The Life of Catherine Benincasa

Catherine Benincasa was born in Siena on 25th March 1347. She was the second last of Iacopo Benincasa, dyer and cloth-dealer, and his wife Lapa de’ Piagenti’s twenty-five children. When she was six she had a vital encounter with Christ Pontiff, which bred a desire for a total union and led her to take the vow of chastity at the age of seven. This choice was going to clash with the wedding plans that her family began to make a few years later according to contemporary custom.

In order to make her life-commitment secure, Catherine became a member of the Dominican Tertiaries, in Siena called “Mantellate”: so she combined her prayer life and service in the family with her commitment to assist the poor, the sick and the prisoners.

The problems besetting her home-town stirred her concern and initiative to such a great extent that soon she took care also of the towns nearby and the complex predicament of contemporary Church. The conflicts between families, factious politics, social injustice, the clergy’s moral decadence, the weakness of Papacy and the fact that the ecclesiastic institutions were heavy called for an urgent reformation of Christian society in Europe. Catherine’s 383 letters, whose texts were handed down to us, were directed to a lot of ecclesiastic as well as political contemporary personages. Likewise she wrote to people belonging to any social class, both religious and lay people, many of whom became her disciples and friends.

It was thought that the Pope’s return from Avignon to Rome was the pre-requisite for the reformation of the Church and the reconciliation among the European countries. Urban V made an attempt to return to Rome, but it resulted in a failure in a few months’ time (1370). Urban died soon after returning to Avignon as St. Bridget of Sweden had foretold him. After the saint woman’s death (1372), the new Pope Gregory XI sent her confessor, Alfonso of Valdaterra to ask Catherine to pray for him and for the Church, while the Tuscan towns were siding with the Viscontis of Milan against the Papacy.
In May Catherine went to Florence, where the general chapter of the Dominicans was gathered: here she received as her spiritual guide Friar Raimondo delle Vigne. As soon as she got back to Siena where there was a new outbreak of plague Catherine committed herself to the assistance of the sick.

In spring 1375 Catherine went to Pisa and Lucca in the attempt to make those towns withdraw from the antipapal legacy promoted by Bernabò Visconti. She also hoped to persuade them to take part in the planned “passage” to the Holy Land, which at the time seemed the only initiative capable of inducing the European countries to put an end to the conflicts tearing the countries to pieces. Catherine herself, like other spiritual people, planned to go on a mission to those countries to offer Christ’s redemption to those non-Christian peoples, to the risk of her own life. She hoped that they would become germ of a new life in the Church, so she made an appeal also to some devoted women like Monna Paola and her Fiesole friends (Letter 144).
Friar Tommaso of Siena, known as “Il Caffarini” openly bore witness to the fact that Catherine herself had expressed her wish to leave. “She wished to go through the infidels and to the Holy Land”. In the course of her encounter with Gregory XI, talking about “the passage” she had expressed her wish to visit the Holy Sepulchre and to participate in that “passage” along with her closest friends to bring about the salvation of the Christians as well as that of the non-Christians (Processo Castellano p. 44,27 and 45,9-13 Laurent, Legenda maior 2,10, 19-21 p.327 s. Nocentini). On 1st April 1376 Catherine had the well-known vision presenting her as reconciler, not only between conflicting factions and countries, but also between Christians and Muslims, “ passing from people to the other one” (Letter 219).

In early May Catherine left for Florence, with the aim to supporting the reconciliation of the Florentine republic with the Papacy. After a few weeks she departed for Avignon, to plead before Gregory XI in favour of the Florentines, who were placed under interdict. At the end of summer, Catherine obtained from the Pope the promise that he would return to Rome. She also tried to obtain a rapid beginning of the “passage”, thinking that it was urgent for the good of both the Christians and the Muslims (Letter 237).
On 13th September the Papal Court left Avignon directing itself to Rome by sea, while Catherine and her disciples journeyed on land stopping in Varazze. In the course of an encounter in Genoa Catherine encouraged Gregory once more, so the Pope entered Rome on 17th January 1377, while Catherine had reached Siena at the end of December.

After founding a monastery for contemplative nuns, Santa Maria degli Angeli [St. Mary of the Angels’], in 1377 Catherine spent the end of the summer and the autumn in Rocca d’Orcia in the attempt to reconcile the two rival branches of the Salimbeni powerful family and restore peace between those peoples. Here Catherine, who was worried about the difficult predicament of contemporary Church and society, started to meditate on and to dictate her “Book” and she informed Raimondo about it by writing to him in her own handwriting (Letter 272).

