[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”113727980X” locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/51IN8NU0sL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”221″]An excerpt from the excellent new book:
Setting the World on Fire: The Brief, Astonishing Life of St. Catherine of Siena
Hardback: St. Martins, 2016
Buy now: [ [easyazon_link identifier=”113727980X” locale=”US” tag=”douloschristo-20″]Amazon[/easyazon_link] ] [ [easyazon_link identifier=”B015CLZ6QE” locale=”US” tag=”douloschristo-20″]Kindle[/easyazon_link] ]
In the fourteenth century, Catherine’s public persona as a strong-willed woman who never backed down was extraordinary to the point of being freakish. At the time, women were so subservient to men that they didn’t speak unless spoken to. And when they were spoken to, they kept their eyes lowered. Legally, women were not allowed to appear in court. They weren’t allowed to hold any public, political or professional office or to become a member of any of Italy’s influential guilds, such as the dyers’ guild Catherine’s father belonged to. And they weren’t allowed to wear anything that was not of their husband’s choosing. Women without brothers were able to inherit land from their fathers, but they were forced to surrender it to their husbands as soon as they married. Always, the law excluded women as second-class citizens. “The good woman was invisible. She wasn’t supposed to leave the house. She wasn’t even supposed to be seen standing at the window of the house,” said Elizabeth Petroff, a professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “Yes, people looked askance [at Catherine], but she won them over, many times. She must have been just what the times needed.”
While in the public eye, Catherine was surrounded by a growing army of disciples who doggedly trailed her through the streets of Siena. The group included her adored sister-in-law Lisa Colombini, whose husband was Catherine’s brother Bartolomeo, a woman Catherine called “my sister-in-law according to the flesh, but my sister in Christ.” Catherine’s own sister Lisa also followed her, as did many young Dominican friars. Members of the group were nearly inseparable, attending Mass together once or twice a day and confession at least once a week. So great was the affection of these followers that they began to call her “Mamma,” as Pope Benedict XVI reminded an audience in 2010. He said they did so because, as her children, they looked to her for spiritual nourishment. He said, “Today, too, the Church receives great benefit from the exercise of spiritual motherhood by so many women, lay and consecrated, who nourish souls with thoughts of God, who strengthen the people’s faith and direct Christian life towards ever loftier peaks. ‘Son, I say to you and call you’, Catherine wrote to one of her spiritual sons, Giovanni Sabbatini, ‘inasmuch as I give birth to you in continuous prayers and desire in the presence of God, just as a mother gives birth to a son.’”
As she went forth into the world, away from her cell, Catherine wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or lecture even the most powerful of men if she thought they would benefit from it. But before taking on her new role, she experienced two tragic episodes in 1368, when she was 21. First, the health of her beloved father deteriorated rapidly during this period. We’re not sure what might have been wrong with Giacomo, only that he suddenly took to his bed, quite ill. Catherine stayed glued to his side, certain the end was near, praying for his soul. According to Raymond’s account, she begged God to show mercy on her father so that he might not suffer in purgatory. God apparently argued against the idea—although it’s not clear why—but Catherine negotiated a plea bargain by imploring God to permit her to suffer any punishments due her father in his place. A severe pain then shot like lightning into Catherine’s side before wandering all over her body, and she was barely able to move. She later revealed that remnants of this pain stayed with her the rest of her life. And yet she accepted it not with resentment, but with gratitude, telling her father that he was now free to die in peace. Giacomo passed away on August 22, at which point Catherine became the primary care- giver for her mother, Lapa, who by then was around 60.
The momentous year 1368 also saw the complete collapse of Siena’s government and a subsequent wave of riots, revolts and slaughter. Between September 1368 and January 1369, no less than six governments were toppled and supplanted. The city of Florence tried to step in and arbitrate an end to the chaos, but to no avail.
Catherine couldn’t help but become drawn into the quagmire. In the years following the plague, her family had shown a keener interest in city politics and how they impact the economy. Being dyers, they belonged to a coalition of tradesmen that supported the ruling faction of twelve people from the citizens’ party known as “le Dodici.” This is the group that had seized power in 1355. More than a decade later, though, the nobles began turning against the Dodici, and, on September 2, 1368, a group of them broke into the Palazzo Pubblico, the imposing Gothic town hall building on the south side of the Piazza del Campo, and threw out the sitting twelve.
The nobles quickly ushered in a new government—the Government of Nine—that lasted all of three weeks. On September 24, members of the powerful Salimbeni family—made up of wealthy tax collectors—rushed fully armed out into the streets. There they joined members from the old party of the Dodici and threw open the city gates to soldiers of the Holy Roman Empire. The tenacious group fought its way, alleyway by alleyway, to the front door of the Palazzo Pubblico, and the building was taken over yet again. They then set up a new Government of Twelve, Difensori del Popolo Sienese, or the defenders of the people. After only a few weeks of relative calm, they, too, were ousted. This time, fifteen Defenders, or Reformers as they called themselves, stood at the helm. In the months that followed, more battles raged, between all sorts of factions, and Catherine’s hometown was racked with revolution and anarchy. It wasn’t until the following summer that some semblance of peace was restored. The banished nobles returned, joining forces with yet another group of fifteen Reformers, and they somehow managed to hold the reins until 1385. But sparring among the various parties—and among the families of vengeful men loyal to these parties—went on in spite of the relatively stable government. This constant unrest kept everyone in the city on edge—and the hospitals packed with the wounded.
Despite her family’s involvement in local politics, Catherine’s unwavering belief in a universal common good that recognizes the worthiness and voices of all people—no matter what their background, affiliation or social status—made her a powerful advocate for peace. The outspoken young woman had, through her confident and heartfelt oratory, become quite adept at calming troubled waters—able to persuade the haughtiest of nobles and the most pompous of citizens to take a more passive, conciliatory approach. Although Giacomo had been spared the sight of wanton violence, Catherine and the rest of the family were in the thick of it, unable to avoid the clash of weapons that so often erupted right outside their doorsteps. According to nineteenth-century biographer Josephine Butler, who wrote Life of St. Catherine of Siena, “All that Catherine saw and heard contributed to encourage in the young girl the strong republican love of liberty, and to confirm in her the conviction that human life is no holiday pastime, but a prolonged struggle between opposing elements, for nations as well as for the individual.”
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com