From the excellent website, ‘Mary’s Blog’, we find some fascinating posts about the life of St Catherine of Siena, whose feast day we celebrate today, 29th April. This one in particular, which we are reblogging here, will come as a great surprise to many, and it’s revelations might even bring some concern.
Some claim that St Catherine of Siena was the 25th child born to her parents. But actually Catherine was the 23rd of 25 children, born in 1347. Catherine had a twin sister who was the 24th and another child followed them. Catherine’s parents were Lapa and Jacomo Benincasa. They were prosperous middle class folk, Jacomo made his living by dying wool; something that has often been described as a humble occupation with modest pay, but in fact he was an expert in the staining of all sorts of yarn and he prospered financially.
They had enough money to send Catherine’s twin sister to a wet nurse, while Catherine was nursed by her mother. The twin sister, however, died mysteriously as an infant and they always suspected that she had perished because she was sent out of the house everyday to be breastfed by a woman not her mother. That being said, the Black Plague was just about to rage in Siena at the time, and that may have been a factor in the little babe’s sudden passing.
Siena, the city of red brick houses, lost over 30 per cent of its population to the Black Plague. The 1340s was a time when the deadly pandemic spread faster than the people’s understanding of how to curtail it.
Catherine survived the plague and grew to be a very comely young woman with a heart-shaped face and gorgeous smile. Another death struck the family, her older sister died. This coincided with Jacomo’s wish to marry Catherine off. At 16, he tried to make Catherine the wife of her late sister’s husband. Catherine would have none of it, she had decided to stay single, stay celibate and live life as a Dominican, and follow a rule of life as laid down by St Dominic who fought off that lusty cult the Albigensians.
Jacomo was upset by his daughter’s refusal to wed the widower, and to punish her he fired their maid and forced Catherine to do all the household chores, even making her do the nastiest cleaning tasks, which in a time of no running water and no restrooms was loathsome. Catherine responded by embracing the domestic drudgery and by cutting her hair and making herself so boyish as to compromise her feminine prettiness. Finally, Jacomo relented when he saw that Catherine was determined to have Jesus as her Divine Spouse and to spurn the advances of the men of the 1350s who would only have been too happy to marry Catherine and enjoy her generous dowry.
Jacomo’s heart softened and he became convinced of his daughter’s vocation. He even allowed for her to have her own room as a type of hermitage where she could be all alone, pray, meditate and enjoy the celestial visions given her by Our Lord.
Father and daughter grew closer and closer as time went by. Catherine entertained no bitterness for her father’s efforts to coerce her into conjugality. When Jacomo entered his last days, he fell so ill that he was bed-ridden. Catherine prayed for him to Our Lord Who told Catherine that Jacomo was on the precipice of death, and that there was not much use in Jacomo living longer. For his part, Jacomo was ready to go to God and had no attachments to the world.
But Catherine was not satisfied – she prayed to God that Jacomo could go from his deathbed to Heaven without having to pass through the fires of Purgatory. Our Lord was not going to readily answer her request, “Thy father has lived well in the conjugal state…I am in particular pleased with his conduct towards thee, but justice demands that his soul pass by the fire to purify it.” Catherine couldn’t bear the thought of her father in Purgatory – she had been given visions of the fire boxes there and so she beseeched Our Lord – “I entreat thy divine bounty not to permit his soul to leave his body before, by some means or other, it is perfectly purified and has no need of the fire of Purgatory.” Our Lord condescended to answer this plea.
There ensued a quandary; Jacomo was fading fast, but he could not leave his body ’til justice had been satisfied, and ’til the debts he had accrued through sin had been paid. Catherine put herself forth as the one who would suffer her father’s Purgatory for him, and she proposed to Our Lord, “Let this justice be exercised towards me”. Our Lord was happy to accept, “I exempt the soul of thy father from all expiatory pains, but during thy whole life thou shalt be victim of a pain that I will send thee.”
At the moment, Jacomo died, Catherine was struck in her side by a searing ache that was with her all her life. She did her father’s Purgatory during her lifetime. She placed herself in her father’s place, like her Savior had placed Himself in our place to suffer for our sin. It was pain that did not make her depressive, she was also given a certain joy and even at her father’s funeral she was beaming with cheerfulness as she celebrated her father’s place in Heaven.
Jacomo had pleased the Lord during his marriage to Lapa. Yet when his daughter had been shown the appalling torments of Hell and Purgatory, she discovered why married people go to Purgatory and are assayed in agonizing flames, “I was shown in particular those who sin in the married state, by not observing the law it imposes, and by seeking in it nought but sensual pleasures”. Catherine was perplexed because to use marriage merely as a means of gratifying the flesh was not the worst sin, but the souls who had done so were rudely chastised, and she asked why this was the case, “Because little attention is given to it, and consequently less contrition is excited for it, and it is more easily committed.”
This is certainly far truer today than it was in the 1300s – scant attention is given the sin of using marriage only as a way of gaining sexual pleasure – even among faithful Catholics. And the net result is that little contrition is offered for it. It bears asking as to whether the torments shown Catherine were really all that bad? Catherine said something chilling that inspires a sense of them, “Had poor mortals the faintest idea of them, they would suffer a thousand deaths rather than undergo the least of their torments.”
You may like to offer the prayer to the Holy Spirit written by St Catherine, and her beautiful prayer to the Trinity.
This post was informed by Blessed Raymond of Capua’s splendid biography of Catherine of Siena.