April 29 – Catherine of Siena

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.


Catherine of Siena, faithful servant

Born Caterina Benincasa, Catherine of Siena (?1347-1380) is remembered for her peacemaking efforts, and for the hundreds of letters and prayers she left behind. She was born into a family of 25 children in Siena, Italy. It is reported that from an early age she began seeing visions, and devoted her time to conversation with God, leading the life of an ascetic. Her long hours of prayer and self-mortification brought her into conflict with her family, and at the age of 16 they permitted her to join the Dominican Order of Penance. She lived a further three years at home (the chronology of this is confused), and then later began to pursue work in the public domain, tending for the poor and the sick, and teaching. She travelled widely, defying suggestions that women should not do so, preaching and mediating disputes—including the conflict between Florence and the Holy See, for example. Her involvement in both spiritual and political events suggests she viewed the two as intimately connected, and equally a part of her service to God.

On her travels Catherine was often accompanied by an entourage of followers—clergy and lay people, men and women—who were attracted by her piety, spiritual wisdom, and engaging personality.

As her following and influence grew, so did Catherine’s ability to help resolve conflicts, and she was instrumental in persuading Pope Gregory XI, with whom she corresponded extensively, to take the Papacy from Avignon in France back to Rome in 1377. (The previous seven popes had held the papal court at Avignon, but there was widespread concern that it should return to Italy.)

Catherine’s writings reflect a boldness and directness that grew from her deep spirituality; qualities that made serious consideration of her counsel unavoidable. This is evident, for example, when she advised Gregory:  “Even if you have not been very faithful in the past, begin now to follow Christ, whose vicar you are, in real earnest. And do not be afraid . . . Attend to things spiritual, appointing good shepherds and good rulers in the cities under your jurisdiction . . .” And then, expressing a sentiment that might be questioned today,  “Above all, delay no longer in returning to Rome and proclaiming the Crusade”.

And all of this in the 33 years of her short life. In 1461, Catherine of Siena was canonized, and in 1970 was made a Doctor of the Church.

by Dr Bethany Butler