Fri 23 March 2018

Saint Catherine of Siena

Saturday 29 April

A visit to Tuscany must include a visit to Siena - a wonderful medieval city. Perhaps the real focal point of Siena is the /Piazza del Campo] where every year the famous (or infamous) horserace, the 'Palio' takes place. A short walk up from the Campo will lead to the enormous church of /San Domenico] which in medieval times was where the Dominican Friars worshipped. Just opposite this church, in 1347, Catherine, daughter of Giacomo and Lapa Benincasa was born - their 23rd child!

Watching the friars going to and from their church made the child Catherine determined to devote her life to God. She turned away from all the normal pursuits and expectations of the daughter of a prosperous dyer. But she worried those around her by her odd behaviour, her melodramatic outbursts and her visions and trances. Her ambition to follow the religious life was partially resolved when she was allowed to join the tertiary order of the Dominicans - which meant that she continued to live with her family, but was encouraged to work amongst the sick and the poor of Siena. When she was 20 she experienced a vision in which she felt that she was married to Christ.

From this traumatic event she claimed that she could always feel the presence of a gold marriage ring upon her finger. But her previous volatility was now replaced by a controlled determination to continue her good works with the poor and needy. In her twenties, Catherine, to her delight, learnt to read which opened up a new and scholarly dimension to her life. Whether she ever leant to write is open to some doubt. But she gathered around her a band of followers known as the Caterinati and knowledge of her faith, and wisdom spread far from Siena. She sent many letters to a wide range of notable contemporaries - kings, princes, knights, religious leaders. She put together her understanding of her faith in The Dialogue of Divine Providence. She became the confidante of two popes, Gregory XI and Urban VI.

She fought hard to restore the Papacy to Rome from exile in Avignon and she tried to bring peace to the warring city-states of Italy. She died in Rome at the age of 33. Her body was buried in Rome, but her head was brought back to the church of /San Domenico] where it was placed in a chapel specially dedicated to her. She was made a saint in 1461, was made joint patron saint of Italy in 1940 and a patron saint of Europe in 1999. She is remembered principally for her total devotion to her faith, her personal holiness and her ceaseless efforts for those around her. (NB nothing to do with the Catherine Wheel - that belongs almost 1,000 years earlier to Saint Catherine of Alexandria!)

Richard Allen