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Patronesses of Italy and Europe

The Life of Catherine, which is not mine

Plautilia Nelli, Saint Catherine Receives the Stigmata, circa 1570, restored in 2008; Museo San Salvi, Florence
29 August 2020

The saint of Siena, and a writer who is as old as when she died

This year I told myself that I would not celebrate my birthday. After all, turning 32 is of little consequence, a middling age, between the end of my twenties and the age of Christ. An age in which it seems incredible to us that we have yet to perform miracles; instead, we are just refugees in our life as mortals who do not create too much confusion or revolution. It can be said that this is the only thing Catherine of Jacopo di Benincasa and me share: an age when my youth is concluding, while her life was actually ending.

Catherine was born in 1347 in Siena in the Contrada dell’Oca and died at the age of Christ’s death.  She lived a life that contained one thousand lives and left behind her a trail of blood and lilies.

March 25. There were those who said she was daughter number 23 and those who instead said she was number 24. Others insisted the total number of sons and daughters was 25. Either way, we can be certain Catherine was born among many. This fact is mirrored in the twin face of her newborn sister Giovanna who, however, died soon after their birth. In response to this fact, I think she wanted to live a life that was worth at least two, that was double in strength, in determination and faith. One life for herself and one for Giovanna.

Catherine was born among so many, so many that I cannot even imagine them all; I, who was born an only daughter and only granddaughter, an only heir, an only child, cannot find room for them all there in the Contrada dell’Oca, and yet they have been there and have lived in the times of the Black Plague. In fact, the year in which Catherine came into the world was the year when the plague returned to Siena. She, white; she an uncorrupted flower; her purity; the nocturnal plague, the plague and its dark boils, the plague and the streets smelling of death and sickness.

There are those who say age six, others say it was seven, when I ran in the great olive grove of my school to win a medal at the cross-country race, or smeared A4 sheets of paper with my hands full of tempera-colors.  At this age, while Catherine was in the Sienese town of Vallepiatta, Christ appeared to her, dressed with majesty, as if he were the Pope. He had three crowns on his head, a red cloak over his shoulders, and was surrounded by saints Peter, Paul and John. I crushed the little tubes of color on the formica bench, and I held my pigtails in place with pink elastic bands. While I tried to write the letter B in capital italics, Catherine had discovered the existence of God on earth and decided to take a vow of purity.

Catherine began from that moment to do penance, and in the following years, she reduced her sleep and food intake.  She stopped eating meat, and lived on raw herbs and fruit, and wore haircloth; instead, I wasted afternoons with my whims to avoid doing math exercises, and got a purple-eyed Barbie with a very short skirt.

When Catherine was 12 years old, and at what was considered at that time a marriageable age, her parents were ready to look for husband.  At 12, I cycled along the pine-lined avenues of the village where I grew up; I ate pine nuts, drank orangeade and collected stickers that smelt of strawberry if you rubbed them.  For me, boys were just an annoyance and weddings were midnight fairytales.

Catherine, too, did not intend to marry a man of flesh and blood. Therefore, in protest, she cut off her hair, covered her head with a veil and locked herself in the house. At 12, she was already tenacious and ready for renunciations; and, to fight to be able to follow the path she had chosen, by herself alone. She was convinced of her decision and forced the family to accept her uncontrollable faith. Not having gone to school, she taught herself how to read, and studied the lives of saints and mystics, without knowing that she would one day become a saint and a mystic too, that she too would come to be venerated. The daily occupations of reading and writing became obstacles for Catherine because she was semi-illiterate and had to get help to write down her thoughts. In fact, for a long time, so as not to not lose her words, and so as to be read, and to communicate she used to dictate them to those who were close to her.

It was not long afterwards that Catherine entered the Mantellate order, but since the order welcomed only adult women and widows, and not virgins, she managed to make them reconsider their rules too. Moreover, the nuns could do little to curb Catherine’s stubbornness, which was as straight as an arrow, knew its target, and went like lightening in her life.

At that age I started high school and learnt Latin and Greek, I skipped the hour of religious education, and lazily ogled my classmates playing soccer and smoked cigarettes behind the school’s bike shed. I watched politicians wearing green scarves around their necks on television. Catherine was already in the world, in a haunted, painful world, a place where faith was becoming extinct.  This was a world where wars did not stop and political interests, factions, diseases won out. France was prey to the Hundred Years War; Italy was being fought by the free companies [mercenaries] and torn by internal strife; the kingdom of Naples was overwhelmed by the fickleness of Queen Joan;  Jerusalem was already the scene of strife; the Turks were advancing in Anatolia;  while the Christians were declaring war against each other.

