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Saint Catherine of Siena: A Woman who Influenced her Times

This article, the fifth in a series on the saints, philosophers and spiritual guides who influenced

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in their vision and living out of the Catholic Worker movement, features St. Catherine of Siena.

Dorothy had read a biography of St. Catherine of Siena, before meeting Peter Maurin. In two of her books, The Long Loneliness and Loaves and Fishes, she tells of his excitement in sharing with her about St. Catherine’s role in history and his hope that she would imitate her, when he said, plunging into a discussion of St. Catherine’s letters to the Popes and other public figures of the fourteenth century: “Ah, there was a saint who had influence on her times!” Dorothy also said, “Before he knew me well, Peter went about comparing me to a Catherine of Siena who would move mountains and have influence on governments, temporal and spiritual. He was a man of enthusiasm and always saw great talents in people.” But Dorothy tells us that she didn’t rush into that role:

“He would have liked to see in me another Catherine of Siena who would boldly confront bishops and Wall Street magnates. I disappointed him in that, preferring the second step in his program, reaching the poor through the works of feeding, clothing and sheltering, in what he called “houses of hospitality” (where the works of mercy could be carried out.” (Catholic Worker, May, 1973)

However, later on Dorothy did at times play such a role, confronting officials over air raid drills, war, the proliferation of arms, injustice against farm workers and over building inspection problems for the houses of hospitality.

And she did, indeed, ultimately, influence governments, temporal and spiritual.

Brigid Merriman (Searching for Christ: the Spirituality of Dorothy Day) tells us that Dorothy Day’s frequent use of quotations derived from Catherine suggests that she had read the saint’s The Dialogue or at least a substantial biography which contained lengthy passages from the saint’s written work.

When Dorothy quoted St. Catherine in her writings, she especially emphasized one saying: “All the way to heaven is heaven because He said I am the Way.” This saying relates to Catherine’s idea of Christ as the bridge between heaven and earth, by reason of his having joined himself with our humanity. In Catherine’s imagery of the bridge, there are three stairs, which are the three spiritual stages. The Son is the Way, in the image of a bridge.

Catherine, a great woman leader, is a model for Christian women and men today. She took God’s message to the civil and church authorities of her time. She told the Pope what he must do. She had a great following of disciples which included many men. She was a very powerful woman’s voice in the Church. How did she become such a powerful woman in the fourteenth century? From where did this power come?

She was a holy woman with a deep love for the crucified Christ, who literally lived on prayer. She fasted so much that sometimes she lived only on the Eucharist. She sought not her own will, but the plan of God, loving the Lord in her neighbors and risking taking his message to power–but always the Lord’s message, not her own.

Catherine is an example of what Adrienne von Speyr and Hans Urs von Balthasar call the Johannine Church–the Church of love as exemplified in Our Lady and the beloved disciple John standing at the foot of the Cross–seen in the witness of the saints who complement (but are not separate from) the Petrine Church, the hierarchy. In fact, Balthasar reminds us that a woman, Mary, the Mother of God, is more important in the Church than even any Pope. She is the Queen of the Apostles, without claiming apostolic powers for herself.

In another fascinating imagery St. Augustine called another woman, Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles, because she was the first to tell them about the Resurrection.

One can understand why Catherine, this strong, passionate woman of the “church of love” was presented by Peter Maurin as a model. She continues to be a model for the Catholic Worker and all Christians.

Catherine lived from 1347 to 1380. She was the twenty-fourth of twenty-five children. As a young child she was devout and her first biographer, her confessor Raymond of Capua, tells us that she vowed her virginity to God when she was seven years old. She became a Dominican when she was eighteen, but did not live in a convent. As part of a group known as the Mantellate (most of whom were widows) she lived in her own home and it was expected that she would care for the poor and the sick in the community.

After she first received the habit, she spent three years in solitude, silence and prayer, in her room, going out to Mass at the parish church in the mornings. At the end of three years she had an intense mystical experience and, at the Lord’s request, left her room of solitude to cook and help her family, as well as the poor and sick of the community. But her contemplation continued in the midst of activity. A circle of friends began to gather around her and discuss theology and biblical interpretation. Her mystical experiences continued–in fact, she was sometimes asked to stay in the back of the church during Mass so that her trances or levitations would not be a distraction to the others.

Catherine cared for the sick and dying even during the outbreaks of the plague. She followed the Lord’s commands to write letters to and to intervene with politicians and even to speak to the Pope to try to resolve the thorny problems of the day. Many people begged her prayers when they were in great need.

Some have called her a social mystic. Suzanne Noffke, called her more properly a “mystic activist.” She had a tremendous sense of the interdependence of the members of the Body of Christ. Her prayer was centered on Christ and His love, but also on the other members of the Body of Christ and all the potential members, those visible neighbors in whom she could serve the Lord, as well as those of the whole world.

Catherine was declared a doctor of the Church by Pope Paul VI, one of only three women to receive this title.

Neither Catherine nor Dorothy Day considered themselves victims as Catholic women. Filled with the love of Christ, especially for the poor, they set out to transform the world.


Brigid O’Shea Merriman, O.S.F., Searching for Christ: the Spirituality of Dorothy Day. University of Notre Dame, 1994).

St. Catherine of Siena, The Dialogue. Translated and with an introduction by Susan Noffke. Paulist Press, 1980.

Sigrid Undset, Catherine of Siena. Sheed and Ward, 1954

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XV, No. 6, Sept.-Oct. 1995.