History of St. Catherine of Siena


Catherine of SienaCatherine Benincasa was born in Siena c. 1347 as one of the many children of a Sienese dyer. At the age of sixteen she was admitted into a Dominican lay sisterhood. Later she was to tell her confessor, Raymond of Capua, OP, that she had never learned anything from men or women about the way of salvation, “but only from the sweet bridegroom of my soul, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Dominican idea of 'communicating things contemplated' (Aquinas, Summa theol., 2a2ae. 188, 6;3a 40, 1 ad 2) exactly suited Catherine's approach to Christ as 'the sweet First Truth', the Word made flesh 'to give...knowledge of the glory of God' (II Cor 4.6; cf. John 1.18).

After three years of strict seclusion Catherine began her public life, probably in 1368. The first period, spent entirely in Siena, saw the formation around her of friends and disciples, both men and women, clerics and laity. This represented a shift in the direction and expression of her charity: hitherto concentrated on the poor and the sick, it became increasingly doctrinal as she grew more conscious of her vocation as teacher and counselor.

So the great series of letters began (c. 1370), dictated to secretaries chosen from her 'family'. Before long these letters began to touch on public affairs, as Catherine became involved successively in the conflict between Florence and the Holy See from 1375 to July 1378 and the Great Schism, which began in September 1378.

Once the Schism began every other consideration took second place in her mind to the unity of the church. Her initial focus was on the clergy--a call to obedience. For her the indispensability of the church--and so its unity--consisted in the medium through which the blood shed on the cross for sinful man is available to sinners individually. The church 'holds the keys of the blood', the blood 'reaches us through the ministers of Holy Church'. 

In her most famous work dictated while she was dying, The Dialogue, Catherine, in the words of the editor, Susan Noffke, ”presents a series of questions or petitions to God the Father each of which receives a response and amplification. There is the magnificent symbolic portrayal of Christ as the bridge. There are specific discussions of discernment, tears (true and false spiritual emotion), truth, the sacramental heart ('mystic body') of the Church, divine providence, obedience…. It is not so much a treatise to be read as it is a conversation to be entered into with earnest leisure and leisurely earnest.”

After her canonization, Catherine became a doctor of the Church in 1970. The term doctor of the Church designates a saint of eminent learning and great sanctity.

Primary Sources

Catherine of Siena.  Catherine of Siena: Passion for the truth, compassion for humanity. Selected spiritual writings.  Edited, annotated and introduced by Mary O’Driscoll, O.P.  New York: New City Press, 1993. 

Catherine of Siena.  The Letters of Catherine of Siena. Translated with introduction and notes by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. 3 vols. Tempe, Arizona: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, 2000, 2001, 2007.   

Catherine of Siena.  The Dialogue. Translation and introduction by Suzanne Noffke, O.P. The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1980).

Catherine of Siena. The Prayers of Catherine of Siena.  Suzanne Noffke, O.P., translator and editor.  2nd edition. San Jose: Authors Choice Press, 2001.

Catherine of Siena.  Catherine of Siena: Passion for the truth, compassion for humanity. Edited, annotated and introduced by Mary O’Driscoll, O.P.  New York: New City Press, 1993. 

Secondary Sources

Ashley, Benedict.  “Guide to Saint Catherine’s Dialogue.” Cross and Crown 29 (September 1977): 237-249.  

Cavallini, Giuliana. Catherine of Siena. Outstanding Christian Thinkers (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1998). 

Dominic, Sr. [Ann Walsh, O.P.] “St. Catherine of Siena: Doctor of the Church.” Supplement to Doctrine and Life 8 (1970): 134-144. 

Fatula, Mary Ann, O.P. Catherine of Siena’s Way. The Way of the Christian Mystics Series.  (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1987). 

Foster, Kenelm, O.P. Introduction to I, Catherine: Selected Writings of Catherine of Siena, ed. and trans. Kenelm Foster, O.P., and Mary John Ronayne, O.P. St. James Place, London: Collins, 1980: 11-44. 

Foster, Kenelm, O.P. “The Spirit of St. Catherine of Siena.” Life of the Spirit 15 (1961): 433-446. 

McDermott, Thomas, O.P. Catherine of Siena.  Spiritual development in her life and teaching. New York: Paulist Press, 2008. 

McDermott, Thomas, O.P. "Catherine of Siena's Teaching on Self-Knowledge."  New Blackfriars 88 (November 2007): 638-648. 

Noffke, Susan. “Catherine of Siena, Justly Doctor of the Church” 61 Theology Today (2003): 49-62.

O’Driscoll, Mary, O.P. “Catherine the Theologian.Spirituality Today 40 (Spring 1988): 4-17.  


Center of lay formation devoted to Catherine:

Benedict XVI, "Catherine of Siena":