Here’s to strong, gutsy women! One such woman is Catherine of Sienna who died on this day in 1380. Seeing the power she wielded and the impact she made during her short 33 years is nothing short of startling!
Something must have been in the fourteenth century air… Catherine was born in Italy five years after Julian of Norwich was born in England (1342). This was the time of the Black Death, the 100 Years War, and the Avignon papacy. It is estimated that 38% of women would die giving birth. Catherine was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. Clearly, she is an exemplar of one who achieves greatness in the throes of adversity.
Rather than enter a monastic religious order, Catherine associated herself with the Dominicans and claimed for herself, “My cell will not be one of stone or wood, but of self-knowledge.” Here we must be careful not to interpret this from the post-Enlightenment perspective or the autonomous individualism of 21st century culture! “Self” was clearly understood as relational and imbedded in solidarity with others and with God.
After three years of prayerful turmoil and seclusion, Catherine rejoined her family and began serving her neighbors. She cared for victims of the plague, gathered alms for the poor and ministered to prisoners. She would soon recognize a further call to serve the wider world and press for reform of the church.
Catherine honed her peacemaking skills mediating between feuding families of Sienna. Then, she took on the Pope! With a retinue of companions and with enthusiastic support along the way, Catherine traveled to Avignon in France to mediate the armed conflict between the city-state of Florence and the papacy. There she was blunt and uncompromising in her insistence that Gregory XI return to Rome. The pope complied!
Extraordinary women like Catherine are more numerous than our history books suggest. Thankfully, others like Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) are being rediscovered. Catherine was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970; Hildegard was similarly honored in 2012. Of the 35 so honored, only four are women – Catherine, Hildegard, Teresa of Ávila (1515 -1582) and Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897).
Yes, there is much rediscovery of our full heritage to be made. Thankfully, there are places like the University of Saint Catherine here in Minnesota. More of us need to reclaim the vision, courage and mission of Catherine in empowering strong, gutsy women to lead and reform our church and world.
Many good biographies of Catherine are available on the Web. Again, I am grateful to Robert Ellsberg for his inspiring, All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets and Witnesses for Our Times (Crossroads, 1999) for his “rediscovery” of an eclectic assortment of great people of faith.