Thursday, April 29, 2010

Catherine Benincasa of Siena (1347 - 1380)



I was born in Siena on the feast of the Annunciation, in the year 1347. I, and my twin sister who did not long survive, were the youngest of twenty-five children. My father, Giacomo Benincasa, was a prosperous wool dyer, and lived with my mother Lapa and our extended family, in a spacious house which the Sienese have preserved to the present day.

As a child, I was so merry that the family gave me the pet name of Euphrosyne, which is Greek for Joy and also the name of an early Christian saint.  At the age of six I had the remarkable experience which may be said to have determined my vocation.  With my brother, I was on the way home from a visit to a married sister, when suddenly I stopped still in the road, gazing up into the sky.  I did not hear the repeated calls of the boy, who had walked on ahead.  Only after he had gone back and seized me by the hand did I wake as from a dream.  I burst into tears.  My vision of Christ seated in glory with the Apostles Peter, Paul, and John had faded.  A year later, I made a secret vow to give my whole life to God.  I loved prayer and solitude, and when I mingled with other children it was to teach them.  This made me happy. 

Benincasa House in Siena

When Catherine I was twelve, my mother, with marriage in mind, began to urge me to pay more attention to my appearance.  To please my mother and sister, I dressed in the bright gowns and jewels that were fashionable for young girls.  Soon I repented of this vanity, and declared with finality that I would never marry.  When my parents persisted in their talk about finding me a husband, I cut off the golden-brown hair that was my chief beauty.  As punishment, I was now made to do menial work in the household, and my family, knowing I craved solitude, never allowed me to be alone.  I bore all this with sweetness and patience.  Long afterwards, I wrote that God had shown me how to build in my soul a private cell where no tribulation could enter.

My father at last came to the realization that further pressure was useless, and he permitted me to do as I pleased.  In a small, dimly-lighted room now set apart for my use, a cell nine feet by three, I gave myself up to prayers and fasting.  I scourged myself three times daily with an iron chain, and slept on a board.  At first I wore a hair shirt, subsequently replacing it by an iron-spiked girdle.  Soon I obtained what I ardently desired, permission to assume the black habit of a Dominican tertiary, which was customarily granted only to matrons or widows.  I now increased my asceticism, eating and sleeping very little.  For three years I spoke only to my confessor and never went out except to the neighboring Basilica of Saint Dominic, where the pillar against which I used to lean is still pointed out to visitors.

(Basilica of Saint Dominic)

At times now I was enraptured by celestial visions, but often too I was subjected to severe trials.  Loathsome forms and enticing figures would present themselves to my imagination, and the most degrading temptations assailed me.  There would be long intervals during which I felt abandoned by God.  "O Lord, where wert Thou when my heart was so sorely vexed with foul and hateful temptations?" I asked, when after such a time of agonizing He had once more manifested Himself.  I heard a voice saying, "Daughter, I was in thy heart, fortifying thee by grace," and the voice then said that God would now be with me more openly, for the period of probation was nearing an end.

On Shrove Tuesday, 1366, while the citizens of Siena were keeping carnival, and I was praying in my room, a vision of Christ appeared, accompanied by His mother and the heavenly host.  Taking my hand, Our Lady held it up to Christ, who placed a ring upon it and espoused me to Himself, bidding me to be of good courage, for now I was armed with a faith that could overcome all temptations.  To me, the ring was always visible, though invisible to others.  The years of solitude and preparation were ended and soon afterwards I began to mix with my fellow men and learned to serve them.  Like other Dominican tertiaries, I volunteered to nurse the sick in the city hospitals, choosing those afflicted with loathsome diseases—cases from which others were apt to shrink.