By Gregory’s appointment she went to Florence to make peace between the Pope and the citizens. On Gregory’s death (27th March 1378), his successor was Bartolomeo Prignano, Archbishop of Bari who took the name of Urban VI (8th April). During the summer, Catherine was within a hair’s breadth of being killed  in the so-called “Ciompi Riot”, but she eventually managed to reach a treaty between the town and the papacy.

On returning to Siena Catherine completed the composition of the “Book” in mid-October. In the meantime, nonetheless, Urban VI’s intransigence aroused a discontent in the Papal Court and on 20th September the cardinals, most of whom were French, held a meeting in Fondi and elected an Anti-pope, Robert of Geneva, who took the name of Clement VII. This marked the beginning of a schism, which was to tear the Church and Europe apart until 1417.

On 28th November, by Urban VI’s appointment, Catherine arrived in Rome to offer the Papal Court spiritual support, besides catalyzing European countries’ consent to Urban VI.
It was, therefore, necessary to set aside the planned “passage” among the non-Christians.
Through prayer and an intense diplomatic activity, encouraging the rulers’ commitment and the contemplatives’ prayer also by letter, Catherine used all her energies to achieve the unity and the reformation of the Church. The pope wanted to send her to Naples to Queen Joanna of Anjou’s court, together with the daughter of the deceased Bridget of Sweden (whose name was also Catherine), but the young Swedish woman and Raimondo’s fears persuaded Urban to give up that plan, which was a bitter disappointment to Catherine Benincasa (Legenda maior 3, 1, 11-12, p. 364 Nocentini; Processo Castellano, p. 149,5-6 Laurent).

After an intense diplomatic activity, enriched by continuous prayer and penance, Catherine died in Rome on 29th April 1380, in the house of Paola del Ferro where she had taken lodgings with her disciples in Via del Papa (today St. Chiara's Square, 14). She was buried near the Dominican church St. Maria Sopra Minerva. On her epitaph (now kept in the sacristy of the basilica itself) Friar Raimondo had this inscription carved: “She took upon herself the zeal for the dying world”.


(cf. G. Cavallini, Caterina da Siena: la vita, gli scritti, la spiritualità, Roma, Città Nuova, 2008, p.19-30) 

Bertrand de Got,  Archbishop of Bordeaux, elected Pope with the name of Clement V moved the Papal See to Avignon.

Outbreak of One Hundred Years’ War.

Cola di Rienzo was sent to Avignon to ask Pope Clement VII to return to Rome.

Nascita di Caterina e Giovanna

On 20th March Cola di Rienzo assumed the power in his capacity as tribune of the Holy Roman Republic.


25th March, Palm Sunday and New Year’s Day according to Siena’s Calendar.
Catherine and Joanna were born daughters of Jacopo Benincasa and Lapa de Piagenti, but Joanna, the younger baby, dies a few days later.

The Plague devastated Europe, reducing its population by one third. On 9th June, Joanna of Anjou, Queen of Naples, sold the city of Avignon to the Papacy.

In the Benincasa family, the last daughter comes  to life and is called Joanna.

Visione di Cristo ponteficeFrom Via del Costone, while she is coming down homewards Catherine has her first vision: Christ-Pontiff appears to her above St. Dominic’s Church. He smiles and blesses her.

caterina si taglia i capelliAfter a few years’ absence Cola di Rienzo returned to Rome triumphantly, but he was killed in an ambush.

At the age of seven, Catherine gives herself to God with a vow of chastity. She then leads an austere life, which her family tries to hamper in vain.

Caterina riceve labito del Terzo Ordine DomenicanoIn order to live her self-donation to God with a greater freedom of action, Catherine obtains  the Blessed Dominic’s Penance Sisters’ habit

matrimonio mistico
Catherine’s intimate union with Christ culminates in her experience of the mystical wedding.

Pope Urban V tried to bring back the Papal See to Rome. On 30th April he left Avignon and on 4th June arrived in Corneto and entered Rome on 16th October.

Instead of going into her cell, on the threshold Christ invites Catherine to come out and to take part in her family-life.

caterina dona la veste al poveroSince then Catherine has committed herself not only to her family-life, but also to the assistance of sick people in hospitals, to the support of the poor and the prisoners. She gets concerned with the people in need of material and moral support.

