While it is said that all saints enjoy the beatific vision, it may yet be said that there are saints, and then there are saints: those so accustomed to visions, prophecies, raptures and ecstasies that such encounters with the divine are normal expressions of their everyday life. These special souls experience so many extraordinary manifestations of grace, even for a saint, that they may truly be called the elect among the elect. Catherine Benincasa (Catherine of Sienna) was one such saint, and many legends surround her life.
She was the twenty fourth and next to last child born to Jacopo and Lapa Benincasa. Perhaps the special bond between mother and daughter resulted from Catherine being the only baby Lapa was able to breast feed, but Catherine's unique personality may have had something to do with it too. Whatever the reason, Lapa's ties to Catherine made her fierce when Catherine didn't do what Lapa thought she ought to. This happened frequently.
Jacopo was a just man with a good reputation in Siena. His wages as a wool dyer allowed him to provide for his large family. Like Lapa, Jacopo formed a special bond with Catherine, but the tie between father and daughter was a well of deep water compared to the white water frenzy Lapa tended to whip up with her youngest daughter. Lapa held the common belief that it was her Christian duty as a mother to see that her children married, so they could have large families of their own and thus work out their salvation in fear, trembling, and fatigue. According to legends, however, by age seven Catherine had already taken a vow of virginity that, despite Lapa’s efforts, would prove unbreakable.
The vow was young Catherine’s response to a vision she had. She saw the sky open up above her, revealing Jesus and Apostles Peter, Paul, and John. Jesus looked down at Catherine, smiled, and blessed her with the sign of the cross. She gave herself to God with these words:
Some months later, after much prayer and mortification, Catherine felt led to invoke the Blessed Virgin Mary, “the first among women to consecrate for ever by a vow your virginity to the Lord,” to promise that “to no other spouse will I ever give myself, but in my own humble measure I too will keep my virginity for ever spotless for him.“
Her vow was tested by her sisters and mother, who were relentless in their attempts to marry Catherine. When Catherine cut her hair off to make herself less attractive to suitors she was punished by being made the family maid. She performed her numerous duties, and the torrent of abuse that accompanied them, in obedience and with good cheer. Nevertheless it was a sore trial, and to persevere Catherine prayed constantly, often praying the prayer of Saint Cecilia, who used the words of David: “May my heart be stainless, and my body too.”
Jacopo was impressed with Catherine’s resolve. Legend has it that one day he saw Catherine praying, a small white dove poised motionless above her bent head. Jacopo witnessed this occurrence several times. The prayers were answered by a dream in which St. Dominic appeared to her, holding in one hand a white lily unconsumed by the flames surrounding it, and holding in his other hand a Dominican habit. “Be of good courage,” he told her. “Do not lose heart, no matter what the odds against you. Be assured that you will one day wear this habit which you long for.”
Emboldened by this confirmation, Catherine called a family meeting. She had not protested her ill treatment, she said, due to the honor she owed her father and mother. But as far as marriage went, she had to obey God, not man, and to God she had promised her virginity. Consequently, attempts to marry her must end.
“If you are willing to keep me in your house on this condition,” she told them, “even as a servant-maid if you so desire, I for my part am willing to serve you with pleasure, to the best of my knowledge and ability. But if you decide that I must, because of my resolve, be banished form your home, then rest assured that my heart will not deviate one jot from its resolution. I have a Spouse of boundless wealth and power who will never let me lack for anything, but will unfailingly supply my every need.“
Catherine’s words reminded Jacopo of the white dove he had seen over her head. “Fulfill your vow freely and do what the Holy Ghost will inspire you to do,“ he told Catherine. To his family he ordered: “From now on let no one dare to molest this child. Let her serve her Spouse freely and pray for us.“ He also allowed Catherine her own room, a significant concession in a large family.
There is a legend that Catherine used the privacy to accelerate her prayer life and physical mortifications. It is said that she prayed and fasted almost continually, consuming only water and raw vegetables. She slept on bare wooden planks, with an iron chain wrapped around her torso, under her clothing. Following the example of St. Dominic, she used the chain as a discipline three times a day, drawing blood each time. The first was for herself, the second for the living, and the third for the dead.
The sound of the clanking chain made Lapa hysterical. She had given up trying to marry her youngest daughter but it was not too late to save her life. Lapa would physically intervene to, as she saw it, save Catherine from herself. Catherine submitted to her mother’s intervention, then continued her mortifications as soon as it was prudent to do so. Lapa’s love for Catherine was more human than Jacopo’s supernatural love, so it was probably impossible for her not to intervene. She saw Catherine emaciated and wounded, and subject to illnesses that wracked her frail frame. It was harder for her to see Catherine’s growing joy and peace, the vibrant energy with which she spoke of God, and the surprising strength by which she was able to perform her assigned chores, as fruits of her prayer and penance.
