Catholic World – Public Life of Saint Catharine of Siena

detail of the oil on canvas painting 'Saint Catherine of Siena', 17th century by Baldassare Franceschini; Dulwich Picture Gallery, Dulwich, London, England; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsNo one can expect to find the history of the Church free from vicissitude; as it has its bright and glorious periods, so also it has its times of gloom and darkness, when a superficial observer might almost interpret the disastrous character of the more salient facts that meet his eye, as the evidence of a suspension of the vital activity and healthy vigor of the whole body. But the life of the Church is essentially internal, and depends on the free action of divine grace, penetrating and animating the whole community – an action that is perpetually kept up by the most common and unobtrusive ministrations of sacramental strength, which are going on in full frequency and efficacy, while the political fortunes of the hierarchy, or of the supreme power, are crushed by oppression or persecution; or even while scandals are seen in high places – when bishops become courtiers, when cardinals are truckling to kings and emperors, and popes are in captivity or exile. And it often happens that these dark times are most prolific of the noblest fruits of the interior life; and that at such seasons the choicest treasures of the Church – the souls on whom great and special graces have been bestowed – are providentially brought out into unusual prominence, so as to exercise great influence and give a character to the period, or a direction to some of its most important transactions. Even if it be not so, at all events we have only to go a little below the surface in order to find plentiful indications of the rich veins that are contained in no soil but one. Thus, in Italy, at the time in which this paper treats, there were a number of saintly souls, whose names have since taken rank in the calendar of the Church. The secular historian sees little more than a set of quarrelsome states, restless in their mutual discord and aggressive ambition, and distracted, ever and anon, by the most furious domestic strife, which would slake itself with nothing but blood. Saint Andrew Corsini once showed his audience, as he was preaching in the Piazza of Fiesole, looking down on Florence, an immense flight of hawks, kites, and other ravenous birds, battling with one another over the city. They represented, he told them, the number of evil spirits that were engaged in stirring up the inhabitants to intestine discord. Florence was not worse, but rather better, and more thoroughly Catholic, than its neighbors; yet when we take up such a life, for instance, as that of Saint Giovanni Colombini, of Siena, the founder of the Gesuati, we find ourselves at once in an atmosphere of calm and fresh simplicity, of happy peace, fervent devotion, and loving faith; and it is only by the chance mention of public calamities – the sufferings of the peasants, whose fruit-trees had been cut down by the German “company”‘ of marauders, and the like – that we are reminded of the Italy of the day, with its endless disturbances and hopeless insecurity. We have not merely the beautiful picture of Giovanni himself, and his immediate followers and friends; of his good wife, for instance, who begged him to read her pious book while she kept him waiting a few minutes for his dinner, and who, though he had at first thrown it on the floor in a fit of impatient anger, could not persuade him to leave it, when all was ready, till he had read to the end the story of Saint Mary of Egypt. She had prayed that he might be more given to almsgiving than he was, and then had to complain that she had prayed for a shower, not for a deluge, when he began to give away everything in the house; and she had to yield at last to his saintly fervor, and release him altogether from the obligations of the married life. It is not only Francesco Vincenti, the other rich and noble gentleman of Siena, who caught up the example of Giovanni, began to give great alms, dress shabbily, and serve the poor, and at last joined him in giving up the world altogether, and placing himself under religious obedience; or Giovanni’s cousin Catarina, the first of the nuns whom he established, whom he could not persuade to embrace the state of poverty, though she had given up the idea of marriage, till he called her to a little window in the wall between their two houses, one night, as she was going up to bed with her lamp lit, and talked to her in so heavenly a strain that her heart was perfectly changed; and when she turned to go away at last, she found that she had been listening all night, and the morning rays were streaming through the shutters, though, as he bade her observe, the little stock of oil in her lamp was unconsumed. These might be accidents of piety and simple faith in particular families; but we cannot so account for the great number of followers that enlisted themselves under Giovanni – so many, that the worthy magistrates of Siena thought fit for a time to banish him and his companions from the city, lest every one should join them; nor for the ready and enthusiastic welcome that he met with wherever he went throughout Tuscany, the joy with which his preaching was received, and the rapid fruit that it produced. The beautiful account of him and his early followers, written in the century after his death by Feo Belcari, is full of details and anecdotes that seem to prove the powerful hold that faith and religion retained upon the mass of the population in those seemingly black and miserable days. The mere number of his followers, as we have said, is an evidence of this, the proofs to which the novices were put were very severe indeed; yet when Urban V came from France to Italy, Giovanni went to meet him at Corneto with a company of seventy, all of whom had joined him within two years. The same conclusion is forced upon us when we take up the life or the letters of the still more famous child of the same fair city, Saint Catharine of Siena, of whose public influence we hope to give presently some short account. The family of religious disciples whom she collected around her in the course of her short life, from all ranks and classes, could never have been furnished save by a population thoroughly penetrated with religious feeling, and familiar with the loftiest principles of faith. Her own home, too, is a charming picture. There is the good pious father, “a man simple and without guile,” as Father Raymond tells us, “fearing God, and keeping free from vice;” a man so moderate in speech, that for no occasion whatever, of disturbance or trouble that was given him, did unbecoming words escape his lips; rather, when others of his family felt bitterly, and he heard them break out into angry words, he set himself at once, with a joyous countenance, to comfort them, saying, “Ah, God give you good luck! don’t fret yourself, or say things like that, which don’t befit us.” He let himself be injured and brought to the brink of ruin by a false charge, and yet would never allow any one in his presence to speak against his accuser, leaving his cause entirely to God; and in due time all was wonderfully set right. His large family of children were brought up with so much modesty, and with so great a hatred of anything licentious, though only in word, that one of the daughters, whom he had given in marriage to a young man who had lost his parents when a child, and learnt bad language from the chance companions he had picked up, made herself ill with grieving over her husband’s bad habit in this respect, and could never be well or happy till he had given it up. We hear less of the rest of the family. Catharine was one of twenty-five children; but though they opposed for a while her resolution not to marry, and tried to make her give up her excessive penances, they seem to have been good, fervent Christians; and her mother, with her natural love for her child, struggling against the sacrifice of giving her up entirely to the service of God, is delightful in her simplicity, and her character gives a charming air of truthfulness and reality to the whole picture. But there is no reason for supposing that the family of the good Jacomo and Lapa were far above the level of their neighbors in virtue and piety, except in the instance of the one chosen soul whose wonderful graces and history have alone saved them from being altogether forgotten, like the mass of their daily companions in the streets and the churches of Siena. What we are told of them reveals that which escapes the notice of the superficial historian – the daily life of a Catholic people, however politically unsettled, and subject to violent outbreaks natural to its hot temperament and passionate disposition – though the character of the Siennese was said to be comparatively gentle and sweet – still thoroughly leavened and penetrated by the faith that had been handed down through an unbroken succession of generations, since the city’s first martyr consecrated its soil by his blood. Such, in general, was the population of Italy, and, of course, of great parts of Europe, at that time; and such a population constitutes a resource, as it were, for the Church, that it must take, it would seem, many generations thoroughly to corrupt or to destroy. From the depths of such a people springs ordinarily the ever-fresh crop of eminent saints, who form the chief glories and supports of the Church in their successive generations; and the wide extent to which the principles of Christian faith and practice influence the mass from which they themselves rise, makes it possible for them to gather followers around them, to touch the springs of public action and thought, and to exercise the wonderful influence upon the men of their day which is so strange an enigma to the uncatholic historian.

