Catherine of Siena (born 1347) was a woman who was used by God in extraordinary ways in late medieval Italy. Her influence, which reached the highest echelons of both civil and church politics, was astonishing. But her ministry also extended to lowly souls blighted by poverty, injustice, and disease. In this article, I provide a brief biography of Catherine’s life and I look at three lessons that can be learnt from her inspiring ministry.
A Biography of Catherine of Siena
Italy in the fourteenth century was a place threatened by violence and cruelty. Murderous freelance armies could swoop without warning on cities and towns, leaving devastation in their wake. And ruthless, powerful men delighted in unbelievable brutality. Within cities such as Siena, bitter feuds existed between families who might be separated by just a narrow laneway. Italians were renowned for solving squabbles and rivalries with daggers and poison. Perhaps most frightening of all, however, was the Black Death that visited Siena three times during Catherine’s lifetime.
On top of this, the Roman Catholic Church was going through one of its darkest periods. The papal seat had moved from Rome to Avignon causing political and religious instability, and the church’s ranks were filled with immoral, merciless, and avaricious men. The Inquisition, with its capricious injustice and attendant torture, was active. It was at this time that Catherine was born to bring peace.
From a very young age, Catherine showed a strong desire for religious devotion. Like most people at that time, she could not read, so her early religious education came from seeing the descriptive paintings in the nearby church and through hearing romanticised tales about early church martyrs and desert fathers and mothers.
At the age of six, Catherine had a vision of Jesus. From that time onwards, she exhibited a single-minded dedication and unflagging confidence in God. Vivid and detailed visions were a regular part of her religious experience. Catherine admitted that she used her own imagination to heighten the experiences. Nevertheless, these visions empowered her to achieve extraordinary things in God’s employ.
As a child, Catherine happily divided her life equally between domestic duties and prayer. When she was in her early teens her parents wanted her to marry. After much difficulty, Catherine managed to persuade them that she was already betrothed to her heavenly “Bridegroom,” Jesus Christ. She had no desire to marry nor to become a cloistered nun, the only two options available for a respectable young woman.
Catherine chose instead to spend the next three years in seclusion in a tiny room in her parent’s modest house, living a contemplative life in prayer and meditation. During those years, inspired by the tales of martyrs and hermits, she deliberately deprived herself of sleep and food, and would physically harm herself.
In 1368, after three years in relative isolation, Catherine ventured out into public ministry. She initially ministered to those struck by putrid diseases which included the plague. Catherine fearlessly nursed the sick and buried those who others were too afraid to touch. She pragmatically and compassionately ministered in any way she could, and many miraculous healings were attributed to her. Catherine combined mysticism, compassion and practicality in her ministry—a profound combination of qualities. And she always spoke about her beloved Jesus to her patients and to the grieving.
Catherine ministered in a variety of missions—wherever circumstances, needs, and the Holy Spirit led her. As her ministry grew, Catherine was invited to personally intervene and mediate in all sorts of conflicts and disputes for both the poor and the powerful. These disputes were often volatile, desperate, and politically complicated. It is said that her grace shone in these situations and put erring parties to shame. Catherine was magnificent in her numerous missions as a diplomat, bringing peace in the name of God. People all over Italy sought her help and advice. Even the popes Gregory XI and Urban VI sought her counsel.
Catherine was also a prolific correspondent, offering both spiritual teaching and practical instruction. Her almost 400 surviving letters display an interesting mix of boldness and humility.
Catherine was faithful to the Roman Catholic Church but was passionate about its reform. She believed that it was only through this church that those she served could be saved. She boldly denounced the immorality and laxity of the clergy, even confronting the hostile College of Cardinals.
In 1377, despite considerable opposing political pressures, Catherine was successful in persuading Gregory XI to return the papal seat to Rome. Gregory died the following year, however, and two rival popes were elected by the Cardinals, resulting in the “Great Schism”. Catherine was greatly distressed by this turn of events and, while in service to Urban VI, she died in Rome at the age of 33.