A family of followers  gathers  round her. They are men and women, clergymen, religious as well as lay people.


Perugia rebelled against the Pope’s French legates
Urban V left Rome for Viterbo on 17th April and announced that he was going to return to Avignon. He left Corneto in September and arrived in France on 24th September, dying soon afterwards as St. Bridget of Sweden had predicted him.
On 30th December he was succeeded by Pierre Roger of Beaufort, who took the name of Gregory XI.

The new Pope’s policy, which was intended to repress the power of the Viscontis, the Lords of Milan, found support in the North of Italy and was supported also by the Queen of Naples and by the king of Hungary Louis I, while the cities of Tuscany opposed him.

Gregory XI announced to the Consistory that he was going to Rome.The English fleet was defeated at La Rochelle.
St. Bridget of Sweden died in Rome.

Catherine writes  a letter to Bernabò Visconti (Letter 28) urging him to be loyal towards the Papacy.

On 17th April Gregory XI confirmed to the Consistory that he was going to leave for Rome.

In March Alfonso of Valdaterra, former Bishop of Jaén, goes to see Catherine: he had been St. Bridget’ s confessor and was connected with the eremitical movements of central Italy; he gives to Catherine a letter of indulgence from Gregory XI asking her to pray for the Church (cf. Lett. 127).
In May  Catherine arrives in Florence where she acquires  new friends and disciples. She is given a Dominican friar, Raimondo Delle Vigne as spiritual director.
On returning to Siena Catherine spends the whole summer assisting the sick. In the autumn she visits Montepulciano’s Monastery, where she pays  homage to St. Agnese Segni’s sepulchre.

caterina riceve le stimmate2Naples, Genoa and other Italian States offered Gregory their own ships on the assumption that the Papal Court’s transfer to Rome would be forthcoming. The expectation, however, that his own presence in Avignon would favour the end of the conflict between France and England induced the Pope to postpone his departure.
They signed an armistice in Bruges.

In the spring and at the beginning of the summer Catherine goes to Pisa and Lucca in the attempt to prevent the local authorities from joining the anti-papal legacy favoured by Bernabò Visconti. She hopes to induce them to participate in the planned passage to the Holy Land.
1st April - A sudden illness of Catherine in St. Christina's Church in Pisa shows her conformation with Christ crucified, according to St. Paul's experience of the stigmata (cf. Gal 6: 17).

La decapitazione di Niccolo di TuldoOn returning to Siena, Catherine assists Niccolò Tuldo of Perugia until he gets onto the scaffold to get executed: she sees his conversion as “the first stone” of the Church Reformation (Letter 273).

At the end of 1375, on returning to Pisa, Catherine is paid a visit by the ambassador of the Queen of Cyprus, who is journeying to Avignon: he asks Catherine to urge Gregory to make his passage to the East (Letter 132).

caterina con croce spalle e ulivo pacePisa and Lucca joined the anti-papal legacy on 12th March and also Boulogne rose in rebellion  (on 19th March).
John Hawkwood’s mercenaries fought against the rebels and ravaged Faenza. Gregory XI laid under interdict Florence, which was the heart of rebellion...

Catherine writes various letters to Gregory pointing out to him the urgency to come to Rome and reform the Church and to promote “the passage”. Raimondo and a few of Catherine’s followers go to Avignon to defend Florence’s cause.

1° 1st April - Catherine has a symbolic vision (Letter 219) in which Christians and non- Christians enter the chest of Christ, while she is given the cross and a branch of olives for the two peoples.

caterina davanti gregorio xi

In early May Catherine leaves for Florence, with the aim to supporting the reconciliation of the Florentine republic with the Papacy. In late May she departs for Avignon, where she arrives on 18th June. Raimondo acts as her interpreter, translating her words into Latin.
Catherine’s mission does not bring about the reconciliation of the Pope with Florence, but induces Gregory to take the serious decision to move back to Rome.

August:  by request of the Duke of Anjou, Catherine (Letter 235) writes to Charles V of France asking him to put an end to the war against England and to join the “passage” to the Holy Land.

caterina incoraggia gregorio xi13th September Gregory XI and the Papal Court left for Marseilles, where on 2nd October they sailed for Italy. Their ships, however, had to struggle against a fierce storm, so they managed to reach Savona only a fortnight later and then Genoa where they stopped.
The French Cardinals tried to persuade Gregory to return to Avignon, but soon after his encounter with Catherine, on 29th October, the papal fleet headed southwards and on 6th December Gregory and the Papal Fleet arrived in Corneto.

