A deadly plague enters Italy from China, quickly spreading to the rest of Europe. The Roman Catholic Church, racked by division and questions concerning the pope, surveys the bleak landscape. The Holy Father stands separated from his flock in Rome, as the Eternal City is isolated. He holds services apart from the people of Rome, carrying his cross seemingly alone. And meanwhile, the death toll mounts. No one knows when it will end.
What year am I describing?
I’m talking, of course, about the year … 1347.
If you answered 2020, I’ll give half credit. The year I have in mind was also the birth year of the saint and doctor of the Church whose feast day is April 29 — St. Catherine of Siena.
The young Caterina, born with a twin sister, the 23rd and 24th of the 25 children of Lapa and Giacomo Benincasa, came into a world on fire in 1347. She arrived the year the plague — also known as the Black Death — had arrived in Italy, the European country that today has suffered more COVID-19 deaths than any other. Catherine’s star would ultimately rise to the point that many Italians look to her intercession today, as she serves as co-patron (with St. Francis of Assisi) of Italy, as well as a patron of Europe.
Historians debate the precise origins of the pandemic that hit Europe in 1347, but they universally agree that the virus emanated from or near China. One recent biographer of St. Catherine of Siena, Shelley Emling, described it this way:
“For the residents of Tuscany … even from nearly 5,000 miles away, by way of merchants traveling along the ancient international passageway known as the Silk Road, the Italians heard rumblings of something sinister percolating in Central Asia that would soon test the faith of even the most faithful like nothing ever had before. The fourteenth-century plague … wiped out nearly one-third of the people of China before the rest of the world knew what was coming.”
It arrived in Sicily in October 1347. Catherine had been born seven months earlier, as the plague continued its death march up the continent. Catherine survived the plague as an infant, as did her huge family, but disease remained rampant in this era, well beyond the scourge of the Black Death.
In fact, modern health-care workers under siege in emergency rooms in New York City and elsewhere might look to St. Catherine of Siena as a patron. She likewise tended to the sick and dying, never shying from hospitals or those with infectious diseases. Her first biographer, Blessed Raymond Di Capua, who was also her confessor, tells of two memorable incidents.
One involved a woman called Tecca, who suffered from leprosy that covered her entire body. No one would go near her, except Catherine. News of Tecca’s abandonment reached Catherine, who, writes Blessed Raymond, “immediately hurried to the hospital, full of burning charity, saw the poor woman, embraced her. … Every day, morning and evening, she would go to see her all by herself, preparing the things she needed to keep her alive, feeding her, looking after her with care and diligence — looking upon this leper woman, in fact, as her Heavenly Bridegroom.”
Another story about St. Catherine involved a Dominican nun named Andrea, who was dying from breast cancer. Her open sore, said Raymond, “gave out such a frightful stench that you had to hold your nose when you went near it, and the result was that no one would help the poor woman or even go and see her.” When Catherine, herself a Third Order Dominican, discovered this, “she realized that heaven had reserved this unfortunate woman especially for herself, and she immediately went off to see her.”
Not only did Catherine take care of the miserable woman, but she did something quite unusual — no doubt “gross,” to modern eyes and ears, and utterly inadvisable to any health-care worker dealing with infectious diseases. To overcome the stench that was so nauseating that it repulsed Catherine from tending to Andrea, the future saint did something shocking: She placed her mouth and nose directly upon the woman’s sore in order to tame her own flesh from its resistance. “Stop, daughter!” protested Andrea. “Stop it, dearest daughter! Don’t infect yourself with this horrible filthy pus!”
Again, not advisable, but such were the depths of mortification that this remarkable saint willingly inflicted upon herself.
“You must not be anxious or afraid,” Catherine said Jesus had told her, “for I shall always be with you. … Carry out undauntedly whatever the spirit prompts you to do.”
A further caution: This was a truly extraordinary person who literally saw and spoke to Jesus Christ. She was said to have performed miracles. She was said to be able to read hearts and minds and souls. She had a direct line to God that few who ever lived have — such that she was not afraid to die. And she died young, at age 33.
Catherine was born not only amid pandemic, but amid a Catholic Church in turmoil. She survived the plague to become an instrument of healing for the Church, speaking out audaciously to the pope in particular. She helped initiate a great time of recovery and renewal.
The papacy was in Avignon, France, where a succession of pontiffs had taken up residence since the first decade of the 1300s. Catherine, in a striking example of boldness, not only for any layperson, but especially for a woman in those days, reprimanded the pontiff and insisted he return the papacy to Rome.
She wrote him letters, she met with him, and she pushed, with truth and charity: The Chair of St. Peter should be in Rome, where Peter’s body was located. Catherine fortified these popes, encouraged them, spoke in a voice they knew had to be the word of God, and urged courage. She was unafraid to speak truth — which she believed was Truth Itself — to power. “Proclaim the truth,” she urged, “and do not be silent through fear.”
Ultimately, one of the popes she spoke to, Gregory XI, persevered, arriving in Rome in January 1377, in the last few years of Catherine’s life. It was one of her final missions.
Of course, St. Catherine of Siena’s mission was ultimately an eternal one. The people of Italy look to her still to this day, and we should, too, especially during this time of pandemic.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania.
His books include A Pope and a President and The Divine Plan and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Communism.