St Catherine of Siena
St Catherine of Siena, doctor of the Church and patroness of the Third Order of Penance of St Dominic, is one of the most brilliant and influential women saints in the history of Christianity. Born Catherine Benincasa in 1347, she consecrated her virginity to Christ at the age of seven, and took the habit of a Dominican Tertiary when she was sixteen. Her brief adult life was filled with relentless apostolic activity, culminating in her offering her life for the unity and honour of the Holy Catholic Church and for the papacy she so strongly defended and upheld.
She was in all ways a true spiritual daughter of St Dominic, exemplifying the balance of contemplation and action that is the hallmark of Dominican spirituality. Like our Holy Father, she spoke only with God and of God. Blessed Raymond of Capua, Catherine’s confessor, provides this anecdote about her:
… if she had intelligent people to talk to, she could have gone on talking to them about God for a hundred days and nights without stopping for food and drink for a hundred and nights without stopping for food or drink. She never got tired talking about God. On the contrary, as time went on, she seemed to grow ever more lively and enthusiastic.
St Catherine first became a contemplative, then an apostle. She learned to love God by retiring from the world, even as she continued living at home with her family. Our Lord appeared to her, telling her she would become an apostle – after she had reached the heights of the mystical life and had received the grace of spiritual marriage, the Lord brought her out of retirement, compelling her to have dealings with other people yet not depriving her of His company. Walk, He said, with both feet, not one, and with two wings fly to Heaven. By this instruction to Catherine, Our Lord shows the Dominican that if she pursues her apostolic work in the right spirit it will not separate him from God.
Catherine’s apostolic work took the form of caring for the sick and poor, and nursing victims of the plague. Her charm and holiness soon attracted a group of spiritual children around her. God also gave Catherine the task of influencing the Holy Father, Pope Gregory XI, to return to Rome from Avignon in France. It is in Rome that Catherine breathed her last, at the age of 33, having spent herself completely for the good of the Church.
The Dialogue of St Catherine of Siena remains a spiritual classic and wealth of Christian doctrine. The study of her writing is a study of Christian spirituality and its stages – one begins in the “cell of self-knowledge” and arrives at the contemplation of the Incarnate Word, crucified for love of men:
… through genuine self-knowledge we discover that we are not, and we find our being in God, seeing that He has created us to His image and likeness… and we find moreover our recreation inasmuch as God has re-created us in the Blood of His Son, the Blood that shows us the truth of God the Father, whose truth is this, that He created us for the glory of His Name and in order that we might have a share in in His eternal beauty, being sanctified in Him.
The ease with which Catherine could pass from self-knowledge to the contemplation of God exemplifies the supernatural atmosphere which she dwelt in. The crucified Christ was ever before her eyes; Love was the motive power that inspired all her actions.
St Catherine is the patroness of the Third Order of Penance of St Dominic. As a third-Order Dominican congregation with second-order roots, we are proud to claim her special patronage over us, and implore her intercession in all our works. May her zeal for apostolic works, fructified by an intense and profound contemplation in God, be ever before us as a model of Dominican sanctity.