St. Catherine of Siena’s Fire Was Stoked in Conversation With God

‘Be who God meant you to be,’ said St. Catherine, ‘and you will set the world on fire.’

Joseph Hasslwander, “St. Catherine With a Monstrance,” 1838
Joseph Hasslwander, “St. Catherine With a Monstrance,” 1838 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Catherine of Siena has a reasonably earned reputation as a spitfire. She famously persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome from Avignon, and she played a critical political role between the Papal States and Italian city-states.

I admit, however, that when I chose Catherine as my confirmation saint, I knew none of this. In the diocese where I grew up, we received the sacrament of Confirmation on the same day as our First Communion, and, at the ripe age of 8 years old, I picked her because she was the first female saint I had learned of after St. Bernadette. The latter had already been claimed by my older sister and as I vehemently opposed “sharing a saint,” I opted for the virtually unknown (to me) St. Catherine of Siena. 

Several years later, I finally determined to learn more about this Italian mystic and Doctor of the Church. An outgoing, opinionated and fairly feisty lady myself, I was delighted to read about Catherine’s boldness and courage. Perhaps more so as I saw it as tacit validation of my own outspoken — and dare I say, even at times mulish — tendencies. Alas for me, further study of Catherine shattered my illusions.

Catherine was certainly fearless. Only a very brave heart could lead a lay woman to gently but firmly chastise the Supreme Pontiff, particularly in the 14th century. But if I had to choose a word to describe Catherine’s life, it would not be firebrand, or even activist, as Wikipedia editors have chosen to christen her. I would choose surrender.

My mistake when I first read about Catherine was to examine her life through the lens of the world, which admires our achievements but neglects our souls. I had studied a woman who was wildly influential for her time and operated far beyond the sphere predetermined for her by her gender and education. Starstruck by her political prowess, I could not see the love of Christ that drove her. I assumed she had delighted in her task of advising dignitaries and clergy, even up to the Holy Father. I did not take note of her years spent fasting and praying. Instead, I imagined her bestowing sage advice, and traveling among the city states with her posse of scribes writing down her every thought — the epitome of modernity’s oft-praised girlboss. 

How disappointed I was then, when I discovered that this glamorous vision I had was so far from the truth. Catherine had not relished her fame and influence at all. On the contrary, she had been heartbroken when Christ called her to leave her life of isolation in her family home and enter public ministry. Her confessor and later biographer, Blessed Raymond of Capua, noted: “She confessed to me that when she was small she had felt a burning desire to become a solitary, but she had never found the way to do this.” 

Even leaving her prayerful solitude to join her family for dinner every evening was a burden. Raymond of Capua wrote: “She told me … that, when by the Lord’s command she was obliged to leave her cell and go and talk to anyone, she felt such a sharp pain in her heart that it seemed as though it was about to break, and that no one except the Lord would have been able to make her do it.”

Catherine harbored no ambitions for public success, and she certainly did not embark on her peacemaking missions because she felt she was particularly suited to the task. She did so only because the Lord, whom she loved above all else, asked it of her. 

Aside from my own foolish assumptions as a young girl, I have often heard Catherine praised for her bold activism, ignoring the great sacrifice asked of her. I confess I have fallen prey to that myself, recasting the great saint according to our current age’s notions of “girl power.” These shallow reimaginings may intend to honor Catherine as a political savant and accomplished diplomat, but they only demean the true greatness of her soul. Catherine met tremendous success in her public mission, not because she was ambitious or cunning, but because she suppressed her own individual inclinations and preferences. Her hopes of a quiet life spent in meditative solitude were subsumed by the Lord’s plan for her, and, despite her own disappointment, she neither questioned nor argued his instructions. From a young age she had placed herself, body and soul, before her Creator, to be used as he saw fit for the salvation of souls. When he revealed to her what this path would look like, and how different it would appear from her own plans, she did not hesitate. 

Catherine famously said, “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.” Crucially, she did not recommend we rely on our own fallible human judgment to determine who we are and what we are meant to do. Nor did she even suggest our personal goals are of import. Instead, she implored us to place ourselves before God, asking for our hearts to align with his. How odd this sounds in our relativistic age, in which we are encouraged to seek our own truths to live by and to “be ourselves” in order to achieve our dreams and aspirations. 

At the time of her young death at the age of 33, Catherine left behind more than 400 letters, her seminal spiritual work, the Dialogue, and a legacy that would change the Church and her country forever. But studying her life, it is abundantly clear that had God asked her to live in quiet anonymity, she would have done so. Likewise, had he called her to travel abroad and die a martyr’s death for the conversion of sinners, she would have leapt to her feet and gone.

St. Catherine of Siena’s brilliance did not result from her worldly achievements, although we may be tempted to think otherwise. She did not set the world on fire because she brokered peace deals and rebuked religious leaders. Her blazing sanctity was forged in the years she spent alone in conversation with her beloved Bridegroom. She became a vessel, a conduit through which Christ’s love entered the world and her zeal moved those who met her towards him, be they pilgrims, princes or even popes. 

St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us!