Catherine of Siena

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Saint Catherine of Siena (born in Siena, Italy, March 25, 1347; died in Rome, April 29, 1380) was a Dominican Tertiary or lay-affiliate of the Dominican Order. Catherine was the next-to-youngest child of a very large family; her parents were Giacomo di Benincasa, a cloth-dyer; her mother, Lapa.

As a tertiary Catherine lived at home rather than in a convent, and she practiced austerities there which a prioress would probably not have permitted. She is especially famous for fasting and practicing physical mortifications that remind modern readers of the extremes of anorexia, so much so that the recent scholar Rudolph Bell uses her life as an example in his book Holy Anorexia.

In about 1366 she experienced what she described in her letters as a 'Mystical Marriage' with Jesus Christ, and in 1370 she received a series of visions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven after which she heard a command to leave her withdrawn life and enter the public life of the world. She began to write letters to men and women in authority, especially begging for peace between the republics and principalities of Italy and for the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome. She had a detailed correspondence with Pope Gregory XI, also asking him to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States. In June of 1376 she went to Avignon herself as ambassador of Florence to make peace with the Papal States, but was unsuccessful. She impressed the Pope so much, however, that he returned his administration to Rome in January of 1377. In the Great Schism of 1378 she was an adherent of Pope Urban VI, who summoned her to Rome where she lived until her death in 1380.

Pope Pius II canonized Catherine in 1461. Her letters are considered one of the great works of early Tuscan literature.

further reading

Rudolph Bell, Holy Anorexia
Carolyn Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women