St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380) was the youngest of twenty-five children, and her parents hoped she would marry a wealthy young man — but she had already dedicated her life to God. When her mother nagged her about making herself attractive, Catherine, in a gesture of defiance, cut off her beautiful hair so no one would want to marry her. She was punished by being given the hardest work and forced to wait on all the other family members; Catherine’s cheerful obedience led to her father’s decreeing that she be left in peace.
For some years Catherine lived as a recluse in her room, praying and meditating; then, at age eighteen, she entered the Dominican Third Order. Italy was touched by a plague, and Catherine spent much time caring for the poor and the sick. Her remarkable love and devotion attracted others, and gradually a group formed about her, including lay persons, priests, and religious.
In 1375 Catherine gained an international reputation by mediating the conflict between the papacy and the city of Florence, and then used her influence to advise kings and make political treaties. Catherine was influential in convincing the timid Pope Gregory XI to leave Avignon in France (where the popes had resided for many years) and return to Rome, freeing the Church from excessive French influence. This success was short-lived, however, for in 1378 Gregory died, and the Great Schism — a division of allegiance between two rival popes — developed. Catherine steadfastly supported Pope Urban VI, the properly-elected successor to Gregory, but the schism was not resolved for almost forty years.
In 1380 St. Catherine died at the age of only thirty-three, surrounded by her followers; much of Europe mourned her passing. She was known as a visionary and mystic, and some of her writings are still widely used. In 1970 Pope Paul VI declared her a Doctor (an eminent and reliable teacher) of the Church — one of the few women to be so honored. St. Catherine was a member of the Dominican lay order, and is a patron saint of the laity.
Eternal Trinity, Godhead, You could give me no greater gift than the gift of Yourself. For You are a fire ever burning and never consumed, which itself consumes all the selfish love that fills my being. Yes, You are a fire that takes away coldness, illuminates the mind with its light, and causes me to know Your truth. You are beauty and wisdom itself. Amen.
— Adapted from a prayer of St. Catherine of Siena