Saint Catherine of Siena is one of only three women who have been declared to be Doctors of the Church, along with St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux.
St. Catherine lived in late 14th-century Siena in the Tuscany region of Italy. She was not of noble birth, but her family owned a prosperous dye business. At an early age she had mystical experiences. Her family allowed her to have a room to herself where she could live almost as a hermit, and she attended Mass every day. Over time she was allowed to join a Dominican-like religious third order called the Mantellata. These women prayed and provided aid to those in need, wearing distinctive clothes that set them apart. Dominican friars became St. Catherine’s confessors and spiritual directors, but after a time the role of spiritual director reversed to her. She continued to have mystical experiences and miracles were attributed to her, including her receiving the invisible stigmata. One of her “miracles” is her dictation of her greatest written work, The Dialogues, in the latter part of her life.
St. Catherine was called upon to mediate among the Pope and various city-states. One of her dreams, which she worked hard to achieve, was the return of the pope from Avignon, France, back to Rome. She convinced Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, but his successor, Pope Urban VI, became oppressive. Some of the cardinals declared his election invalid because they had been under duress to elect him. These cardinals elected and declared another man pope, and he moved back to Avignon, supported by the French king and others while Urban VI found support among other rulers and countries. St. Catherine tried to convince those who opposed Urban VI to return to the fold, but eventually three men would claim to be pope. This schism was only resolved many years after St. Catherine’s death.
Men and women from various classes of Italian society formed a group around St. Catherine and called her “mamma,” similar to the Desert Ammas in Egypt (her own mother was a member of this group). Her loyal supporters thrived under her spiritual direction. One of her followers became the Master General of the Dominicans and wrote her biography for her canonization process. Besides being a spiritual leader of men and women, she also was allowed by the pope to preach to men and women - unusual for the times. She took popes, kings, bishops and others to task for their failures and encouraged them to reform their lives and that of the world and the Church.
Brophy’s biography of this extraordinary woman is a joy to read. He quotes from various primary sources, discussing some quotes and legends as not really belonging to the saint or parsing how the quote or legend came about. He analyzes the situations that Catherine found herself in, like working with the pope or mediating between city-states. This uneducated woman became an influential person in the Church and world affairs of her time and place.
Don Brophy was the managing editor for Paulist Press. He is the author of One Hundred Great Catholic Books (2007) and of The Story of Catholics in America (1978). This book is highly recommended to those interested in saints, especially St. Catherine.