Born the 25th child of a wool dyer in the Republic of Siena (now northern Italy), Catherine began having visions of Christ and the saints when she was only six years old. At the age of seven (the age when a child was considered able to consent to a vow of marriage), Catherine vowed herself to celibacy. Her family did not agree with her vow, however, and at the age of 12 Catherine cut off her long hair in order to repel the man they had picked for her to marry. Opposition from her family continued for a short time, but they gave in to the strength of her intentions to devote herself to prayer, and when she was 16 she was permitted to join the Third Order of St. Dominic as a tertiary, which meant she wore the Dominican habit, but remained at home and did not take monastic vows.
At the age of 17 Catherine ceased secluding herself to her room in prayer. She said she had received a divine calling to be involved with the world in peacemaking and service to the sick, the poor, and criminals condemned to death. She became famous for her labors in these tasks, and later for her fearless engagement of the popes and cardinals of the medieval church, calling for reform and a return to pure devotion to Christ.
Catherine was not immune to the religious excesses of her age. She went through periods of extreme asceticism in which she denied herself food and water, flagellated herself, and wore a painfully course undergarment and an iron chain. She believed she was called to be a “sinbearer” for those who would not repent, carrying their sins on her own shoulders to the throne of Christ for mercy. Protestants may disagree with her theology, but cannot fault the spirit of intercession in which she lifted her fellow humans to God in prayer. Her courageous labors among those sickened by the plague of 1374 that ravaged Siena were performed with amazing tenderness and love, and it was during this plague that miracles of healing and raising the dead were attributed to her.
As one of many poor daughters of a lowly artisan, Catherine received no formal education. But according to Catholic Online, "St. Catherine was one of the most brilliant theological minds of her day. . . St. Catherine's letters, and a treatise called 'a dialogue' are considered among the most brilliant writings in the history of the Catholic Church.”
But perhaps the most remarkable of Catherine’s accomplishments was the influence she gained in the upper echelons of the church hierarchy. As Daughters of the Church puts it:
[G]aining influence at the highest levels of the politically powerful and strictly male-dominated Roman Catholic Church . . . would have been a difficult feat for any woman, and thus the accomplishments of Catherine stand as truly amazing when one considers her lack of social status, her obscure background, and her utter lack of renown in ecclesiastical circles. p. 158.
Mrs. Arthur Pelham, in her 1894 treatise “St. Catherine of Siena,” published online at the University of Pennsylvania’s Digital Library, mentions that the first time Catherine appeared as a peacemaker was when she was only 21 years old. During a revolution in Siena in 1368, Catherine became a mediator between many factions. She gave a speech in the streets in which more than 2000 people listened to her pleas for peace. In 1375 she attempted to turn Italy’s attention away from its now-incessant civil wars by sending letters to the pope and other church officials promoting the idea of a Crusade to the Holy Land, which would free her native land from the burden of the large numbers of mercenary soldiers living off the people. Mrs. Pelham notes:
Whatever may be our own feelings as to the merits of this idea, these letters are full of interest and throw much light upon the ideas and feelings of the men and women of that day, and on the motives underlying the so-called "Holy Wars."
Catherine’s most well-known accomplishment was her march to Avignon with 20 followers in 1376, employed by the Republic of Florence to attempt to persuade Pope Gregory IX to return the seat of papal power from Avignon to Rome. When she arrived, Catherine was greeted with suspicion by the cardinals, who gave her what amounted to an oral examination to determine whether or not she was a heretic. She passed the test and was admitted to the Pope’s presence. The extent of her influence upon him to return to Rome is debated by scholars, but there is no doubt that he did indeed return to Rome, and that both Gregory IX and his successor, Urban “valued and appreciated her services,” and that when she later addressed the assembled cardinals in the Consistory regarding the Great Schism of the papacy between Urban VI and Clement VII, all heard “Pope [Urban] himself summing up her remarks, and giving frank expression to the encouragement and help which he himself derived from her advice.”
Catherine died in 1380 at the age of only 33, of what may have been anorexia, or may have been a stomach ailment that prevented her from eating. Her feast day is April 29 and she is considered the patroness of Italy. Daughters of the Church considers that “she did not [succeed in reforming] the church or the papacy, but her voluminous correspondence to accomplish that end stands as a permanent monument to one lowly individual’s fight against corruption and immorality.” p. 160.
Catherine remained committed throughout her life to the deep communion with God and personal experience of the love of Christ which began in her early childhood. She was not to be bound by the restrictions placed upon women, but her personal giftings and callings made her voice heard even in the highest tiers of medieval Christianity, and her teachings are still reaching Christians today. As the Hon. Mrs. Pelham remarked (somewhat drily) in 1894:
Catherine was eminently a political woman, and owed her influence and power to the honorable and direct qualities of her individual character and strength of principle, and not to the indirect ones of rank or beauty. Such women prove better than arguments that there may be a place for women in politics, and suggest that they may be even necessary for the government of the perfect state.
Today there is little dispute that a place for women in politics does indeed exist. Isn’t it time for the church as a whole to realize that women’s place in the church can be one of great power and influence, either with the cooperation of the church leaders or in spite of them—and that God is not bound to our notion of gender roles in the way He gives His gifts?
Sources:About.com Women's History
Hon. Mrs. Arthur Pelham, "St. Catherine of Siena," 1894
Tucker & Liefeld, Daughters of the Church, Zondervan Publishing House (1987), pp. 156-160.