St. Catherine of Siena: Doctor of Unity
St. Catherine of Siena, the only laywoman ever declared a Doctor of the Church, was an extraordinary woman of Christ, celebrated for her gift of the "living word" — offering straightforward, illuminating advice precisely when it was needed. Known as the Doctor of Unity, Catherine played a crucial role reuniting the papacy and persuading the Pope to return to Rome after nearly a century in Avignon. A loyal advisor to both friends and popes, Catherine centered her life around an intimate relationship with Jesus, made possible by her devoted practice of contemplative prayer.
Childhood in Siena
Catherine was born in 1347 into a family known for its simplicity, uprightness, and virtue. Her father, Jacomo, was known for his reserved and prudent speech, laying the foundation for Catherine's interior life of silence. Lapa, her mother, was recognized for her industriousness, prudence, and proficiency in domestic affairs—qualities that would soon become synonymous with her daughter, Catherine. From a young age, Catherine displayed a strong devotion to Our Lord, Our Lady, and a profound sense of the spiritual world. At the age of 5, after learning the Hail Mary, she developed a habit where, when she walked up stairs, she knelt on each step and recited a Hail Mary. Out of her twenty-four siblings, Catherine stood out to those who loved her for the compelling power of her words. According to her close friend and confessor, St. Raymond of Capua:
Her words possessed a mysterious power which inclined the soul to God. As soon as one conversed with her, sadness was dispelled from the heart, vexations and troubles were forgotten, and a ravishing peace took possession of the soul, so extraordinary indeed that one could only imagine it to resemble that enjoyed by the apostles on Mount Tabor – “It is good for us to be here!”
Despite not having any formal education, Catherine's ability to express reason and truth with sweetness and compassion was magnetic. As soon as she was able to walk on her own, Lapa frequently found Catherine at her neighbors’ homes, engaging in conversations that earned her the nickname “Euphrosyne,” derived from the Greek word for “joy.” Later, Catherine told St. Raymond that she sought to emulate St. Euphrosyne, an Early Church saint. In many respects, their lives parallelled each other. Both were born into pious families, both faced pressure from their fathers to marry, and both chose lives of devout virginity. To embrace lives of celibacy and asceticism to which they had both dedicated themselves, they withdrew into quiet solitude. For Catherine, this began at age 6 when she received her calling.
A Contemplative in the World
One day, while walking through the streets of Siena with her brother, Catherine looked up to heaven and witnessed a vision above the Dominican church. She saw Jesus adorned in papal vestments, accompanied by Sts. Peter, Paul, and John the Beloved. Extending his hand, Jesus blessed her, instilling in her a profound love for God and igniting a deeper pursuit of the divine. From that moment, Catherine's virtues and thoughts surpassed her years. The Holy Spirit began to teach her the ways of the Desert Fathers without the aid of any reading material. The desire to emulate their ways was so intense that Catherine could focus on nothing else; her meditation and prayers became a continuous practice and she slept less than one hour per night. Catherine secluded herself in the silence of her room each day, engaging in contemplative prayer for an increasing number of hours. At the tender age of 7, she vowed perpetual virginity and consecrated herself to the Lord.
When she reached the age of marriage, the enemy provoked in Catherine’s parents the determination to oblige her to marry. Despite enduring significant suffering at the hands of her parents, Catherine remained steadfast in her consecration, rebellious for the Lord. Eventually, after witnessing Catherine in contemplation, Jacomo was led to examine his own conduct and began to realize that Catherine was following the will of God. Out of love and devotion for God, Jacomo and Lapa granted Catherine their blessing to pursue consecrated life. At the age of sixteen, Catherine joined a lay Dominican group of women known as the Mantellate, committing herself to a life of prayer and contemplation. Over the next three years, she lived as a recluse in her room in her parents’ home, dedicating herself to contemplative prayer, barely eating, sleeping, or speaking. She engaged in acts of penance and mortification and frequently spent entire nights in prayer, interceding for priests as they slept. After this period of total solitude, Catherine received an urging from Christ to go out into the world. For the next three years, she devoted the majority of her time to serving the poor and the sick, embodying the love that Christ has for us—an unconditional love that gives without expecting anything in return.
The Mystical Exchange of Hearts
Catherine’s union with her Divine Spouse was uninterrupted; Jesus walked with her, always present on her lips and in her heart. During her initial period of solitude, her soul attained a supernatural understanding that became the foundation of her entire spirituality: that the soul that is united to God in perfect charity, that loves God perfectly, ends up forgetting oneself entirely. To her confessor, Catherine said:
Such a soul, seeing that of herself she is nothing, and that all her being depends on God, in Whom alone, and in no creature, she finds by experience that her happiness must rest, plunges into love of Him, directing to Him all her works, and thoughts, and powers. Without Him she cares not to be, because in Him she finds all that can delight the heart, all beauty, all sweetness, all quietness, and all peace. And so, the bond of love between her and God draws closer, and she is wholly transformed in Him.