These fruits were readily apparent to the Dominican Sisters who visited Catherine. Initially Catherine’s application was refused without an interview because of her young age. When the Sisters actually visited and talked with Catherine, however, they were captivated by the girl‘s common sense, humility, and most of all, the burning words of love for God that poured from her heart. She was accepted, and in 1363 was received into the Order of The Sisters of Penance of Saint Dominic.
They were known in Siena as the Mantellate, for the large black mantles worn over their white tunics. Originally a militia formed by St. Dominic for defense of Church property, the Order became penitential after Dominic‘s death. Since it was a third Order (some Mantellate were married) no religious vows were required. Nevertheless, Catherine made and kept internal vows of chastity, poverty and obedience.
According to legend, upon entering the Order Catherine cloistered herself in her room for three years, leaving only to assist at Mass, and speaking only in the confessional. Her life consisted of fasting and physical mortifications, of visions and daily extended communications with God, when her Master burned doctrine into her soul:
“Do you know, daughter, who you are and who I am? If you know these two things you have beatitude in your grasp. You are she who is not, and I AM HE WHO IS. Let your soul but become penetrated with this truth… and you will have set your feet on the royal road which leads to the fullness of grace, and truth, and light.”
Another legend has it that in response to Catherine’s fervent pleas for more faith and virtue, Jesus told her:
“I will espouse you to me in faith. From now on,” he told her, “you must never falter about accepting any task my providence may lay upon your shoulders. Remember, you have been confirmed in faith, and will prevail over all your enemies.”
France was the predominant European power in Catherine’s century. While protecting the Papacy in its conflicts with Germany, the alliance between Rome and France was beneficial for both parties. When Philip the Fair became ruler of France, however, he sought to subordinate the papacy to his rule, going so far as to have his henchmen seize the aged Pope Boniface VIII. The pope was beaten and died shortly afterwards.
After Boniface’s successor, Benedict XI, was found dead (it was rumored he was poisoned) after excommunicating Philip’s allies, Philip engineered the election of French Archbishop Bertrand de Got, who named himself Clement V. Crowned in France, and, surrounded by French cardinals, Clement began the nearly seventy year period of French popes residing in France, and dependent upon the French monarchy. This was known as “The Babylonian captivity” of the papacy.
“O good beginning, to what a vile conclusion thou must stoop,” wrote Dante of the relationship between the Papacy and France during this period. The vile conclusions hit hardest in Italy. Without the Pope as a principle of unity, and the papacy with its political and financial benefits, Italy fractured into dozens of warring factions and descended into anarchy.
Catherine Benincasa began her public life during the pontificate of Avignon Pope Gregory XI. Gregory was a good man, but weak, and easily swayed by his French advisors. Catherine’s first letter to Gregory is a masterpiece of charity and boldness. Her “hint that the ‘sweet Christ on earth’ lacks self knowledge is made so delicately that offense could not be taken, yet as she proceeds the indirect suggestion becomes unmistakable.” Catherine closes her letter:
"I hope by the goodness of God, venerable father mine, that you will quench this in yourself, and will not love yourself for yourself, nor your neighbor for yourself, nor God; but will love Him because He is highest and eternal goodness...I wish and pray in truth that the moment of times which remains be dealt with manfully, following Christ, whose vicar you are, like a strong man...Have a care for spiritual things alone, for good shepherds, good rulers, in your cities - since on account of bad shepherds and rulers you have encountered rebellion.”
The rulers Catherine referred to were the scornful French legates sent by Gregory to restore order in Italy. Their heavy handed solutions only inflamed matters, creating a situation that was exploited by men like Duke Bernabo Visconti, a Milan warlord known for crushing his subjects through taxation, and murdering and torturing priests - and anyone else who crossed him. When Bernabo’s violent seizure of papal territories caused Gregory to excommunicate him, Visconti forced the hapless legates who served him the bull of excommunication “to eat it - parchment, seal, silk cords and all - meanwhile shouting obscene insults at them.“
Undaunted by papal censure, Bernabo sought to exploit anti-papal sentiment by instigating the Tuscan rebellions, which involved Catherine’s home, Siena. Bernabo sent his ambassadors to Siena to visit Catherine, and “to justify himself in her sight for his cruel and arbitrary actions against ‘the Lord’s christs.’” Catherine’s responded by writing Visconti a letter, admonishing him to “be a sound member of holy Church, not a gangrenous one,” a reference to Bernabo’s excommunication. Catherine told Bernabo his violence against priests made him “liable to the sentence of eternal death,” and summed up:
"So we would be foolish to break away from this vicar (the Pope) or to
act against the one who holds the keys to the blood of Christ crucified.