There gathered around me a band of earnest associates.  Prominent among them were my two Dominican confessors, Thomas della Fonte and Bartholomew Dominici, the Augustinian Father Tantucci, Matthew Cenni, rector of the Misericordia Hospital, the artist Vanni, to whom we are indebted for a famous portrait of me, the poet Neri di Landoccio dei Pagliaresi, my own sister-in-law Lisa, a noble young widow, Alessia Saracini, and William Flete, the English hermit. Father Santi, an aged hermit, abandoned his solitude to be near me, because, he said, he found greater peace of mind and progress in virtue by following her than he ever found in his cell.  A warm affection bound me to these whom I called my spiritual family, children given to me by God that I might help them along the way to perfection.  I read their thoughts and frequently knew their temptations when they were away from me.  Many of my early letters were written to one or another of them. 

At this time public opinion about me was divided; many Sienese revered me as a saint, while others called me a fanatic or denounced me as a hypocrite.  Perhaps as a result of charges made against me, I was summoned to Florence to appear before the general chapter of the Dominicans.  Whatever the charges were, they were completely disproved, and shortly afterwards the new lector for the order in Siena, Raymund de Capua, was appointed my confessor.  In this happy association, Father Raymund was in many things of the spirit my disciple.  Later he became my biographer.

After my return to Siena there was a terrible outbreak of the plague, during which me and my circle worked incessantly to relieve the sufferers.  I was always with the plague-stricken; I prepared them for death and buried them with my own hands.  I nursed them with joy and the wonderful efficacy of my words, which brought about many conversions.  Among those who owed their recovery directly to me were Raymund of Capua himself, Matthew Cenni, Father Santi, and Father Bartholomew, all of whom contracted the disease through tending others. My pity for dying men was not confined to those who were sick.  I made it a practice to visit condemned persons in prison, hoping to persuade them to make their peace with God.  On one occasion I walked to the scaffold with a young Perugian knight, sentenced to death for using seditious language against the government of Siena.  His last words were: "Jesus and Catherine! "

My deeds of mercy, coupled with a growing reputation as a worker of miracles, now caused the Sienese to bring many requests upon me.  Three Dominican priests were especially deputed to hear the confessions of those whom I had prevailed on to amend their lives.  In settling disputes and healing old feuds I was so successful that I was constantly called upon to arbitrate at a time when all through Italy every man's hand seemed to be against his neighbor. It was partly, perhaps, with a view to turning the energies of Christendom away from civil wars that I threw myself into Pope Gregory's campaign for another crusade to wrest the Holy Sepulchre from the Turks. This brought me into correspondence with Gregory himself.

In February, 1375, I accepted an invitation to visit Pisa, where I was welcomed with enthusiasm.  I had been there only a few days when I had another of the spiritual experiences which seem to have presaged each new step in my career.  I had made my Communion in the little church of St. Christina, and had been gazing at the crucifix, when suddenly there descended from it five blood-red rays which pierced my hands, feet and heart, causing such acute pain that I swooned.  The wounds remained as stigmata, visible to myself alone during my life, but clearly to be seen after my death.


I was still in Pisa when I received word that the people of Florence and Perugia had entered into a league against the Holy See and the French legates.  The disturbance had begun in Florence, where the Guelphs and the Ghibellines united to raise a large army under the banner of freedom from the Pope's control, and Bologna, Viterbo, and Ancona, together with other strongholds in the papal domain, rallied to the insurgents. Through my untiring efforts, the cities of Lucca, Pisa, and Siena held back.  From Avignon, meanwhile, after an unsuccessful appeal to the Florentines, the Pope, Gregory XI, sent Cardinal Robert of Geneva with an army to put down the uprising, and laid Florence under an interdict. The effects of the ban on the life and prosperity of the city were so serious that its rulers sent to Siena, to ask me to mediate with the Pope.

Always ready to act as a peacemaker, I promptly set out for Florence.  The city's magistrates met me as I drew near the gates, and placed the negotiations entirely in my hands, saying that their ambassadors would follow me to Avignon and confirm whatever I did there.  I arrived in Avignon on June 18, 1376, and was graciously received by the Pope. "I desire nothing but peace," he said; "I place the affair entirely in your hands, only I recommend to you the honor of the Church."  As it happened, the Florentines proved untrustworthy and continued their intrigues to draw the rest of Italy away from allegiance to the Holy See. When their ambassadors arrived, they disclaimed all connection with me, making it clear by their demands that they did not desire a reconciliation.

