29 April: Feast of Saint Catherine of Siena. Catherine was born in Siena, Italy in 1347. She was the 25th child in a large family, although half her siblings did not survive childhood. Catherine was intensely religious; she began to experience God mystically and took a vow of virginity before she turned seven. Frequent visions of Christ, Mary, angels and saints inspired her holy, austere lifestyle. At age 16, one of Catherine’s sisters died. Her parents proposed that the widowed husband marry Catherine as a replacement, but Catherine vehemently opposed this. She fasted and cut her hair very short to mar her appearance. Her parents tried to force the marriage but Catherine’s extreme fasting, prayer, and religious conviction made them relent. Catherine joined the Third Order of St. Dominic, which allowed her to live at home as a religious. She lived quietly isolated. She received the stigmata, had divine visions, and could levitate while praying. When she was 21, Catherine experienced a “mystical marriage to Christ” and was given an invisible ring made of Jesus’s skin. In a vision, she was told to re-enter public life to help the poor and sick. She went to work in hospitals and homes. She once visited a condemned prisoner and was credited with saving his soul, which she saw being taken up to heaven as he died. Her reputation attracted a circle of followers. Before long, she had scribes to help her correspondence with many influential Church and secular leaders, including kings, queens, and the pope. The leaders asked for her advice. She travelled Europe seeking reconciliation between warring parties. She urged Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome and lobbied on behalf of the legitimacy of Pope Urban VI during the Great Schism of 1378. Catherine also looked after victims of the Black Plague, caring for the worst patients and burying the dead. She established a monastery for women. Her rich prayer life included frequent visions and ecstasies, recorded as a dialogue between a soul and God, in her Dialogue of Divine Providence. Her 400-some written letters are considered a great work of theology and literature. Her extreme fasting may have contributed to her death at the age of 33. She was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461. In 1970, she was given the title of Doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI (a Doctor of the Church is a saint recognized as having been of particular importance regarding their contribution to theology or doctrine).
“Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” – St Catherine of Siena
Ideas for celebrating this feast at home:
- Watch on FORMED: “Who is St. Catherine of Siena?” (with Dr. Tim Gray); or a children’s version here.
- Many meaningful quotes are attributed to St. Catherine (see here). As a reflection, choose one to copy and decorate (perhaps with a symbol of St. Catherine: a heart, cross, ring, stigmata, or lily).
- Write an encouraging letter: although St. Catherine was neither wealthy nor well-educated, she wrote influential letters. Think of someone who needs advice or encouragement and write them a letter.
- Pray for and write to a nurse or firefighter: St. Catherine is the patron of nurses and firefighters. Maybe also drop off a treat at your local fire department or nurse’s station.
- Bake bread for the poor: St. Catherine baked bread daily for the poor. Follow her lead and make some bread to share with the poor. Or, bake some bread to give to someone who is poor in spirit and might just need a lift. Here is a recipe for St. Catherine “peace bread” in honor of her work for world peace.
- For a feast day dinner, an Italian meal is perfect since St. Catherine was from Italy. Try making Pasta Santa Caterina with garlic bread, salad with Italian dressing, and a Tiramisu or Pineapple Upside Down cake for dessert (the pineapple rings symbolizing how Catherine was espoused to Christ by an invisible nuptial ring). Click here for more menu ideas.