Catherine was born in 1347 and grew up in a large family in Siena, Italy, where her childhood home still stands. She was a light to her family, and they nicknamed her “Euphrosyne” which is Greek for “joy.”
Catherine’s parents were adamant that she find a husband. When she was young, Catherine dressed in colorful gowns and fashionable jewels. However, she was opposed to the marriage plans of her parents and cut off her beautiful hair in opposition. As punishment, she was given menial housework as a chore and, although her parents knew she craved being alone, they did not allow it. Later Catherine wrote, “The soul, who is lifted by a very great and yearning desire for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, begins by exercising herself, for a certain space of time, in the ordinary virtues, remaining in the cell of self-knowledge, in order to know better the goodness of God towards her.” Eventually Catherine’s parents provided a small room where she could live in solitude as she wished.
“The soul, who is lifted by a very great and yearning desire for the honor of God and the salvation of souls, begins by exercising herself, for a certain space of time, in the ordinary virtues, remaining in the cell of self-knowledge, in order to know better the goodness of God towards her.”
Catherine made a private vow of virginity while living at home and dedicated herself to prayer, penance and works of charity, especially for the benefit of the sick. When she was sixteen, she entered the female branch of the Third Order of the Dominicans called the Mantellate. At the age of nineteen, as she was praying, Catherine received a vision in which Jesus gave her a splendid ring, saying to her: “I, your Creator and Saviour, espouse you in the faith, that you will keep ever pure until you celebrate your eternal nuptials with me in Heaven.” This ring was only visible to Catherine.
When Catherine was twenty-eight, she received another vision. As she gazed at the crucifix, she saw five rays shining from it. The rays then pierced her hands, feet, and heart and were only visible to herself, but they were made visible to others upon her death. These rays of light that pierced her body are a reminder of one of her most well-known sayings, “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.” Catherine had the fire of God’s love within her, which radiated from her into the world.
“Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire.”
Catherine traveled widely to work for the internal reform of the Church and to foster peace. She had a vital role in ending the Avignon papacy, the time when the Pope, though still the bishop of Rome, lived in Avignon, France.
Catherine passed away in Rome at the age of thirty-three, after having a paralytic stroke that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Catherine was canonized in 1461 and named a doctor of the Church, a title held by only a few other Catholic women, including St. Hildegard of Bingen, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. The majority of Catherine’s remains are encased in a statue held in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome; however, her head is preserved in the Church of San Domenico in Siena, where it is venerated today.
Feast Day: April 29