Catherine was an unusual person with very strong spiritual and intellectual gifts, and is one of the few women to achieve the title of doctor of the church, which is bestowed after death on great Catholic thinkers. Yet she did not live as a conventional nun, but was active in the public world, ministering to the sick and taking part in public matters, again, very unusual for a woman at the time, especially one of middle class social rank.
She was born in 1347 to a very large family in Sienna. However, from early on it is recorded that she underwent significant religious experiences and at the age of seven vowed to become a consecrated virgin. Yet unlike many woman who entered convents, she never became a nun. Instead she joined the Dominican order as a tertiary. Tertiaries are members of third orders. These are lay people whp follow the rule of the religious order but live out in the world. The Domincans are a group of friars, these being like monks, but not tied to a monastery. The Dominicans are traditionally a scholarly group of people who have produced some great Catholic thinkers.
Catherine's religious experiences continued and developed into an ongoing encounter with God, where she engaged in long converstaions with him. In her twenties she underwent what is known as a mystical espousal, a religious experience when she felt herself espoused to God. However, her life's work consisted of dedication to the poor and the needy, especially those suffering horrfic diseases that deterred other people from helping them. She was backed in this work by her family, who provided the home while she worked for the poor and sick.
Yet she herself was often sickly, and suffered intense pains, which she bore without becoming bitter or unpleasant. Strangely, for periods of time she would survive on very little food, though she did take the Holy Eucharist frequently. In 1370 she received the stigmata, the wounds of Christ on her body. She experienced the pains, but oddly the wounds only visibly appeared after her death
During her life the Pope was away from Rome at Avignon. This had been a move that was initially designed to protect him, but it put the papacy under the influence of the French kings. The popes stayed there for a sustained period of time
In 1375, five years before her death, she underwent a series of mystical visions showing her the various states of the afterlife, heaven, hell and purgatory, the latter being the temporary state of punishment for some sinners prior to heaven. At the same time the religious experiences instructed her to take part in public life, so she began to write to the Pope, bishops and princes of her day advising and pleading with them to reform society.
During this time she pressed for the reform of the clergy, a problme that needs addressing at intervals in church history, and for the return of the Popes form Avignon. In 1377 she was successful in this plea and the Pope and sacred college of cardinals returned to Rome, against the wishes of the French king. By this time she was being consulted by the pope and various Italian princes, quite an achievement for a woman of that period.
Her political programme was to unite Christendom, Christian Europe. She favoured a crusade agiant the Muslims, who were at that time a threat on Christendom's Eastern flank. This, she though, would take away the roving bands of mercenaries who were roaming Italy with all the plunder, violence and rape that went along with their presence. It would also weaken the threat from the large and aggressive Turkish empire.
In 1378 she went as the pope's emissary to Florence, which had gone to war against the papal states, mainly because of the misbehaviour of church officials. During this time there was an attempt on her life, which failed. She regretted not having been able to acept the red rose of martyrdom.
In 1378 the Pope summoned her to Rome. during this time her ehaslth deteriorated and she began to suffer great pain, which she continued to bear patiently. She continued her ministry to the poor at the time. However, the illness finally claimed her in 1380 at the age of thirty three.
Her works are considered masterpieces of the Italian language. The main work is the dialogue, which consists of a conversation between God and the soul on how to live the spiritual life. There are four hundred letters and a series of prayers. A shorter dialogue is probably spuriousy attributed to her.
The key ideas of her work are to take the metaphor of the monastery and apply it to the life of the ordinary Christian in the world. Thus she speaks of the cloister of the world [monasteries have cloisters, long corriders where monks walk in prayer and study. ] Her aim is to show that the religious life can be lived in the world as well as the religious institution. monks always dwell in their own "cells" small rooms. she speaks of the need to ever dwell in the cell of self-knowledge, for this is the way in which we can be honest about ourselves and our faults, and so approach God properly. She was deeply concerned that all Christans be able to share her intimate relationship with God