This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
I will fulfill my vows before those who fear the Lord.
The lowly shall eat their fill;
they who seek the Lord shall praise him:
May your hearts live forever! (R./)
All the ends of the earth
shall remember and turn to the Lord;
all the families of the nations
shall bow down before him. (R./)
To him alone shall bow down
all who sleep in the earth;
before him shall bend
all who go down into the dust. (R./)
And to him my soul shall live;
my descendants shall serve him.
Let the coming generation be told of the Lord
that they may proclaim to a people yet to be born
the justice he has shown. (R./)
At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
Caterina Benincasa (1347-1380) was born in Siena, Italy, into the large family of Giacomo Benincasa (a cloth dyer) and Lapa Piagenti. Her mother was about forty years old when she prematurely gave birth to twin daughters, Giovanna and Catherine. Whereas Giovanna was handed over to a wet-nurse but soon died, Catherine was nursed by her mother, and grew into a healthy child. As a young girl of five or six she had her first vision of Christ and later said that Jesus smiled at her, blessed her, and left her in ecstasy.
When Catherine’s older sister Bonaventura died of puerperal fever, her parents wanted the sixteen-year-old Catherine to marry Bonaventura’s widower. Resolutely opposed to this marriage, she started a hunger strike and cut off her long hair. Much later she told her confessor and biographer, Fr. Raymond of Capua, how she had resisted her parents’ wishes: “Build a cell inside your mind, from which you can never flee,” Eventually her parents allowed her to live as she pleased.
Her wish to join a Dominican convent was resisted by her mother until the daughter fell seriously ill with violent fever and pain. At this, Lapa persuaded the local association of Dominican Tertiaries to accept her daughter. Catherine soon regained her health and determined to live at home with her family, as a Tertiary outside the convent. The sisters taught her to read, and she lived very quietly in the family home.
About the year 1366, she experienced a kind of “mystical marriage” with Jesus, which later became a popular subject in art. Other mystical experiences recounted by Raymond of Capua include Catherine’s receiving the stigmata and receiving communion from Christ himself. Raymond also asserts that she was told by Christ to leave her withdrawn life and involve herself with the public life of the world. This led her to devote herself to helping sick and poor people, whether in hospitals or in their homes.
Catherine’s charitable activities in Siena attracted a group of followers, but also irritated some members of the Dominican Order, who called her to Florence in 1374 to be tested for possible heresy. After being judged orthodox, she began travelling in northern and central Italy advocating reform of the clergy and calling people to repentance and renewal to restore the Church to health.
She declared her views to all comers and from the early 1370s she began dictating letters to ecclesiastical and civil authorities. Her two major causes were the restoration of peace between the rival republics within Italy and the return of the Papacy from Avignon to Rome. She wrote urgently to Pope Gregory XI to reform the clergy and the civil administration of the Papal States. In 1376 she went to Avignon to promote peace between Florence and the Papal States, but was unsuccessful. Catherine begged Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome, which he did in 1377. Later, during the Western Schism of 1378 she supported Pope Urban VI, who called her to Rome, where she lived for the final two years of her life.
The more than 300 of her letters that survive are works of early Tuscan literature. In her letters to the Pope, she often referred to him affectionately simply as Papa (“Pope”), instead of the formal address, “Holiness.” Other letters were exchanged with Raymond of Capua, the kings of France and Hungary, and the Queen of Naples. Approximately one third of her letters are to women. Her major work is The Dialogue of Divine Providence, between an aspiring soul and the Lord, as recorded by members of her circle. Though many judged her illiterate, her first biographer, Raymond, claimed that Catherine could read both Latin and Italian. Another biographer, Tommaso Caffarini, claimed that she could write in her own hand, though most if not all of her written work was in fact dictated.
Catherine was grieved by the schism in the Church under the papacy of Urban VI. The cardinals regretted electing him and proposed to elect another, but could not persuade Urban to resign. This led to an era of two rival Popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, a situation that lasted for several decades. She was convinced that the schism was a wound in the body of Christ that could only be healed by personal sacrifice. Soon after she had begun to pray that she might atone for the sins of the church, she collapsed and died. Her memory was a beacon of light in a dark time.
On her feast we might reflect on whether we could be mystics and activists as she was. The Lord’s invitation, “Come to me, all who labour and are overburdened,” is spoken to us all. We are invited to come to him, to grow to know him as he knows and loves us. In linking us with himself he also sends us into the world afire with the flame of his love.