In a country filled with cities and towns each protected by a different patron saint, Italy, as a country, is watched over by two patron saints: Saint Francis of Assisi, and Saint Catherine of Siena. Today marks the feast day of Saint Catherine, who died in Rome on this day in 1380, at just 33 years old.
A patron saint is regarded as the heavenly advocate or protector of a nation, town or city, a person, a family, or even an activity. A saint’s feast day is celebrated on the day of the saint’s death, and in Italy, these celebrations take a number of forms, from processions to festivals to fireworks.
The feast day is also the onomastico for Italians sharing the same first name. An onomastico acts as almost a second birthday, so if you are a Catherine or have any Catherines in your life, wish them a hearty “buon onomastico!” today.
Not only is Saint Catherine (Santa Caterina) patron saint to all of Italy, partnered with one of the most beloved saints, Francis of Assisi (San Francesco), in 1999, Pope John Paul II named Saint Catherine as one of Europe’s six patron saints. (Incidentally, she’s also listed as patron saint of the United States.) The Catholic church honored her with the title Doctor of the Church, a distinction given to saints in recognition of their “significant contribution to theology or doctrine through their research, study or writing.” (1)
For a female living in medieval Europe, born in the same year that the Black Plague began ravaging Italian city-states, the contributions Catherine made in her short life were incredibly significant.
What were those contributions?
“Catherine of Siena is one of the outstanding figures of medieval Catholicism, by the strong influence she has had in the history of the papacy and her extensive authorship. She was behind the return of the Pope from Avignon to Rome, and then carried out many missions entrusted by the pope, something quite rare for a woman in the Middle Ages. Her Dialogue, hundreds of letters, and dozens of prayers, also give her a prominent place in the history of Italian literature.” (2)
Catherine came to live a life of service, dedicated to the the sick and poor. She strove for reformation of the clergy. With her followers, she shared her beliefs that “repentance and renewal could be done through ‘the total love for God.'” (3)
One of her most influential contributions was the role she played in her later years to help return the papacy from Avignon, France back to Rome. Her actual visit to Avignon in 1376 proved unsuccessful, but she so impressed the pope (Gregory XI) that in January of 1377, he returned the papacy to Rome.
Catherine taught herself to read when she was 20 and although she never wrote (or possibly learned at the end of her life), she left behind a number of written works, dictated to her secretaries. Most notable is The Dialogue of Divine Province, a summary of all she learned in her spiritual life, written as a conversation “between a soul who ‘rises up’ to God and God himself.” More than 300 of Catherine’s letters, detailing her visions and experiences, are published in the book Letters of Catherine Benincasa. Her letters are considered one of the great works of early Tuscan literature. (4).
Background of a Saint
Saint Catherine of Siena was born Caterina Benincasa, the youngest of 23 children. Many of her siblings died young including her twin sister Giovanna, who died in infancy. The twins, in fact, were born prematurely. Catherine’s mother, Lapa, the daughter of a poet, gave birth at 40 years old. Catherine’s father was Giacomo di Benincasa, a wool dyer. The family home still exists today in Siena, serving as a museum.
She was always a spiritual child, and is said to have experienced her first visions around the age of five. By the time she was seven, Catherine “vowed to give her whole life to God.” (5) At 16, she joined a Dominican religious order, living at home as the Sisters of Penance was not an enclosed order.
It was a few years later, in 1366, when Catherine “experienced a ‘Mystical Marriage’ with Jesus, after which she began to attend the poor.” To this point, she had lived a secluded spiritual life. But this experience, and subsequent visions, prompted her to bring her beliefs and service into the world.
Catherine of Siena died in Rome of a stroke, at the age of 33. Her body remains lay in rest at Rome’s Santa Maria sopra Minerva church. Her head is preserved in Siena’s Basilica of San Domenico, also known as Basilica Cateriniana.
In addition to being a patron saint of Europe, Italy and the United States, Saint Catherine is the patron saint of nurses and of the sick, for people ridiculed for their piety, and the patron saint against fire.