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SSt. Catherine of Sienna

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My parents, at times would compare my sister, Cathy, to her namesake, St. Catherine of Sienna, notbecause she was so good, but because she was outspoken and blunt. For example, St. Catherine once called three Italian Cardinals who supported the anti-pope, "stench that makes the whole world reek." 1

Catherine Benincasa was born on March 25, 1347, in Sienna, into a world shadowed by such terrible turmoil in the Catholic Church, today's scandals pale in comparison. During her lifetime, the Holy See would move to Avignon, and, at her urgings, return to Rome where it would continue to compete with an elected anti-pope.

Catherine was the twenty-third child of twenty-four. She had a twin sister who died at birth. Her father was a dyer and her mother the practical daughter of a poet, both of them middle-class citizens. Little Catherine made an impression with her holiness almost from the time she could toddle. She had her first vision by the age of six and made sacrifices while she was still quite young. It is said that, by the age of seven, Catherine had promised her virginity to God. However, St. Catherine was no morbid ascetic. Acquaintances, instead, remember her lively black eyes, her sense of humor, and her great love for every soul.

Her sacrifices, nevertheless, were perhaps more extreme than those of any other known saint. She lived for months at a time on nothing but the Blessed Sacrament. She regularly scourged herself for love of Jesus and slept as little as a half hour every other night. St. Catherine, not wanting to draw attention to herself, would pray to God that He would make her more like other people. However, her life was destined to be extraordinary, an example of a life devoted entirely to Jesus,

Catherine's parents, especially her mother, Lapa, envisioned a more normal life for their daughter. They wanted her to marry, and even made her the house slave for three years as punishment for her refusal to obey then in this matter. Catherine took this opportunity to see Jesus in every member of her family, and served them with such unruffled devotion, that eventually she won first her father over, and then, years later, her mother.
She became a Dominican Tertiary, meaning that she continued to live in her own home, while belonging to a Dominican community of women.

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Catherine would have been content to serve God in sacrifice and prayer, but His will was that she bring about change in the corrupt Catholic Church. She embraced her mission with all of the energy she brought to her prayer, tackling the sinful clergy person by person, winning them over with the purity of her own life, her direct, firm admonitions and her own extremely magnetic personality.

It seemed no one could meet her without falling under the spell of her personal holiness. Priest and bishop would revile her from a distance, then, upon meeting her face to face, fall upon their knees, begging forgiveness and the permission to become her followers.

St. Catherine's body of letters are a telling window to her person. Most of her letters were dictated to her more learned disciples, though St. Catherine herself had miraculously learned to write and read. These letters used none of the flowery, ethereal language, we might have expected from a mystic. Instead, St. Catherine writes pointedly and personally, delineating how each letter's recipient's life had strayed from the Gospels and what that person needed to do to reform his or herself. Her frank, yet respectful letters to the Pope Gregory XI, caused him to forsake his exile in Avignon, and return to Rome on January 17, 1377. Her learned correspondence caused her to be named a Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI in 1970.

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Among St. Catherine's many ecstasies and visions, was her mystical marriage to Jesus in 1366. He gave her a wedding ring during the vision that she wore invisibly for the rest of her life. Ever after, she dedicated her life to serving the sick and poor. Catherine also received the stigmata in 13 65, though the marks were invisible to all until her death. She requested this boon from Jesus in order to not draw attention to herself.

Throughout her life, St. Catherine of Sienna suffered horrific physical pain and ailments, all of which she stood joyfully for the sake of sinners. She died on April 29, 1380, which is her Feast Day, at the age of thirty-three, like her beloved Spouse, Jesus. St. Catherine was canonized in 1461 by Poe Pius II.



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