Even if that vicar were a devil incarnate, I must not defy him but always
humble myself and ask for the blood for mercy's sake. There is no other way
you can have or share in the fruit of the blood…”
Bernabo was unable to avail himself of Catherine’s counsel. Among his other transgressions, at one time in his life he was estimated to be the father of thirty-seven children and responsible for the condition of eighteen pregnant women. He was captured and imprisoned by his nephew, who seized Bernabo’s domains and had the “iron fisted despot of Milan” bled to death in 1385.
Italy would not be healed overnight. There was too little time left to Gregory to mend the wounds of the Avignon papacy, even if one pope would have been able to do so. He died a year later, pining, it is said, for Avignon.
He was not alone, as evidenced by the Great Schism that broke out during the pontificate of his successor, Urban VI. The conclave that elected Urban was held amidst violence and confusion. Italians were determined to have an Italian successor to the string of French popes, and were not shy about voicing their opinions. Nevertheless, Urban’s election was a valid one, as attested to at the time by the very French cardinals who would later claim his election was invalid.
At issue was Urban’s desire to expunge the papacy and the Curia from the French influence of the Avignon papacy. This would have caused problems even for a patient pope, but Urban was neither patient nor prudent. He was in fact so violent and personally abusive in his reform efforts that his very personality hastened the schism. Yet “the outbreak of the schism,” writes Dr. Ludwig Pastor, “was chiefly due to the worldly Cardinals, stirred up by France, and longing to return thither.”
This was Catherine’s belief as well. Calling the electors of the Gallican pope, Clement VII, “devils in human form,” and calling Clement himself “an Anti-Christ,” she blistered prelate and cardinal alike: “O ye fools! A thousand times worthy of death! In your blindness you perceive not your own shame…” She threw herself publicly into vindicating Urban’s claim to the papacy. Privately, she anguished that her influence on Gregory had contributed to, and even caused, the schism. That the Dominican General declared himself for Clement VII only increased Catherine’s anguish, as now she appeared disobedient to her Order as well.
The Chalice of Saint Catherine
In fact it was the Avignon papacy that led to the schism, which was not resolved in Catherine’s lifetime. She survived Urban’s election by only two years. To say these last two years were a time of accelerated suffering is not intended to minimize the sufferings Catherine endured her whole life. She often appeared near death, either because of illness, very little sleep, or because she appeared to subsist, in the last third of her life, entirely on the Blessed Sacrament, finding even water repugnant. Legend has it that during one swoon it was announced she had died, but Catherine unexpectedly revived. Her entire being radiant, she said simply, “Vidi arcana Dei: I have seen the hidden things of God.” Like St. Paul, who often appeared to her, Catherine could say no more about her visit to the heavens.
Once she was in Pisa, in ecstasy after receiving Holy Communion from Raymond of Capua, when suddenly she pitched forward as if dead. When she regained her senses she told Raymond:
“I saw Our Lord, fastened to the cross, coming down upon me in a blaze of light…Then I saw, springing from the marks of his most sacred wounds, five blood-red rays coming down upon me, directed towards my hands and feet and heart. I promptly cried out: ‘Ah, Lord my God, I implore you not to let the marks show outwardly on my body.’ Whilst these words were still upon my lips, before the rays had reached me, their blood-red color changed to radiant brightness, and it was in the form of clearest light that they fell upon the five parts of my body - hands, feet and heart.”
Raymond asked her if she was in pain. Catherine sighed: “So intense is the pain I feel in those five parts, and especially in my heart, that I believe that nothing but a further miracle of our Lord will make it possible to survive such suffering. In a few days, it must be the end of me.”
During a rest period in Siena she dictated, in four days, The Dialogue. Three secretaries spelled each other as Catherine, absorbed in ecstasy, spoke without stopping. The result was a continuous narrative between Catherine and God that has become a classic in religious literature, and led to Catherine being named a Doctor of the Church. One of many memorable passages has God instructing Catherine of the relationship between Christ’s death and the papacy. Christ’s “blood and death, by the power of My divine nature joined with his human nature, unlocked eternal life. And to whom did He leave the keys to this blood? To the glorious apostle Peter and to all the others (popes)…Christ on earth, then, has the keys to the blood.”
According to another legend Catherine saw the Church, “stained with impurity and self-love,” Christ told her: “take thy tears and sweat, drawing them from the fountain of My divine charity, and cleanse her face.” Catherine said, “Take then my heart, and may Thy Bride lean her face upon it.” Later she told Raymond of Capua: “Then Eternal God, turning upon me the eyes of His mercy, removed my heart, and offered it to Holy Church.”
There was nothing left to give except her life. There were many at her bedside, weeping at her suffering, and the patience with which she bore them. She lapsed in and out of consciousness. Her final words: “Lord, into your hands I commend my spirit.” She died on April 29, 1380, at the age of thirty-three.