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  • Writer's picturePeter Kennedy

Saint Catherine of Siena

saint catherine

In her personal life, Catherine was born one of twenty-five children to a cloth merchant and dyer. As this was a rather lucrative profession, she grew up with no small means, but she was known to prefer a life of simplicity and solitude and for spending much time fasting and in prayer.  She spent a good amount of time serving the poor, sick, and imprisoned.  The stories of mystical and miraculous occurrences around these actions are many. In the midst of all of this, she left behind a treasure trove of writings, the most extensive of which is her famous “Discourse on the Annunciation”.  Because of these works she is known as a Doctor of the Church. Her extensive fasting likely led to an early death, and she succumbed to a stroke and untimely death at the age of only 33.

Saint Catherine of Siena lived out her life as a third order Dominican (the Order of Preachers).  Many in the Church today are unfamiliar with such a thing and it is worth taking a look, if for no other reason than to understand this saint better.  It is also good for us to be aware of the many and varied vocations to which the Lord may call us.

Within most religious orders there are three variations.  The typical first order is made up of clergy.  This would include the priests of the order with whom most of us are very familiar but may also include deacons or even bishops.  An example of the latter would be someone like Cardinal O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston. He happens to belong to the Franciscans.  The second order is typically made up of friars or monks and sisters or nuns.  These are people who have taken vows and live out the charism or identity of the order as members of the religious community.  The third order belongs to lay people who feel called to live out the particular gifts or identity of a religious order in the secular world.  So, for example, a Lay Carmelite might feel particularly attracted to a life of contemplative prayer, a Monastic Oblate might be called to live closely to a monastic community and live out the evangelical counsels, Secular Franciscans attempt to live out a life of simplicity like St. Francis did, and Lay Dominican, like St. Catherine seek greater knowledge of our Lord through study, prayer, and teaching.  Keeping in mind this is a very simplified version of things for the sake of brevity, third order Christians essentially live out the rule of life of a given order to the best of their ability while still living in the outside world.

For St. Catherine, this was a bit different than some as she also lived out her life as a consecrated virgin.  This means she took vows to never enter a natural marriage and essentially entered into what she described as a mystical marriage to Jesus himself.  What she describes here is known as one of her most famous visions.  It is said that ever after, she carried the sense of wearing a wedding ring on her finger though it could not be seen.  Her intimacy with our Lord would only deepen as she was also said to have experienced the stigmata, the wounds of Christ on the cross.  Again, these are said to have been invisible, but she was known to suffer greatly from them.

In her day-to-day work, she was known to be a great politician, a rare thing for a merchant-class woman of her time.  She traveled extensively, working for peace in Europe, and garnering support for the Pope who held a weak political position in the world at her time. She is perhaps best known for working her craft on the Pope himself, eventually bringing about the end of what is known as the Avignon Papacy and convincing the Pope to return from France to Rome.

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