Lessons from Catherine of Siena’s Ministry
1. Catherine’s Courage
Catherine was a young woman of outstanding and inspirational courage. She was not intimidated by worldly power and spoke with equal frankness to kings and queens, pontiffs and cardinals, military and civil leaders, as well as to simple townsfolk and peasants. She was not afraid of men, no matter how fierce. She was also unafraid of disease or of dangerous journeys by either land or sea.
Catherine repeatedly broke social conventions at a time when numerous statutes and customs imposed constraints on everyday life. This was especially true for single women. Catherine was continually misunderstood and slandered, but her clear and strong conviction of being personally commissioned by God gave her courage, grace, and dignity. Catherine’s ability to remain undeterred by criticism, and remain committed to her calling, is a tremendous example to all ministers of the gospel, perhaps especially to women ministers.
Catherine lived and acted and spoke as though she was Christ’s personal emissary. Her sense of calling and clarity of vision were compelling forces in mission; they enabled her to rise above the difficult and unpleasant situations that frequently occur in ministry. A strong sense of calling and a clear vision can help ministry leaders to be resilient, strong, and undeterred despite difficulties and problems.
2. Catherine’s Team
In recent years much has been written about the benefits of teamwork and how to develop healthy teams for mission and ministry. It is delightful to see that Catherine effectively employed these principles in the 1300s. While Catherine was a person uniquely called and gifted in her own right, she gathered around her a team of talented men and women who believed in her and supported her mission. These faithful followers, who she referred to as her “college”, included theologians, secular scholars, monks, friars, and educated women. They were her teachers, confidantes, and secretaries. These true friends accompanied Catherine on her dangerous journeys and they provided expertise and finances for her missions.
Teamwork greatly enhances the effectiveness of a mission by the addition of skills. And sharing tasks and responsibilities can relieve much of the burden put on senior leaders. Mission becomes more enjoyable and sustainable when it is shared with talented like-minded people.
3. Catherine’s Theology
Unfortunately, Catherine’s theology in her early years was faulty. Catherine saw herself as a “sin-bearer” and she mistakenly believed she could atone for the sins of others by self-immolation. She also believed that extreme austerities were pleasing to God. She injured her health by these practices and consequently suffered from debilitating pain which frequently reduced her capacity for mission and may have hastened her death.
A sound theology can help Christians to more fully access and utilise the power and grace of God that is available to us. It is important for someone involved in a Christian mission to have a comprehensive understanding of who God is, not only biblically and theoretically, but also experientially. Catherine’s lifelong practice was to spend half of her day in prayer and half in more practical ministry. Her prayer time enabled Catherine to continually draw strength, guidance, and inspiration from God for her practical work. It is important that our mission has a spiritual vitality to it that can only come from a close spiritual connection with God that is nurtured in quiet times.
For an uneducated woman of ordinary birth, living in the middle ages, Catherine achieved extraordinary results in her various missions due to her remarkable dedication and devotion to her Lord and Bridegroom, Jesus Christ. She was willing to sacrifice her reputation and her comfort to follow her calling in Christ as his peace envoy. She bravely went where few others dared, and triumphed. She brought peace and reconciliation where there had been conflict and estrangement. She brought hope and comfort in the face of suffering, disease, and death. She brilliantly combined mysticism and practical ministry, and in every situation she preached the simple gospel of Christ.
In recognition of her ministry, Catherine was canonised (sainted) by Pius II in 1461. Catherine was later declared a Doctor of the Church by Paul VI in 1970. This rare honour is given to church writers whose contribution to doctrinal understanding has benefited the Roman Catholic Church. Only four women have received this honour. Doctor Saint Catherine of Siena truly was an exceptional person.
 The desert fathers and mothers were Christians who, following John the Baptist’s example, chose to live as hermits and ascetics. They sought a disciplined life of solitude and spirituality, choosing to live mainly in the Egyptian desert during the third to fifth centuries. Several desert fathers went on to become prominent figures in the Church during the fourth and fifth centuries, including Athanasius, John Chrysostom, and Augustine of Hippo.
 Catherine’s visions “contained no revelations and did not add anything to the stock of spiritual knowledge.” (Roberts 1906:19)
 Catherine personally buried at least six of her own nieces and nephews.
