Incredible Catherine of Siena! UPDATED

“If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire”
– St. Catherine of Siena

Our dear nun-friends at Moniales bring us this video in honor of the incredible St. Catherine of Siena, the Dominican Tertiary and Doctor of the Church whose remarkable life gives lie to the silly charge that the Catholic church has held women back:

Write the nuns:

Her writings, The Dialogue and The Letters of St. Catherine are easily available in excellent translations and well worth taking the time to read because they are as relevant today for our growth in holiness and union with God as they were 600 years ago.

Reviewing Edmund G. Gardner’s The Road to Siena: The Essential Biography of St. Catherine for First Things, I wrote:

She ventured out into a city still processing a plague that spared less than fifty percent of the population, and—amid skirmishes between mercenaries and family syndicates, petty strife, brutal living, and intemperate carousing—she began to serve the poor and the sick. Because her nature was pleasing, she was quickly sought out and before long, this maiden raised to humility was advising her own priests and the surrounding noblemen in forthright and uncompromising language: “Instead of a woman,” she wrote to Queen Giovanna of Naples, “you have become the servant and slave of nothingness, making yourself the subject of lies and of the demon who is their father.” This was a woman wielding power, influence and wisdom to which Hillary Clinton can only aspire.

From her humble Tuscan beginning, she traveled to Florence, Pisa, Rome, and, eventually, even to Avignon, all at the behest of powerful churchmen who recognized her tough but fair-minded brilliance and who trusted her passionate desire to effect a peaceful resolution to a ruinous schism. The question of Papal succession may not have been settled in her lifetime, but that Catherine succeeded in bringing the fretful Pope Gregory XI back to Rome at all stands as a remarkable achievement, given the pontiff’s dithering nature.

Though I am a Benedictine, not a Dominican, I’m a big fan of Catherine and her studious daughters and sons, who are as bold a she was.

Celebrating another Dominican “Doctor” are the Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist, in Ann Arbor; Sr. Mary Elizabeth successfully defended her doctoral dissertation in electrical engineering at the University of Michigan:

Sister’s project was entitled “A Three-Dimensional Bidirectional Interface for Neural Mapping Studies”, and she worked in the Center for Wireless Integrated MicroSystems, a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center. She was involved in creating a neural array to stimulate and record neural (brain) signals. Some of the possible practical applications for this work in the future include potential treatments for a variety of afflictions, including hearing loss, blindness, and Parkinson’s disease.

Meanwhile, five graduates of Walsh University in Ohio will be heading to Dominican communities by summer’s end.

Catherine would be proud. And she’d tell them to be what they were born to be. Good advice for all.

Crescat says this is something else the Protestants just won’t get about us Catholics. That’s not the best picture I’ve seen of Catherine. I think I prefer this one:

Whispers in the Loggia: has more on Catherine and on St. Gianna Berette Molla, physician and mother, (another “held back” Catholic!) whose feast was yesterday!
Fr. Dwight Longenecker: A Pic
Caitlin O’ Rourke: On Catherine
Frank Weathers: For all the Saints: Catherine
The Saintmaker

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Aimee

    Probably a dumb question: why do you identify yourself as a Benedictine? (I don’t mean this as a challenging question, like “you shouldn’t identify yourself as a Benedictine,” I’ve just never heard a lay person identify herself in this way).

    [I am a Benedictine Oblate -a professed lay person attached to a Benedictine monastery. See here A great related book to read: Kathleen Norris' The Cloister Walk -admin]

  • Cassandra


    It is worth pointing out that St. Catherine herself was “only” a tertiary Dominican, because (if memory serves me right) they wouldn’ t accept her. She, too, was a layperson attached to an order as Elizabeth is.

  • Carolyn


    The original article on St. C that WITL copied and pasted.

  • http://n/a Angie Vogt, M.A.

    I have always felt a kinship with the Dominican charisms of teaching, studying and preaching.

    Last week the women’s group in our parish asked me to teach them something about women saints. I chose St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux & Catherine of Siena for the reason that they are all doctors of the church and I was able to discuss their different charisms as Carmelites and a Dominican.

    Thank you for this wonderful blog!

    Pax Christi,

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  • Lori

    St. Catherine has been one of my favorites ever since I read the lovely biography of her by Sigrid Undset, years ago: Catherine of Siena. Undset, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928 for her historical fiction, converted to Catholicism (I’m told) partly because of her discovery of saints such as Catherine during her research for her novels. Her conversion went very much against the mainstream in her native Norway, and she boldly defended the Church in public debate – much as St. Catherine herself might have done.

    Undset’s masterpiece Kristin Lavransdatter is well worth reading too. An enthralling window on medieval Norwegian life, this novel tells the story of a proud and faith-filled woman of good family as she makes the choices that define her.

    Catherine of Siena was Undset’s final work, published posthumously. Undset herself was a Third Order Dominican, so this work certainly had a special meaning for her. I highly recommend it.

  • Manny

    Kudos to Sr. Mary Elizabeth for her doctorate. That is impressive. Sounds like some great research and hopefully she’ll be able to continue in some fashion as a Nun.

  • teo matteo

    Lori, you are one smart cookie….I could tell you a story about a nun i watched on ‘the Journey Home’ (EWTN) that was greatly influenced by ‘Kristin Lavransdatter’… a Dominican …

  • AvantiBev

    What does the title mean “incredible”. What’s so incredibile about her excellence? She was Italian, of course she was a firecracker of a woman!!!!

  • Anthony Weaver

    Fascinating that Catherine’s spiritual director was the English Augustinian friar,William Flete,a graduate of the University of Cambridge.
    I believe some of their correspondence is preserved in the State Archives in Siena.

    Best wishes from London

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  • Lori

    Thanks teo!

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  • jcd

    Pope Pius V is another incredible Saint who shares the same date.

  • c. j. acworth

    As an Evangelical Protestant, I can tell you that Crescat is right. I don’t get it. However, the story about those baby-hugging nuns in Russia is precious. May God bless and prosper them in their work.

  • Peter

    For Cassandra (4/29/10):

    As to Catherine being “only” a tertiary, third-order Dominican: She never wanted to join the Dominican nuns, the “second order,” who were then and are now enclosed nuns. Today’s Dominican sisters who are not enclosed are actually members of the “third order” who live in community. Other members of the third order, today called “lay Dominicans” are members of Dominican “fraternities” and do not normally live in common, although there is one fraternity in New Hope, Kentucky whose members do live together.

    In Catherine’s time the Dominican third order was composed mostly of older widows. They were known as “mantellatae” and they intially rejected Catherine because, at age 18, she wanted to become a lay Dominican and was neither old nor a widow. Eventually they let her join, and she turned her persuasive powers on, among others, the Pope, convincing him to move the papacy from Avignon, France, back to Rome. She wrote the Dialogues, and as a result became one of the three female doctors of the Church, along with Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux, both Carmelite nuns.