I was passively present in the world, through the television screen; everything was outside of me, and except the episodes of my favorite TV show and my first love, not of my concern. Meanwhile, at this age, everything was inside Catherine: every pain, every sorrow was a mission for her. Thus, armed with the sole will, as a faithful, Catherine walked among those who were sick, those who were dying, those who had sinned, and those who sought a cure through the words of God, to save the world, to save History.

We are in 1370; Catherine was 23 years old, and had ten years left to live, when Christ opened her chest, giving her his heart to give her the necessary strength to carry out her missions, and make of her a burning stone. This was the year in which Pope Urban V left Rome and returned to Avignon where the papal see had transferred to from 1309. At that age I began to study ancient and medieval philosophy at university. I had cluttered photocopied handouts in my bags, and I thought that politics was over and that the world belonged to me only in books, only the written world belonged to me.

Catherine left her city and began to travel, she was now a guide for many men and women. Gathered around her were thinkers, doctors, and hermits.  So as not to be overwhelmed by the sadness of a universe where everything seemed lost, she wrote letters in reply to those who asked for faith, to those who needed guidance and help. Catherine took courage, which was an attribute of her “cor” [heart], and only those who have a heart know how to take it out, know how to cast it over an obstacle, and to have courage. Catherine carried her own heart -which Christ had given her-, all the way to Avignon. As a girl, she a dyer’s daughter and one of many children, the little soul of a small town, a woman who could not write, yet she was determined to heal even that wound, the one that had broken the church, that was dispersing the faith.

In 1374, when Catherine was 27 years old, I finished my Political Philosophy degree with a thesis on Nietzsche and my battle cry could only have been “God was dead”. I discovered that with a philosophy degree I could not find a job.  I slept in a sublet room of a girl who was away on the Erasmus program, and I worked for a publishing house that did not pay me. Catherine encountered Pope Gregory XI and continued her itinerant apostolate and her interest in politics. When she returned to Florence she found her bitter enemy the plague still there.   The epidemic also struck her family, those female and male disciples with whom Catherine had been spending her days of prayer, reflection and faith for some time.

Catherine went to Avignon to meet the Pope. Notoriety followed the fiery letters of faith she wrote to him, and for the pressure with which she tried to convince him to return to Rome, for the discussions with him about the Crusades, about pacification in Italy, about the corrupt Curia and the reform of the Church. Today, in solely considering her journey gives us an indication of the measure of Catherine’s spirit, who carried a holy heart in her bosom, and believed that there was only one possible future, the one that saves.

In the meantime I rented my first house and studied the colonies of Italy. I talked with my grandmother about the war years and note the number of bombs, the desert and the gazelles, on the train to return to visit my parents in the village, I saw the pilgrims getting off at the Saint Peter Square stop for the Angelus on Wednesday.

The last two years were marked by decline.   In 1378, a new Pope was elected, or rather two (the other was the Antipope Clement VII), the pacification of the Church was still far away, and the situation in the city of Florence had yet to be calmed, in fact, Catherine was almost killed during the Ciompi revolt. The Church was breaking up in the midst of the Western Schism, and Catherine witnessed its ruin, its fall. Here, instead, at this point, I had  been suffering from an invisible illness for three years, and went in and out of my bed for long periods of time. Smartphones and  computers revealed to me that I could no longer live.

The years of Christ arrived and he returned, and asked for his heart back. Catherine died in Rome, my city of origin, and left a world that risked to forget her. It is her words that survived, her letters, her writings that were published, and her thoughts that have advanced over the centuries.

My life and Catherine’s life have never really touched each other; in 1461, Catherine was canonized in Rome, in 1866 she was declared Patroness of the Capital, in 1939 Patroness of Italy, in 1999 John Paul II proclaimed her Co-Patroness of Europe. Instead, I continue to fight against being self-employed, the blood tests, the irritable bowel syndrome, and my handwriting. I remain and accept defeat of not being able to aspire to holiness.

by Giulia Caminito

Catherine, daughter of Jacopo di Benincasa

Siena, March 25, 1347
Died Rome, April 29, 1380
Venerated by the Catholic, and Anglican Church
Canonization 1461 by Pope Pius II
Anniversary April 29
Doctor of the Church October 3, 1970
Patroness of Italy, Co-Patroness of Europe

The author

Born in Rome, Giulia Caminiti, 32 years old, made her debut with the novel  La Grande A [The Big A] (Giunti 2016) which won the Bagutta opera prima, and the Giuseppe Berto and Brancati giovani awards. Her latest novel is Un giorno verrà [A Day Will Come] (Bompiani, 2019), winner of the Fiesole Prize for fiction for a writer under 40. As an editor, she works with Italian fiction for the publishing house Nutrimenti. She is on the editorial board of the Letterate Magazine and the Tabula Rasa program of the Radio Onda Rossa. In addition, she directs the “Under - festival di nuove scritture” [Under - Festival of New Writings] held in Rome in schools, with the Da Sud Association.