A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, February 07, 2011

Catherine of Siena: Doctor of the Church

from Caroline T. Marshall:

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.


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