 While certainly illiterate in early life, Raimondo da Capua (her close friend, confessor, and biographer) alleges that Catherine could read Latin and Italian. While Catherine may have learnt to write later in life, it is clear that many of her letters and other writings were dictated to her secretaries. As well as her letters, Catherine’s writings include “Dialogue”, also called “Treatise on Divine Providence”, and a series of “Prayers”.
 This schism lasted from 1378–1415. The two papal claimants were continually embroiled in “rivalry which led to increased corruption within their administrations and a decrease of interest in anything other than gaining an advantage over their opponent.” (Nelson)
 “Her last political work, accomplished practically from her death-bed, was the reconciliation of Pope Urban VI with the Roman Republic (1380).” (Knight 2009)
 The one thing that did seem to frighten Catherine was mental illness. She avoided the mentally ill and only three cases of her healing a mentally ill person have been recorded in her biography by Raimondo da Capua.
 She once stated, “I never undertook any journey save at the command of God and his Vicar [the pope] and for the salvation of souls.” (Roberts 1906:244)
 Some of her secretaries made their own personal notes in Catherine’s letters revealing a sense of good humour within the group.
 With the help of the members of her college, Catherine later came to realise that good health was a gift of God to be treasured.
 The four women are Catherine of Sienna (died 1380, declared a doctor 1970), Teresa of Avila (died 1582, declared a doctor 1970), Therese of Lisieux (died 1897, declared a doctor 1997), and Hildegard of Bingen (died 1179, declared a doctor 2012).
Butler, Josephine, Catharine of Siena: A Biography (London: Marshall, 1894) http://www.archive.org/details/catharineofsiena00butliala accessed March-April 2009
Clifford, Paula, Women doing Excellently: Biblical Women and their Successors (Norwich: The Canterbury Press, 2001)
Knight, Kevin (ed.),  “St Catherine of Siena”, New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03447a.htm accessed 14/03/09
Knight, Kevin (ed.),  “Doctors of the Church“, New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia.
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05075a.htm accessed 7/04/09
Nelson, Lynn Harry, “The Great Schism 1378–1415”, Lectures in Medieval History.
http://www.vlib.us/medieval/lectures/great_schism.html accessed 17/04/09
Roberts, Margaret, Saint Catherine of Siena and her Times (London: Methuen and Co, 1906)
http://www.archive.org/details/saintcatherineof00robeiala accessed March-April 2009
This article has been abridged and adapted from an assignment entitled Catherine of Sienna: Lessons in Mission from her Life and Ministry, submitted on the 8th of May, 2009, to the Australian College of Ministries (ACOM).
© Margaret Mowczko 2010
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Here are some excerpts from Catherine’s The Dialogue translated into English:
When my goodness saw that you could be drawn in no other way, I sent him to be lifted onto the wood of the cross. I made of that cross an anvil where this child of humankind could be hammered into an instrument to release humankind from death and restore it to the life of grace. In this way he drew everything to himself: for he proved his unspeakable love, and the human heart is always drawn by love.
I explained all this to you because I wanted to let you see the way. So when he says that he is the Way, he is speaking the truth. And I have already shown you that he is the Way, in the image of a bridge. He says he is the Truth, and so he is, and whoever follows him goes the way of truth. And he is Life. If you follow his truth, you will have the life of grace and never die of hunger, for the Word has himself become your food.
Taken from “Catherine of Siena” in Devotional Classics: Revised Edition: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups, by Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith (San Francisco: Harper, 1993), 287-292. (Thank you to Abram for pointing out this book.)
Female Martyrs and their Ministry in the Early Church
Three Legendary Ladies: Judith, Thecla, and Catherine of Alexandria
Marcella of Rome: Academic, Ascetic and Almsgiver
Olympias of Constantinople: Deaconess and Friend of Chrysostom
Count Zinzendorf and an Egalitarian Revival
The Countess of Huntingdon and Gospel Ministry
Phoebe Palmer: The Mother of the Holiness Movement
Various articles on women in church history, here.