Although I had failed in this matter, my efforts in another direction were successful.  Many of the troubles which then afflicted Europe were, to some degree at least, due to the seventy-four-year residence of the popes at Avignon, where the Curia was now largely French.  Gregory had been ready to go back to Rome with his court, but the opposition of the French cardinals had deterred him.  Since in my letters, I had urged his return so strongly, it was natural that they should discuss the subject now that we were face to face. "Fulfill what you have promised," I said, reminding him of a vow he had once taken and had never disclosed to any human being.  Greatly impressed by what he regarded as a supernatural sign, Gregory resolved to act upon it at once.

On September 13, 1376, he set out from Avignon to travel by water to Rome, while I and my friends left the city on the same day to return overland to Siena.  On reaching Genoa I was detained by the illness of two of my secretaries, Neri di Landoccio and Stephen Maconi.  The latter was a young Sienese nobleman, recently converted, who had become an ardent follower.  When I got back to Siena, I kept on writing the Pope, entreating him to labor for peace.  At his request I went again to Florence, still rent by factions, and stayed there for some time, frequently in danger of my life.  I did finally establish peace between the city governors and the papacy, but this was in the reign of Gregory's successor.

After I returned to Siena, I occupied myself in the composition of a book which I dictated under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost.  My health was now so impaired by austerities that I was never free from pain; yet my thin face was usually smiling.  I was grieved by any sort of scandal in the Church, especially that of the Great Schism which followed the death of Gregory XI.  Urban VI was elected as his successor by the cardinals of Rome and Clement VII by the rebellious cardinals of Avignon.  Western Christendom was divided; Clement was recognized by France, Spain, Scotland, and Naples; Urban by most of North Italy, England, Flanders, and Hungary.  I wore myself out trying to heal this terrible breach in Christian unity and to obtain for Urban the obedience due to the legitimate head.  I dispatched letter after letter to the princes and leaders of Europe.  To Urban himself I wrote to warn him to control his harsh and arrogant temper.  This was the second pope I had counseled, chided, even commanded.  Far from resenting reproof, Urban summoned me to Rome that he might profit by my advice.  Reluctantly I left Siena to live in the Holy City. I had achieved a remarkable position for a woman of my time.  On various occasions at Siena, Avignon, and Genoa, learned theologians questioned me and I humbled them by the wisdom of my replies.

Although I was only thirty-three, my life was now nearing its close.  On April 21, 1380, a paralytic stroke made me helpless from the waist downwards, and eight days later I passed away in the arms of my cherished friend, Alessia Saracini.  The people of Siena wished to have my body.  A story is told of a miracle whereby they were partially successful.  Knowing that they could not smuggle my whole body out of Rome, they decided to take only my head which they placed in a bag. When stopped by the Roman guards, they prayed to my spirit to help them, confident that I would rather have my body (or at least part thereof) in Siena.  When they opened the bag to show the guards, it appeared no longer to hold my head but to be full of rose petals.  Once they got back to Siena they reopened the bag and my head was visible once more.  Due to this story, I am often depicted holding a rose.  The incorruptible head and thumb were entombed in the Basilica of Saint Domenico, where they remain.

(Basilica of Saint Dominic in Siena)

What remained of my body is buried in the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, which is near the Pantheon.

(Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome)

Pope Pius II canonized me in 1461.  My talents as a writer caused me to be compared with my countrymen, Dante and Petrarch.  Among my literary remains are four hundred letters, many of them of great literary beauty, and showing warmth, insight, and aspiration.  One of the important women of Europe, my gifts of heart and mind were used in the furtherance of the Christian ideal.

Sandra Benincasa Falconi
and
Austin Falconi
Descendents of Catherine Benincasa of Siena

Here is a must-read novel about Saint Catherine of Siena's life:

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