Catherine of Siena. A Passionate Life

I started to read this book knowing nothing about Catherine of Siena except her name. By the end of an engrossing read I was an enthusiastic admirer of this exceptional woman, seen in her fourteenth century context.  Don Brophy writes in an easy, flowing style throughout, making it difficult to put the book down once started. He traces the course of Catherine’s life, from Palm Sunday 1347 to Easter Sunday, 1380 in three distinctive sections: ‘Child of the City’, ‘Mamma of Tuscany’ and ‘Woman of the World.’ 

Catherine’s thirty-three short years are action-packed as her faith develops from the first of many visions of Christ at the age of six through to her more outward – looking years of care and compassion and finally to her involvement in church politics at the highest level.

‘Child of the City’ has the backcloth of the plague which reached Siena in April 1348. Thousands died and were quickly buried in huge pits but the year-old Catherine somehow survived. She had survived too in infancy when her mother made the agonising choice to breast-feed her while her weaker twin sister was given to a nurse and soon died. Brophy ponders the psychological impact of this on Catherine when she later heard the story. Certainly as her religious experiences increased she developed a strong sense of being different and chosen by God. By the age of eight she was constantly seeking solitude and time to be with God. She developed an intense prayer life, began to fast and longed to be ‘married’ to Jesus. Brophy takes time to explain that this was not an unusual longing for medieval Christian women and how it was compatible with the changing image of Jesus. 

Catherine’s sense of vocation led her to the Dominican Order and membership of the Mantillate. These were the Dominican women in Siena who were so known because of their black outer garments. Having reluctantly accepted their daughter’s wishes, her parents now provided a small room in the home where she could be alone.  She slept on a board, practiced self-flagellation and continued to fast. Brophy has some illuminating and fascinating insights into the fasting.  Could Catherine have been suffering from   anorexia nervosa? Certainly her health was beginning to suffer but despite concerns, her reputation was spreading widely. Then in 1367 Catherine had a vision of Jesus putting a pearl and diamond ring on her finger. This ‘mystical espousal’ converted her back to the world.

At twenty years of age, it was time for Catherine to move on. As Brophy says, “No longer Catherine and Jesus but Catherine and Jesus and everyone else”.  ‘Mamma of Tuscany’ deals with the consequences of this call to a radical change in her way of life. Like John Wesley who in 1739 “submitted to become more vile”, Catherine now saw that her passion for Jesus must be expressed  through her engagement with society and all that was going on around her. This was a life-changing experience as she began to visit the sick and to see more of Siena and its disenfranchised and miserably poor workforce.  Crowds flocked to her as she preached and healed. Catherine was a natural peacemaker and attracted people to her, nobility and poor alike. Siena was a brutal and violent place. Catherine baked bread for the poor during a bread crisis using old mouldy flour which, miraculously, never ran out. She surpassed herself in caring for a nobleman in his condemned cell and going with him to his execution and catching his head in her hands!  No longer having the privacy that her cell had afforded, her religious experiences were more public and talked-about.

Catherine began to learn too about the sorry state of the church and its factions and infighting. Throughout the century the Papacy had abandoned Rome and relocated to Avignon. Rome suffered badly from this loss and was no longer the centre of Christendom. Brophy clearly explains this historical background which we need to know in order to follow Catherine’s involvement in the political and ecclesiastical quarrels and power struggles which take her to Florence, Avignon and Rome. The final section ‘Woman of the World’ starts with Catherine’s return to Siena at the same time as Pope Gregory X1 returns the papacy to Rome. In Avignon she had received permission to found a women’s monastery, which was soon opened near Siena. Catherine continued her struggle for justice and peace and started to question the Crusade to Jerusalem. She bravely challenged the authority of the church and was prepared for martyrdom. She was a prolific letter-writer and her one book ‘The Dialogue’ was dictated throughout 1377. 

The author sees Catherine’s importance today “more as a truth-teller than as a wonder-worker” and “the champion for today’s church reformers who use her as a model for plain speaking when confronting authority”. She stands out as a strong woman who defeats the stereotypes of her age. Canonized in 1461, she was made a co-patron of Italy with Francis of Assisi in 1940 and in 1999 was named one of the six patron saints of Europe. Scholarly research and clear writing make this very human account of an exceptional life an absorbing and fascinating read.

Angela Singleton

‘Catherine of Siena. A Passionate Life.’   Don Brophy.

Darton, Longman and Todd : 2011

ISBN 978-0-232-52859-6