Catherine wrote that it eventually comes to pass that such a soul can only love, delight in, or think of no other thing than God. She compared her experience in the world to a man who dives into the water; he sees and feels nothing that is not either the water itself or what is within the water. Even if he looks up and sees something above the surface, he sees it not as it is in itself but as it appears through the water's veil.
The epicenter of Catherine’s religious sense was her profound and mystical union with the Lord. This is illustrated in a vision where the Lord Jesus appeared to her “holding in his holy hands a human heart, bright red and shining.” He opened her side and put His heart within her saying, “Dearest daughter, I take your heart away from you and give you mine, so that you can go on living with it forever.” When she was 28, she had a vision where Christ appeared holding two crowns: one, a crown of gold, ensuring riches in her earthly life; the other, a crown of thorns, guaranteeing her glory in heaven. Catherine grasped onto the crown of thorns and shortly after received the stigmata—two mystical gifts reserved for special victim saints of remarkable virtue.
Catherine’s inspiration of charity led her to defy her human nature through mortification. The zeal influenced her tireless efforts with the poor and sinners, while her courage could not be intimidated by her family or those influenced by the enemy to hate her and spread calumnies about her. Her soul derived strength from God, impervious to worldly praise. As Catherine grew in her contemplative relationship with the King of Kings, grace superabounded in her soul and the fame of her holiness spread.
Spiritual Advisor in a Time of Turmoil
Catherine received instruction from the Lord to use her zeal to counsel others, laboring for the conversion of souls. Imitating Mother Mary's fiat, Catherine told the Lord that not her will but His be done. Living in a time when women had no authority over men, she inquired of the Lord how it might be possible that she teach others. Like the Archangel Gabriel, the Lord responded that all things are possible with God, saying, “Am I not He who formed both man and woman? My spirit breathes where it will…You must not be anxious or afraid!” At these words, Catherine prostrated herself, resolving never to hold back from speaking whatever inspiration came from the Holy Spirit, regardless of the authority or office of the recipient. She entered into intense activity of spiritual guidance for people from every walk of life: nobles and politicians, artists and ordinary people, consecrated men and women and religious, including Pope Gregory XI.
During times of great turmoil, God does not abandon His people; instead, He sends great saints like St. Catherine to be beacons of light for the Church. Born just one year after the start of the Black Plague, which decimated over 50% of Europe’s population, Catherine lived in an era marked by the profound grief from the plague, a string of wars, and the uncertainty that accompanied the recognition that the old world, the world of the Middle Ages, was coming to a close. Simultaneously, there was a plague of corruption within the Church, which deeply distressed Catherine. She acknowledged that the Church she loved so deeply had become “a garden overgrown with putrid flowers,” a bride whose “face is disfigured with leprosy.”
Among the scandals at the time was that the pope, instead of residing in the diocese of Rome, had been living in Avignon, enjoying the power and support of the French government. Catherine traveled extensively to press for the internal reform of the Church and to foster peace, even writing directly to Pope Gregory XI, imploring him to return to Rome. She expressed the same compassion, kindness, and unwavering truthfulness that had defined her speech since childhood. After 68 years of papal residence in Avignon, Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome after just six months of correspondence with Catherine.
Catherine’s legacy lies not in the political sphere but in the extraordinary devotion she had for daily life with Christ. For the People of God, she left teachings in the form of prayers, hundreds of letters, and in the transcription of her ecstasies, now popularly known as “The Dialogue.” On October 4, 1970, Pope Paul VI declared Catherine to be a Doctor of the Church, the highest status possible among the Church’s most celebrated authors and theologians. Let us continue to turn to St. Catherine as a powerful intercessor for the Church today, amidst the similar turmoil and disunity experienced by our Christian brothers and sisters.
In her consecration and openness to God’s grace, being an instrument in His plan, Catherine truly lived St. Paul’s words, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” With her prolific writings, she is a guide for the people of God on how to live a life entirely devoted to Christ and partake in compassionate fraternal correction that stems from Christ’s love of neighbor and thirst for souls. Let us pray for St. Catherine’s intercession to love Christ and the Church with courage, intensity, and sincerity as we make our own St. Catherine’s prayer:
Eternal God, eternal Trinity,
You have made the Blood of Christ so precious
through His sharing in Your Divine nature.
You are a mystery as deep as the sea;
the more I search, the more I find,
and the more I find, the more I search for You.
But I can never be satisfied;
what I receive will ever leave me desiring more.
When You fill my soul, I have an ever greater hunger,
and I grow more famished for Your light.
I desire above all to see You,
the true Light, as you really are.
St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!