believed it was the end of the world.
How did survivors respond? The Florentine author Boccaccio offered readers an escapist world of denial, fantasy, and indulgence. Others relentlessly (often religiously) reminded people of impending death in literature, the visual arts, dance, and by penitential flagellation. Still others became profiteers in a time of economic scarcity and institutional malaise.
Catherine would have none of this. Instead, she faced the grim realities and found hope in God as the greatest Reality of all. The result was a courageous, compassionate, and creative path of ministry. Catherine's devotion to the sick was as contagious as the Plague itself, charismatically drawing others to touch lives and transform situations. In the midst of poverty, terror, and stench, she and her entourage spread the aroma of Christ through selfless service.
Catherine resolved to love as Jesus loved in all circumstances. While tending to a widow with breast cancer that had eaten away her flesh, for example, Catherine was overwhelmed by nausea due to the horrible odor. So she forced her face into the oozing, open sore—skin on skin—reprimanding herself, "Ah, you presume to abhor this sister, who has been redeemed by the blood of the Savior, do you—you who could fall into the same sickness or an even worse one? As God lives you shall not remain unpunished!" Despite the patient's horror, she would not retreat until the Spirit had conquered the rebellion of her flesh.
While many she touched were overcome by physical ills, others struggled with injustice and the ills of a devastated society. One prisoner, caught in the grip of a system plagued by rivalry and power plays, sought Catherine's company in the moments before his beheading. "I have just taken a head into my hands and have been moved so deeply that my heart cannot grasp it," she told her confessor Raymond of Capua. "I waited for him at the place of execution … he arrived like a meek lamb and when he saw me he began to smile. He asked me to make the sign of the cross over him … I stretched out his neck and bent down to him, reminding him of the blood of the Lamb. His lips kept murmuring only 'Jesus' and 'Catherine,' and he was still murmuring when I received his head into my hands … my soul rested in peace and quiet, so aware of the fragrance of blood that I could not remove the blood which had splashed onto me."
Preachin' it to the Pope
Catherine's courage and compassion spilled into other activities as well, changing views of women's roles in the process. She was unconcerned about making a mark as a woman in ministry and more consumed by Christ's call for her to be a woman who ministers. As Pope Paul VI said when he named Catherine a Doctor of the Church in 1970, hers was a "charism of exhortation." She believed that purposeful, articulate communication was the key to personal care and conflict resolution alike.
It was Catherine who boldly informed Pope Gregory XI of the "rotten members who rebel against you." She commanded him to leave Avignon, where the papacy had become a French puppet, and return to Rome: "Be manly and not fearful. Answer God who is calling you to take possession of the place of the glorious shepherd, Saint Peter, who you represent. Restore to Holy Church the heart of burning charity which she has lost: she is all pale because iniquitous men have drained her blood. Come, Father!"
Such exhortations to the pope were a small part of Catherine's extensive correspondence. Her nearly 400 surviving letters and other writings bear witness to her widespread influence. She asked questions that others did not dare to ask, and demanded responses. Her communications raised popular awareness, rallied support for change, fostered reconciliation and healing, and unified Christians in service.
Living and Loving for God
The title of Catherine's most famous work, The Dialogue, expresses her life's theme. Catherine actively sought to restore wholeness and find the best possible outcome in each situation—a ministry made possible by her rich, deepening dialogue with God. In The Dialogue she records the Lord's innermost conversations with her: "Your love should be sincere: you should love your neighbors with the same love with which you love Me."
In the fearful chaos of her own "Dark Ages"—fraught with plague, schism, poverty, and fragmentation—Catherine's voice emerged with clarity and compassion. Her own mother, who had previously thwarted Catherine's attempts to live unconventionally for God, joined the Dominican Third Order after being widowed, and worked closely with Catherine and imitated her life. Catherine's life challenges us today as it exemplifies P. T. Forsyth's advice: "You must live with people to know their problems, and live with God in order to solve them."
James D. Smith III is associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary of San Diego and lecturer at the university of San Diego. Kimberly Dawsey-Richardson is associate pastor at Fletcher Hills Presbyterian in El Cajon, California.
Copyright © 2007 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History & Biography.
Support Our Work
Subscribe to CT for less than $4.25/month