At age sixteen, Catherine of Siena (1347 - 1380) joined the Third Order of St. Dominic, spending her days nursing the poor—particularly lepers and victims of the plague.
The daughter of a prosperous fabric dyer, she was the third youngest of her father's twenty-five children. From the age of four she meditated and prayed, and at seven she took a vow of virginity. Against her parents' objections, she cut her long hair so as to be unattractive to the man with whom marriage had been arranged. During these years she was sustained by visionary experiences. On one occasion, during a pre- Lenten carnival, demons tempted her with the feminine and marital joys she was denying herself. While friends and family and neighbors ate and drank and danced in the streets—typical pleasures of a medieval community—she was in her dark cell. Suddenly Jesus and the Virgin and other saints appeared. Jesus put a gold ring on her finger, and Catherine became his bride.
From then on she held to strict asceticism, wearing a hair shirt and pelvic chain and residing in a secluded cell. But she gradually moved out into the streets of Siena among lepers and the plague-infected. On one occasion, as she knelt over a woman and drained pus from the woman's putrid sores, she was overcome by the sickening stench. Guilt-stricken by her revulsion, she reached for the bowl of pus, lifted it to her lips, and drank it, later insisting that it was the sweetest taste she had ever known.
While some consider Catherine mentally unstable, others were deeply moved by her selfless acts of service. Like other Catholics of her day, she was deeply troubled by the volatility of the papacy—and thus the church itself. In 1309, more than forty years before she was born, the papacy, prompted by carnage in Rome, had moved to Avignon. Opponents of the newly elected pope had threatened his life, so the French king of France kidnapped and secured him in France. His successors continued to live in Avignon for nearly seventy years—a period known as the Babylonian Captivity of the Church by those demanding that popes return to Rome. Critics rightly regard the Avignon papacy as a puppet of the increasingly powerful French regime, and not until 1377, did Pope Gregory XI return the papacy to Rome.
During this time, Catherine sought to convince the pope to depart from Avignon, the "Babylon of the West." With some twenty devoted followers, she led a march to Avignon. She was granted an audience with the pope but only after she was found by papal officials to be neither insane nor a heretic. She offered a readymade solution: launch another Crusade. Gregory IX countered that the church needed to settle its internal strife before going to war, but Catherine argued that the best way to solve the problems at home is to declare war on the enemy. That Catherine, according to one historian, "dominated Pope Gregory and to a lesser extent Urban VI" is an unwarranted conclusion. She was one among many who urged the pope to return to Rome. But her tenacity in serving the poor and challenging the hierarchy of the church solidified her fame.
Through revelations, she sought to confirm church tradition not clarified in Scripture. Medieval theologians from Anselm to Aquinas, for example, had argued that Mary was conceived sinless and remained so all her life, ever remaining a virgin. Aquinas had summed up the common belief: "As a virgin she conceived, as a virgin gave birth, and she remains a virgin forever." Through a vision, Catherine confirmed the tradition and offers an additional detail: that Mary was not perfected until three hours after her conception. But her revelation was trumped by theologian Duns Scotus, who insisted that Mary was perfected at the instant of conception.
Catherine, who died in her early thirties, was canonized by Pope Pius II in 1461. More notable, however, was her elevation by Pope Paul VI in 1970 to Doctor of the Church, along with Theresa of Avila, the first women to be so named. She was recognized again in 1999 by Pope John Paul II, who named her a patron saint of Europe.