Don Brophy, former acquiring and managing editor at Paulist Press, and author of One Hundred Great Catholic Books and The Story of Catholics in America, has written a quintessential volume on the social, political, and spiritual life of Saint Catherine of Siena. Brophy’s focus is not solely on Catherine’s spirituality. In fact, he has brilliantly woven a historical narrative that places the reader on the tumultuous streets of fourteenth century Siena, Italy, where the movements of history can be traced through politics, war, plague, famine and death. Brophy readily admits that the focus of his biography is Catherine’s public life, “rather than her private, interior life that pious biographies have focused on in the past. To accomplish that, it has to describe the political and social world she moved in. It is hoped that these details will give the reader a sense of the air she breathed and the ground she walked on” (p. 244).
The mark of a true saint is a person who is a reactionary to events in their own historical timeline. Catherine of Siena was no exception, having ministered to both the physical and spiritual needs of the sick and bedridden in the hospitals and filthy streets of Siena. Although Catherine could not then partake of food without experiencing great agony, she took joy in alleviating the suffering of others. In fact, she “who found it impossible to eat food was nourished by the dregs of suffering and found them sweet. It was a communion of sorts. She who drank from the side of Christ also partook of humanity at its most repulsive. They were joined in her person” (p. 58).
As a great advocate of the truth, Catherine spoke rather boldly to both kings and popes. She ordered Pope Gregory XI to restore the papacy to Rome (from Avignon, France), and begin a reform movement of the corrupt Papal Curia. Catherine pleaded, “…most holy father! Had you only… [begun church reforms] the very day you got back where you belong! I trust in God’s goodness and in your holiness that you will do what had not yet been done…You know (for you were told) that is what you were asked to do: to see to the reform of holy Church; to attend to the punishment of sins and the planting of virtuous pastors; and to grasp the opportunity for holy peace with your wicked children in the best way possible and the manner most pleasing to God” (p. 171). One wonders, had Pope Gregory XI lived longer (he died in 1378, fourteen months after returning to Rome), would he have restored the Catholic Church to a state of piousness? The world will never know for sure, however, one thing remains certain: Pope Gregory XI was awestruck by Catherine of Siena.
Brophy’s latest publication is highly recommended for introductory students of saints and mystics. The volume would also be very appropriate reading for Undergraduate coursework. It should also be pointed out that beginning students may be inspired by Brophy’s work to find other primary sources on Catherine, including Catherine of Siena: The Dialogue (translated by Suzanne Noffke, Paulist Press, 1980) and Raymond of Capua’s The Life of Catherine of Siena (edited and translated by Conleth Kearns, Dominican Publications, 1980).