Early Christianity has a major ratio problem when it comes to male and female leaders. While we often highlight the few women who were early Church leaders, the great bulk of the names that history recorded belonged to men. This is not to say that women were unimportant in the early Church, or that their impact went unfelt. Just a few weeks ago, we celebrated with the very first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning—women! But this silence reflects a deeply rooted patriarchy that so many women who walked alongside Christ and shared the Gospel with the world will never be known by name. Generally.
Catherine of Siena, born Catherine Benincasa, is a great exception to this rule. Born to a family of twenty-five (yes…twenty-five) children in the 14th century, Catherine showed signs she would not fit into the mold of her gender from an early age. Like many other saints, she had a deeply rooted prayer and spiritual life. Her life might have changed when her older sister, Bonaventura, died and Catherine would have married her brother-in-law, beginning a more traditional life as his wife. As would often be the case with Catherine, she chose a different path. She convinced her parents to allow her entry into the Order of St. Dominic while living at home. Life as part of a religious society allowed Catherine the opportunity to learn to read and write, continue serving the poor and sick, and correspond with Church leaders.
In this role, Catherine made sure that history would record her name and impact. Catherine’s letters and books contain practical lessons in diplomacy and advocacy. Living in 2023, I marvel at this woman who became a trusted advisor to political and religious leaders, while maintaining her religious convictions that they should act in the best interests of their people and justly share resources. The decision to advise powerful men, advocate, and write instead of marrying and needlepoint was revolutionary—and born of her faith.
Catherine became an inspiring figure for centuries of Christians seeking a more mystical communion with God. Her writings describe a woman completely captivated by Christ, united in body and spirit, and casting off the comforts and constraints of the world to hear God’s voice more deeply.
I appreciate Catherine of Siena because she did simple things, with great faith. She prayed. She spoke her mind. She fasted. But she also did extraordinary things, with great faith. She was an ambassador. She was a prolific writer at a time when few, fewer women still, were literate. She became a Saint and Doctor of the Church centuries after her death. She believed that her words mattered and could change the world—and they did! Centuries later, Catherine of Siena stands as one of the Church’s most important voices thanks to her correspondence and other writings. I thank God for her, and for all of the unnamed women who have gone before and since.
Catherine of Siena encouraged a life of prayer, simplicity, service, and advocacy. How can we instill those virtues in the children, youth, and young adults we work with each day? Think about creating a home altar or separate space in your classroom where you can pray with simple objects of devotion.
[Image Credit: Public Domain via The Metropolitan Museum of Art]
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