Saint Catherine of Siena

Upon being received into the Church, at the tender age of fifty, I took the Christian name of Anthony, after Saint Anthony of Padua. There was good reason for this, for as I looked back, he had been encouraging me to join for a long time. Of course the first reason was my alma mater, Saint Anthony’s School in Lahore, Pakistan, where I first came in contact with Catholic Truth. (The less fashionably I put that, the better.) But on two other occasions something happened in proximity to brick and mortar, and in both cases the church in or by which I was standing happened to be named for the same Saint Anthony. Both times I was spooked: call me superstitious.

Had I not felt this compulsion, to give Anthony his due, I would instead have taken the name Catherine. Indeed, I almost did, before some petty thinking got in my way. It was a small, unmanly, puritan hesitation at the prospect of “cross-dressing” in a woman’s name; along with some confusion about her life and times, mostly since cleared up. Other coincidences hearken from that side, too: we share a “birthday,” for instance.

Catherine Benincasa, or as we now know her, Saint Catherine of Siena, was then, and has grown since, among my greatest heroes; or I would write “heroines” except I wish to make clear she belongs in no sub-category. She is among the largest figures in Church history, but also in worldly, political affairs; a paragon for sanctity in absolute terms; a font of spiritual knowledge communicated in hundreds of extraordinary letters, prayers, meditations — and her Dialogue of Divine Providence, a formative work in the Tuscan vernacular. She stands astride the fourteenth century as a beacon to all ages: patroness of Italy (with Saint Francis Assisi), mystical counterpart to Dante, and angel of reconciliation across Christendom.

Yet more extraordinary, to us glib moderns: everything she accomplished remains within sight of the demonstrable historical record; everything witnessed with conventional human eyes, and surviving in evidence still physically available.

Were nothing holy allowed to her — nothing the agnostic historian will recognize as miraculous — she must still be admired for having, often single-handedly, by the boldest imaginable acts of persuasion, on the basis of no formal authority or title, achieved astounding things.

These would include healing the Great Schism of the fourteenth century; bringing the papacy from exile in Avignon home to Rome (with Europe-wide ramifications); negotiating peace between warring Italian states; quelling insurrections; reforming the incorrigible; and turning the whole worldly activity of the Church once again healthily outward — back on mission and crusade, after a period of institutional self-immolation almost as shameful to recount as our own times. And this before she died, “under the whole weight of the Barque of Peter,” at the age of thirty-three.

The twenty-fourth child of her mother, Lapa — and not the last — she was raised in the household of a cloth-dyer, in a city ravaged by the Plague. Alas, many of her siblings predeceased her, including the twin with whom she was born, quite prematurely.

Everything about her is larger than life, to the modern observer. By the age of twenty she had already cut a figure that might justify a footnote in the historical record, for she was also larger than life to her contemporaries, and the more so the closer they came to her. She was “possessed” by a will that could not be brooked, and the only question in the mind of those who met her was whether she was possessed by Christ or Satan. The answer, however, presently emerged.

“Build a cell inside your mind.” This was her advice, even as a teenager, to persons much older who sought her advice, including her own remarkable spiritual director, Blessed Raymond of Capua. Make it an impregnable cell of self-knowledge, to abide whether you should live in a cloister, or out on the highways. At her mystical marriage, to Christ, she was told to take the latter course: to go out into the world.

Her mystical visions began at age seven; she was often found in a state of ecstasy, throughout her life. Having vowed perpetual virginity as a child, she had renounced marriage and motherhood — cutting off her hair when her family tried to marry her off, and breaking out in an atrocious rash, that helped to conceal her sublime beauty. (It disappeared the moment they gave up.) Yet she also rejected the life of a nun, becoming instead a Dominican tertiary. To a modern witness she would seem a madwoman: speaking with familiarity to an invisible Saint Dominic, for instance, and various others residing in Heaven, as if it were nothing odd.

We might call her an anorexic, for she went long stretches without food, claiming the Host sufficient from daily Mass, finally confessing that the thought of eating disgusted her. She died of a stroke that a modern medical man might say was brought on by her peculiar mortifications. She did not herself have much use for doctors.

Her secret was of course to be recognized, by those who met her, from an early age, as an undeniable instrument of Christ. In an age still of faith, this was still possible: for even men notorious for their arrogance in daily life, will suddenly stop short from belief, when they truly believe Christ is “messaging” them.

Catherine could speak with an authority that made powerful men fall silent and think again through their actions; she could command obedience from the most unlikely malefactors; and walk straight into the most dangerous situations with a placid self-confidence that inspired unqualified trust. For she seemed to know not only what people should do, but how they should do it: to have a praeternatural understanding of the “realpolitik” in their situations, too; of how things actually work in the backrooms of Power. No threat or promise could deter her from a purpose; but more, no trick fool her into abandoning a cause. She is thus my model for the sort of “insolent woman” I have always admired, and also feared sometimes: the one who does not lie.

Yet in her correspondence, with great and humble alike, she can be as soft and gentle as the purse of rose petals that replaced her head (in one of her posthumous miracles). Or she could blaze with a fire that would scald the unapproachable, lash with words to make them jump from their skins. As statesmen and prelates eventually learnt, there was no point in trying to resist a woman, who dealt with them as with servants, from a life full of exhausting acts of charity, towards the poorest of Christ’s poor.

She was disturbing enough, by reputation, even in that quotidian life: for she had a gift for appropriating whatever she needed, often in a hurry, from sheer charm. There are those who will part with the shirts from their own backs: easy marks for any saint. But Catherine could talk those who would never dream of doing such a thing, into doing it, promptly.

Even her writing partakes of the miraculous, for she was never taught to write, if even to read, and her scintillating prose was usually dictated. But suddenly, as an adult, retiring from company, she began to copy her own thoughts in an elegant scribal hand. This was one of many casual accomplishments that staggered her companions. It was, too, a seemingly encyclopaedic, exact knowledge of things never known to have been taught, that was ultimately acknowledged when she became one of the four female “Doctors of the Church” (the others being Saints Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux, and Hildegard of Bingen). For her teaching still lives; it is immortal.

Such women do not themselves die. We can also know their present address. We may still ask their help; still reach them in purposeful prayer. At the moment our need is especially urgent, for it seems we have a lot of foolish old prelates in Rome once again, who need some stiff talking to. And who better than Saint Catherine to confront them?