Catherine of Siena: Ambassador to the Popes

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. (2 Corinthians 4:7)

Catherine was eccentric, to put it kindly.

How else do you describe a woman who served as an ambassador, wrote extensively, healed the sick, tended to prisoners and yet did such unusual actions as cutting off her hair as a means of protest, sleeping on a board, whipping herself with chains and, it is said, drinking the pus from sick woman?

(If you need to take a minute to stop yourself from vomiting, I’ll understand.)

Catherine was born the 23 child of Jacopo and Lapa Benincasa, a middle-class family in Siena in 1347.

As young as six, she showed a special awareness of the presence of God. The story goes that one day she was walking with her brother and stopped in the road, looking into the sky. He walked on ahead, but finally had to turn around to retrieve her. Catherine, it is said, looked as if she had awakened from a dream when he took her hand, and burst into tears as her dream of Peter, Paul, John and Christ himself faded.

The time soon came for the family to find a husband for her, but Catherine flatly refused, cutting her hair to make her less attractive. The family punished her in hopes she would come to her senses, but she became even more firmly entrenched in her actions. Finally, her father acquiesced and gave her a small room to use for prayer and meditation.

She joined a Dominican order as a tertiary, which allowed her to live outside the convent and continue her work for the sick, poor and imprisoned. In addition to this work, she became a mediator in a long-running feud between the France and Italy over the papacy, encouraging Pope Gregory XI to return the papacy to Rome rather than to remain in French city of Avignon to which it had retreated decades earlier.

The victory, if it can be called such, was short-lived. When Gregory XI died, the Roman faction elected one pope and the French faction another. The resulting fracture of the church structure has been known as the Great Western Schism, and lasted 40 years.

Catherine sent letter after letter to try to bring about peace, and even served as a counselor to Roman Pope Urban VI.

In addition to her letters and prayers, Catherine wrote The Dialogue of Divine Providence. These works were so influential that she is one of only four women to be named a doctor of the church, or a saint whose writings concerning doctrine are considered to have special authority.

Catherine died on April 21, 1380, at the age of 33.

Catherine was blessed with an intellect and the ability to write and speak in such as way that even the most powerful men in the church sought her advice. Yet, she was also gentle and humble enough to care for those suffering from a disease as dreadful as the plague. Through all of it, she did strange things out of a devotion to God that few likely understood completely.

God has blessed each of us with skills and abilities that can be used in his service. When we combine these talents with the humility of knowing where these talents came from and to whom their fruits are directed, we, too, can do wonderful things for the kingdom of God.

What gifts has God given you to pursue his kingdom?


This is the ninth post in my Write 31 Days series for 2017 in which I am taking a devotional look at key women in Christian history. For more information, or to start the series from the beginning, visit the introductory post.

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