The city was rotting from within. The Great Plague had crushed the people of Siena in mind and body, while corrupt politicians and clergy added to their moral decay. Right in the middle of it, a young woman named Catherine occupied herself with acts of kindness and works of mercy. She had a remarkable ability to soften the most hardened of hearts—even those belonging to people who antagonized her.
Catherine of Siena (1347–1380) is well known as a medieval saint who was not afraid to confront the kings and popes of her day. But long before she became involved in such high-level activism, she grew into a saint by taking care of her own neighbors. In this way, she helped the people of Siena find their heart again—and in doing so, she found her own voice too.
A Unique Marriage and Family. From her earliest years, Caterina Benincasa tenaciously pursued God—even when faced with resistance. This trait stemmed from her desire to do God’s will, but it often upended her family’s expectations and brought consternation to her middle-class parents, Giacomo and Lapa.
One of Catherine’s ongoing battles was her refusal to marry any of the men of Siena. She wanted to set herself apart for God from age seven, when she had a vision of Jesus blessing her directly from heaven. Eleven years later at eighteen, she succeeded in convincing her parents to let her take the veil of a lay Dominican sister. She lived mostly as a recluse in her family’s house until three years later, around the year 1368. That’s when she had another vision in which she was mystically married to Jesus.
Shortly thereafter, her quiet life changed. Catherine felt that God was asking her to become more visible in Siena. She began to undertake many charitable activities, including caring for victims of the plague. Catherine’s unique lifestyle and charismatic holiness began to catch people’s notice. Women and men, lay and clergy, rich and poor wanted to learn from her. They became her band of followers: a spiritual family who called her “Mamma” despite her youth.
Armed with “no authority but burning love for God,” as one of her biographers, Sigrid Undset, puts it, Catherine began her public ministry. She didn’t have an earthly husband to support and protect her, but God equipped her with a group of fellow apostles and a wise spiritual director in the person of Raymond of Capua, the head of the Dominican Order.
Without Being Loved. Catherine’s calling to minister in her city was often challenging, and her reward came in spiritual insights rather than human praise or understanding. Many of these insights found their way into her book called The Dialogue, which she dictated in the form of conversations with God. In one section, she recorded how God had instructed her early on to serve anyone who needed help—regardless of their temperament or attitude toward her. He told her that she could “in no way repay” the pure love that he showed her except by “loving your neighbor without being loved by him and without consideration of your own advantage, whether spiritual or temporal.” She answered the call by seeking out the sick and dying in her city.
Many weeks, for instance, she cared for a woman named Andrea who had breast cancer. Instead of thanking Catherine, Andrea became jealous and angry toward her. She began to gripe and gossip about Catherine’s virginity behind her back. It was an opportunity for Catherine to practice what God had asked of her. She returned regularly to drain Andrea’s wound without complaining or defending herself.
Another woman, Palmerina, publicly slandered Catherine’s reputation. But when Palmerina fell sick, it was Catherine who nursed her, prayed for her healing, and stayed with her. On her deathbed, touched by Catherine’s kindness, Palmerina was said to have repented of her sins.
The work wasn’t easy, and Catherine often asked for God’s help with the challenges it entailed—from forgiving insults to fighting the nausea brought on by foul wounds. She realized that people like Andrea and Palmerina often lashed out because of their own pain and fear. Over time, Catherine’s practice of loving without needing to be loved in return softened many hearts and won the praise of many in Siena.
Siena’s Sower of Peace. Siena was full of rival families and political groups. Through her approachability, Catherine was somehow able to transcend these in order to point a wide array of people toward God. Donald Brophy, another biographer, describes her as having the ability to treat the homeless and the wealthy with the same combination of kindness and frankness. She never minced her words, Brophy said, but people came away remembering her tenderness.
Catherine mingled with nobles, for example, who were crushing the working class in Siena. But she also ministered to prostitutes, tradesmen, prisoners, sisters, and parish priests who were not living up to her own moral standards. She made friends in Florence and Pisa, though these were longtime competitors and enemies of her hometown of Siena. No one was excluded from God’s mercy, so no one was excluded from her kind attention.
Perhaps because of her open-mindedness, Catherine was sometimes called upon to patch up family feuds. One time, she herself was the cause of the feud. It started because Catherine succeeded in converting two young women, Ghinucchia and Francoise, from immoral and vain lives to lives of service and faith. Her influence on them made their brother Jacques furious, so he went after Catherine. As he confronted her, his heart was softened by Catherine’s obvious compassion for his pain and hurt. According to Raymond of Capua, “The wolf was changed into a lamb, the fierce lion had become docile as a child, and all the witnesses were filled with admiration.”
The Surprise of Humility. As her reputation spread, Catherine was often called to serve nobles who looked down on her middle-class origin. She faced accusations of impropriety as a younger woman giving spiritual direction to men. Rather than attacking her challengers, Catherine engaged them in conversation, listened to and addressed their concerns, and eventually brought these accusers into her spiritual family.
On one particular occasion, a Franciscan scripture scholar named Lazzarini de Pisa questioned her ability as an unschooled woman to understand and preach on the Scriptures. After publicly trashing not only Catherine but also some of her followers, he decided to meet her for himself, probably hoping to demean her directly. Catherine responded by sitting on the floor in humility and conceding that since she was not indeed a Scripture scholar, she needed his guidance and teaching. After the friar explained his position and moved to leave, Catherine asked for his blessing. The next day, he found himself overcome with tears. He returned to ask Catherine for forgiveness, and the two of them began to relate as equals.
The Effectiveness of Love. Catherine’s years with the cantankerous people of Siena preceded her years of challenging kings and popes. Her humble compassion in the face of misunderstandings and interpersonal strains showed the world that God was leading her. It taught her the importance of pursuing God’s will—but always with charity. Time and again, Catherine’s way of patient love, not retaliation, overcame people’s ill will. Their hearts softened, they laid aside viciousness, and they were prepared for God to touch them. Her example during this lesser-known period of her life is one that we all can imitate.
Christopher M. Bellitto is professor of history at Kean University in Union, New Jersey.