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Definition: Catherine of Siena from Collins English Dictionary


1 Saint. 1347–80, Italian mystic and ascetic; patron saint of the Dominican order. Feast day: April 29

Summary Article: Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
from The Encyclopedia of Christian Civilization

Caterina di Iacopo di Benincasa was born in 1347 in Siena. At age 6, Catherine experienced a vision of Christ dressed in papal robes. This first vision influenced her decision at a young age to be dedicated to Christ as a virgin and Dominican. After the experience she began ascetic practices.

As a young woman, Catherine resisted her family's wishes that she marry, and persuaded a Siennese group of widowed laywomen, known as the Mantellate, who lived according to Dominican practices, to let her join them. This group was involved in active ministry, but Catherine chose a life of solitude and silence, for 3 years rarely leaving her room except for church services, until her constant prayers convinced her that her love for God must include a more active form of love for others.

Catherine began to serve the sick and the poor, the typical duties of the Mantellate, but her ministry quickly expanded. She was one of the first female saints to make converts and serve as a spiritual director. She also traveled and worked outside of Sienna, journeying to Avignon where she helped influence Pope Gregory XI's decision to end the Babylonian Captivity of the papacy. Her final months were spent in Rome, where she tried to influence church leaders against schism during the reign of Pope Urban VI.

Although she began an active life, her mysticism and ascetic practices remained central. In 1375, shortly before her travels on behalf of the church, Catherine received the stigmata. After her active efforts on behalf of the church failed, she spent her time in intense fasting and prayer. She died in 1380, at the age of 33.

Catherine was a prolific letter writer, and her recipients included the nobility, leaders of the church, and criminals. She both conveyed news and preached in these letters. Her friends recorded 26 of Catherine's spontaneous prayers. Her most influential work is The Dialogue of Divine Providence, which Catherine dictated from 1377 to 1378. This work was inspired by a mystical experience and she wrote it as a conversation with God. Catherine was the first woman to be published in the Italian language. Her writings were translated as early as 1415, when the Dialogue was translated into Middle English under the title The Orcherd of Syon.

Catherine had no formal schooling, and learned to read later in life, but her work is an orthodox synthesis of other spiritual writings in an original and notable form. In 1970, she was accorded the title of Doctor of the Roman Catholic Church, a title shared by Teresa of Avila.

One central idea in Catherine's thought is her conception of God as Truth and Love, two qualities that always exist together in him, and which are revealed in Jesus Christ. Catherine's concern for Truth is linked to her practice of preaching, because she believed that those who knew the Truth had the responsibility of sharing it with others. Another important image in Catherine's writing is Christ on the cross as the bridge that crosses the chasm made by sin.

SEE ALSO: Mysticism; Prison Ministry; Stigmata

References and Suggested Readings
  • Catherine of Sienna (1980). The dialogue (ed. and trans. S. Noffke; G. Cavallini). Paulist Press Mahwah, NJ.
  • Raymond of Capua (2003). The life of St. Catherine of Sienna (ed. and trans. Lamb, G. ). Tan Books Rockford, IL.
  • Amanda Weppler
    K. Sarah-Jane Murray
    Wiley ©2012

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