‘Preach the truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.’
Throughout St. Catherine of Siena’s life, the actions and lifestyles of many in the Church did not match up with the Church’s faith. Stagnation reigned over religious praxis in Europe. Ecclesial ministers — not excluding popes — were marked by corruption and evil lives, while society exhibited growing depravity. Many thought the Black Death was God’s solution to the moral rot that plagued society, but no solution is more effective for cultural reform than holiness. And St. Catherine, born at the same time that nearly a third of Europe was dying, had holiness to a great degree.
Most of Catherine’s life was concealed in obscurity. She was one of of 25 children born to Giacomo di Benincasa, a wool dyer, and his wife, Lapa. From an early age, Catherine (1347-1380) wanted to dedicate her life to Christ alone, and she often secluded herself from family and community. As a young woman, her family attempted to lure her toward another path in marriage to her late sister’s husband. In her teens, she took on the white and black habit of the Sisters of Penance of St. Dominic.
It appears that Catherine would have been content to remain in the family home, living as a recluse with intense fasting and penances. Her ascetic and penitential life was borne from a desire to conform with Christ crucified, which meant it was lived for others.
Catherine received mystical visions and supernatural experiences. Representative of her union with Jesus, she bore the wounds of his passion and death, known as the stigmata. Despite being invisible to those around her, these marks caused her great agony.
The Lord wanted her to leave behind her hidden life, and Catherine entered a new public era of life directed toward extensive service to the poor and vulnerable. Even more, she illuminated a dark world by her holiness.
On account of her reputation, many sought the counsel of Catherine, and sometimes she spoke out on her own initiative. The fearless, uneducated woman was unafraid to speak truth to even the most powerful men of her time.
Lamenting the morally deficient clergy, Catherine remarked that “many layfolk put them to shame by their good holy lives.” She relentlessly called out various leaders, including popes, for their failures, challenging them to work once again for the good of the Church and the salvation of souls.
Catherine knew any real and lasting reforms needed the support of the popes, and she possessed the insight that popes would be effective in governance if they returned to Rome from Avignon, France — where the papacy had relocated and which many regarded as scandalous. She confronted Pope Gregory XI, who subsequently returned to Rome. When he died in 1378, however, the Church plunged further into turmoil with the election of Pope Urban VI. When his election was opposed by a powerful faction that elected their own candidate as an antipope, the Western Schism began.
It might have seemed like Catherine’s earthly efforts were stacking up against her, not amounting to much. She knew that if all her attempts at persuasion bore little fruit, she must reorient her energy to sacrifice herself to God on behalf of the Church. Her final days were spent wrestling with demonic voices that tempted her to see all her work as nothing but a failure — even as the product of her own will rather than the Lord’s. At only 33 — traditionally regarded of Christ’s age at his death — St. Catherine died in Rome on April 29, 1380. Her feast is April 29.
Michael R. Heinlein is editor of OSV’s Simply Catholic and a graduate of The Catholic University of America. He writes from Indiana. This article is taken from the ‘Saints in Times of Crisis’ booklet from Our Sunday Visitor.