Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Saint of the Week -- Catherine of Siena

Scholastic philosopher, theologian, tireless worker for the unity of the church, counselor to popes, kings and queens, fearless nurse to lepers -- Catherine of Siena lived an amazingly fruitful life in her short 33 years.

Born the 23rd of 25 children (the 24th, her twin sister, died in infancy), Catherine was always intended to marry. Her father, a cloth-dyer, was part of the political party that ran Siena. An advantageous marriage would help his business and his political career.

But at the age of 7, Catherine had a vision of Jesus and dedicated her virginity to Christ. And she meant it. She resisted every attempt on the part of her parents to be a normal Italian Renaissance girl. She flogged herself, fasted, slept on a board, and cut off her golden hair in defiance of her parents. In turn, they made her the family slave for three years, hoping a life of Cinderella drudgery would break her spirit.

But Catherine merely made a prayer room in her own heart and kept on communing with God. Eventually, her parents relented. She became a third order Dominican, which allowed her to live at home. After three years in silent prayer in a room in her family home, she emerged at age 19 with a call to serve the world.

In the 14 years of her public ministry, Catherine nursed lepers and cancer victims. She studied the ancient texts and scriptures, and gathered a community of followers to work for the purification of the church. She traveled to Avignon, France, where the Pope was living under control of the King of France and lectured the Pope and harangued him until he returned to Rome. She was never shy about speaking truth to power, and wrote similar letters to kings and queens all over Europe, urging them to greater holiness.

A life of ascetic abuse and anorexia doomed her to an early death, and she died in Rome in late April, 1380. Her body is buried in Rome, but the people of Siena, knowing she would want to be buried in her hometown, removed her head and spirited it home, where it is entombed in the Basilica of San Domingo.

In the Roman Catholic church, she is the patron saint of firefighters, nurses, people mocked for their piety, Italy (along with Francis of Assisi), and television.

Television? Go fig.

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