Caterina Benincasa was the 23rd of 25 children born to a prosperous Sienese dyer. She grew up in Christian piety, though sometimes her long hours of prayer and severe mortification brought her into conflict with her family. According to her confessor and biographer Raymond of Capua, she had her first vision of Christ when she was five or six years old and at the age of seven she vowed to give her whole life to God. At the age of sixteen she joined the Dominican Order and for three years lived in seclusion. At the age of twenty-one Catherine experienced what she described in her letters as a “Mystical Marriage” with Jesus, later, a popular subject in art. At the same time she also left her seclusion, which, according to her, was on the instruction of Christ. As social and political tensions mounted in Siena and Italy, Catherine found herself drawn to intervene in wider politics. She made her first journey to Florence in 1374, probably to be interviewed by the Dominican authorities at the General Chapter about her orthodoxy. After this visit, she began travelling with her followers throughout northern and central Italy advocating reform of the clergy and advising people that repentance and renewal could be done through “the total love for God.” Physical travel was not the only way in which Catherine made her views known. From 1375 onwards, she began dictating letters to scribes. These letters were intended to reach men and women of her circle, increasingly widening her audience to include figures in authority, as she begged for peace between the republics and principalities of Italy and for the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome. She carried on a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, asking him to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States and advising him to return to Rome. In June 1376 Catherine went to Avignon as ambassador of the Republic of Florence to make peace with the Papal States. While in Avignon, Catherine tried once again in person to convince Pope Gregory XI, the last Avignon Pope, to return to Rome. Gregory did indeed return his administration to Rome in January 1377, although to what extent this was due to Catherine’s influence is a topic of much debate. On the journeys involved in these missions she was nearly always accompanied by a large band of followers both men and women, clerical and lay, who had gathered round her, drawn by her extraordinary sanctity, attractive personality and great spiritual wisdom. These same qualities are reflected in the 383 extant letters written or dictated by her, in the Dialogo, the synthesis of her teaching, and in some 26 prayers which have been composed during her mystical visions. In all her writings the central theme is that of Christ crucified. During one of her peace missions she was nearly assassinated. In late November 1378, with the outbreak of the Western Schism in which the Church was divided between two Popes, the Roman Pope Urban VI, summoned her to Rome. She stayed at Pope Urban VI’s court and tried to convince nobles and cardinals of his legitimacy, both meeting with individuals at court and writing letters to persuade others.
Catherine’s theology can be described as mystical, and was employed towards practical ends for her own spiritual life or those of others. Interested mainly with achieving an incorporeal union with God, Catherine practiced extreme fasting and asceticism, eventually to the extent of living solely off the Eucharist. For Catherine, this practice was the means to realize fully her love of Christ. This extreme asceticism and rigorous life and the distress over the Schism tore her apart both physically and spiritually and she died on 29th April 1380 aged only 33. She was canonized in 1461 and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1970. Catherine ranks high among the mystics and spiritual writers of the Church. She remains a greatly respected gure for her spiritual writings, and political boldness to “speak truth to power.” It was truly exceptional for a woman in her time to have had such in uence in the Church and in the wider society. Her life can very well be called mysticism in action.
(Professor of Church History at Oriens Theological College, Shillong)