Gregorio XI entra a Roma13th September – Catherine and her followers  set out to Italy via terra.

Il On 3rd October they arrive in Varazze  and the following day they leave for Genoa where they stop for a long time, because some of her followers are taken ill.

In Genoa Catherine  meets Gregory XI and she encourages him to continue his journey to Rome.

At the end of December, Catherine returns to Siena.

On 13th January the Pope’s fleet sailed for Rome.

17th January Gregory cast anchor before Saint Paul's Outside the Walls and was accompanied to the Vatican by a rejoicing crowd.

In February the Breton soldiers, guided by Cardinal Roberto of Geneva, massacred  the people of Cesena who had rebelled against the Pope.

On January 25th Catherine obtains from Siena’s authorities the authorization to found a Convent in Belcaro, in a fortress that one of her followers, Nanni di Servanni, put at her disposal after his conversion.

Catherine spends the end of the summer and the autumn in Rocca d’Orcia trying to persuade Val d’Orcia inhabitants to resume civil co-existence. This is, indeed, something they have forgotten owing to their lords’ violence and hatred.

First conception of the Dialogue: Catherine writes to Raimondo a long letter (272) about it in her own handwriting.

As he wants to put an end to the clash with the Florentines, Pope Gregory XI sends Catherine to Florence as mediator.

caterina aggredita a firenze27th March  Gregory’ s death.

8th April Bartolomeo Prignano, Archibishop of Bari was elected Pope. He took the name of Urban VI and announced that he was going to stay in Rome. Immediately he began trying to purify the Church from corruption and abuse, but his harsh ways caused him a lot of enemies.

In Florence Catherine is within a hair’s breadth of being killed in a riot. Peace Treaty between the Florentines and the Papacy (28th July).

caterina detta il dialogo a fra santi2Catherine returns to Siena towards the end of the summer and she dedicates herself to the composition of the Dialogue, which she has started to dictate in the previous months and that she is going to complete in the first half of October.

On 20th September the cardinals, most of whom were French, held a meeting in Fondi and they made a new election. They chose Cardinal Roberto of Geneva, who took the name of Clement VII. This marked the beginning of the Schism which was going to divide the Western Christianity into two or even into three factions for about forty years.

caterina ricevuta da urbano vi

28th November. By order of Urban VI, Catherine arrives in Rome. On the next day she speaks to the Pope and to the Cardinals who support him, encouraging them to confide in Providence.

By mid-December from Ostia’s Roman harbour Raimondo of Capua sails for France in his capacity as  Papal legate at Charles V’ s court. He stops, however, in Genoa as he feels himself threatened (cf. Letter 344).

From Avignon where he had settled down with his Court Clement VII sent Breton soldiers to Italy to fight against Urban VI’s supporters. Some of them took possession of St. Angel’s Castle.

On 29th April at Marino the Anti-Pope’s army was defeated by St. George’s company,  led by Alberico di Barbiano.

Christian Europe was now divided into factions: Central Italy, Venice, Milan, Genoa, England, the Flanders sided with Urban VI; Savoy, instead, Naples, Spain, Avignon, Scotland and France followed Clement VII.

In Rome Catherine writes a lot of letters to support Urban and she sends Neri di Landoccio to Naples (Letter 369) in the hope to induce Queen Joanna I to oppose Clement.

morte di santa caterina
At the end of January Catherine suffers a serious heart-attack (Letter 37).

From 2nd February onwards every morning she feels inspired to plod towards the Basilica of St. Peter’s where she spends the whole day praying and starving.

From 26th February she gets bedridden and she dies on 29th April at midday.

Two days later her body is carried into a Dominican Church, the Basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, a short distance from the place where she died and the following day people passes before her remains to pay her the last homage.

epitaffio tomba s caterina

Her confessor, Raimondo, has this inscription carved on her sepulchre : “Hic, humilis,
digna prudens Katerina pausat que mundi zelum gessit moribundi. / Sub Lapa matre, Dominico postea patre, floru|it hec munda virgo, Senis oriunda" (= Here, humble, worthy, wise Catherine lies : she took upon herself the zeal for the dying world. Under her mother Lapa and her holy father Dominic flourished such pure girl of Siena).

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