The wind came up, the skies darkened and hail descended as we arrived in Siena to visit the birthplace of one of Italy’s patron saints, Catherine.
She was born in 1347, the 23rd child (!!) of parents who were insightful enough to allow her a life of solitude and prayer, a rarity when girls were either forced into marriage or the convent.
Beautiful, blonde and delicate, Catherine held her first mystical vision when she was only seven years old.
She lived outside of convent life, belonging to a female order of the Dominicans called “Cloaked Ones” and set about working with the poor and ill citizens of Siena. She was, what we would call today, an eternal optimist and wise beyond her years. She developed a reputation for giving excellent counsel, both spiritual and practical to those who came to consult with her about life’s daily challenges.
When she was just 23 years old, she had another vision that compelled her to take on a larger role and this was the beginning of the radical years that would shake up the hierarchy of the Catholic Church.
For the past sixty years, the Papacy had abandoned Rome for Avignon, in France due to political conflicts. The Papal court was rife with power hungry egos who engaged in all sorts of bad behavior unchecked, including decadent sexual offenses, avarice and flagrant nepotism.
Catherine, this contemplative young woman called the Pope to task. She began by writing letters to him.
“Up, father! No more irresponsibility! God demands that you execute justice. Since he has given you authority and you have assumed it, you should use your power. If you are not willing to use it, better to resign.”
And this: “Do not make it necessary for me to complain about you to Christ, crucified,” imploring the head of the Church to “be more manly.”
And to the corrupt cardinals: “You are flowers who shed a stench that makes the whole world reek.”
This did not go over well with her Sienese Dominican brothers who began (of course) a smear campaign, accusing her of being a fanatic and tool of the Devil. She was summoned to Florence and miraculously, the Dominicans found no evidence to use to burn her.
Her work was not yet done. She continued her mission of returning the Papacy to Rome while attending to her fellow citizens in Siena during the Plague, herself becoming emaciated and the victim of a series of strokes.
She finally was able to travel to Avignon to speak directly with the Pope and a first hand account of the meeting described that “the Pope was struck speechless…how such words came to be spoken with such authority.”
One year later, the Pope came back to Rome.
Catherine died at age 33 and was made a saint in 1461. Five hundred years later, she was declared a Doctor of the Church, a distinction given to only two other female saints. She had left behind as dictations, her conversations with God during her mystical periods of ecstasy.
We used our umbrellas to shelter us from the hail and wind and entered the suddenly quiet and peaceful shelter of the Basilica of San Domenico. The relic of Catherine’s incorrupt head is preserved as a shrine in this place.
Catherine’s words must have felt like biting hail pounding on the heads of the Church fathers. But her tenacity and willingness to use her voice brought a level of reform in her time.
I could not help but think about our own times. How the young are using their voices to call out the powerful heads of organizations whose leadership is oftentimes founded on corrupt ideals.
As we left Siena, the sun was shining.