Who Was Saint Catherine of Siena?

Who Was Saint Catherine of Siena?

Written in collaboration with Isabel Zavaleta, a Catholic writer from California

Saint Catherine of Siena was born in Siena, Italy in 1347. She was a laywoman and a mystic who lived a life of radical faith and service to the poor and the sick—commonly depicted gazing heavenward with a crown of thorns, symbolizing her asceticism and her piety, as well as holding a small bouquet of white lilies, a symbol of purity. Canonized in 1461, this remarkable woman is revered as a saint and as a Doctor of the Church. Her patronages include people who suffer from bodily ills or miscarriages, those ridiculed for their piety, nurses, Europe, and Italy. Saint Catherine of Siena was a strong, virtuous, heroic, and holy woman; an example of radical faith and authentic femininity.

Childhood Betrothal to Christ

Born in Siena, Italy, to parents Jacopo di Benincasa and Lapa Piagenti, Catherine was one of twenty-five siblings. Sadly, her twin did not survive infancy, as well as about half of her siblings. Catherine’s devotion to God was apparent to her parents at a very young age. When she was only five, she would kneel to pray a Hail Mary on each step as she climbed the stairs in her home.

At the young age of six, Catherine had her first vision of Christ. In the vision, Jesus was seated in glory with three of his Apostles and He reached out to bless her. This first vision drew her into even deeper prayer, penance, and devotion. Recognizing her strong, devout prayer life, Catherine’s parents gave her a personal space for prayer—her own bedroom in the basement. Receiving and recognizing God’s call at that young and tender age, she vowed her life fully to Christ when she was only seven years old.

Catherine’s Vocation

When Catherine was sixteen, her sister passed away, leaving her sister’s husband a widower. Catherine’s parents wished for her to marry her sister’s widower, but she refused, as she was determined to follow God’s call for her life. She began to deny herself through fasting and asceticism, and she even cut her hair to deter suitors. Catherine had completely surrendered her life to Christ; however, rather than entering into a monastic life or joining a convent, she became a lay sister of the Third Order Dominicans at the age of eighteen. The next three years of her life were mainly spent in seclusion and prayer.

At the age of twenty-one, Catherine had a vision of a marriage in heaven, in which Jesus gave her a wedding ring. In the vision, He told her to go out to help the poor and the sick. While the ring was invisible to those around her, Catherine could see it on her hand for the rest of her life. After that vision, Catherine devoted her time to visiting hospitals, serving the poor, and bringing the Gospel to those who were outcasts or prisoners, all despite the disapproval of her parents. As part of her mission, she also established a monastery for women in 1377, which was located in modern-day Egypt. It is one of great significance in Christian history and Byzantine architecture.

Catherine also felt called to help make a change in the Church and she fought tirelessly for unity between the Pope and Italy. She wrote many letters to the authorities to promote obedience to the magisterium and was also sent by the Pope to negotiate peace with the Florentine Republic. Her mission was successful in bringing the magisterium back into authority in Italy.

A very talented writer, some of Catherine’s most well-known works include her letters (approximately three hundred and eighty in total) and The Dialogue, in which she describes her soul in communion with God, as well as her conversations with Him. Catherine was also a mystic, which came about towards the end of her life when God gave her the stigmata during another vision. Until her dying day, just like the wedding ring, only Catherine could see the marks on her hands and feet that matched the wounds of Jesus when he died on the cross.

Catherine’s Example of Authentic Femininity

St. Catherine of Siena is a stunning example of authentic femininity through feminine genius. Some of the qualities that make up the feminine genius include receptivity, sensitivity, and the ability to see the whole person—all of which Catherine beautifully embodied. She was bold and she was radical about following her call from God, even at the disapproval of her parents and challenging authority. She feared not what it could have cost her, because she trusted in God’s will. 

Catherine was also gentle and receptive, which are qualities of Our Lady. She gave the Lord her “yes” again and again. Catherine saw the whole person of those whom she served and tended to their needs, as through the feminine genius, which all women possess by nature. Her entire life embodied unique holiness, all in correspondence with her “yes.”

Catherine died at the age of thirty-three from bodily exhaustion due to the extreme fasting she did throughout her life. Eucharistic miracles that took place in Siena after her death attributed to her intercession opened the cause for her canonization, making her the great saint she is revered as today. She was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970. Let us ask Saint Catherine to help us possess the same courage in following God’s will for our own lives.

“Be who God meant you to be; and you will set the world on fire”
—Saint Catherine of Siena

Saint Catherine of Siena is available as a charm selection for every piece in our Custom Saint Collection

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