The singularly beautiful life of Saint Catharine of Siena, written by her friend and confessor, Raymond of Capua, gives us as perfect an account as we could wish to have of the personal and, as it were, private history of the saint, and sets her character before us in the freshest colors, like a picture of Fra Angelico. But it is deficient in that very part of her life to which it is our purpose more particularly to attend. The public influence exercised by Saint Catharine was fresh in the recollection of those for whom Fr. Raymond wrote: they wished to be told the antecedents, as it were, of a person whom they had seen brought forward by Providence in so remarkable a manner to support the papacy in an hour of severe trial. A complete life of Saint Catharine would have to include a great many points which have been omitted by Raymond; and much that he has mentioned or alluded to would have to be fixed more accurately as to time and place. Nor could any one hope to draw up such a work with success without the fullest acquaintance with the ample collection of her letters. It is from these last that many most important features of her public life would have to be drawn. We owe them, probably, to the care with which her disciples or secretaries copied them before they were sent, for it is hardly likely that they could have been otherwise recovered from the persons to whom they were addressed.

It is not easy to say at what precise time the public action of Catharine began. She was in the twenty-fourth year of her age at the time of the death of Urban V. She had already passed, for about four years, from that life of prayer, mortification, and contemplation with which her saintly career had begun, to one of greater intercourse with others; and she had already brought about some very wonderful conversions, of which Fr. Raymond has given us an account. She had in several cases been successful in obtaining reconciliations between families hostile to one another through the hereditary feuds and traditions of revenge which have always had so baneful an effect on Italian society; but it does not appear that she had had any personal intercourse with Urban V, or any of the great prelates or princes of the time; and perhaps her fame had not travelled far beyond the frontiers of Tuscany. Giacomo Orsini, who passed through Siena in the year following the death of Urban to receive the dignity of cardinal from Gregory XI, may have made her acquaintance in her native town, and carried the report of her wonderful sanctity to the court of Avignon. The next year, 1372, we find her already in correspondence with important persons. War had again broken out between the Holy See and the restless Barnabo Visconti. Barnabo had usurped the dominion of Reggio, a fief of the Church, and had proceeded to other excesses, such as to force Gregory XI to excommunicate him in 1371. War was now declared; but it was at first favorable to the Milanese tyrant. A league was then organized against him, in which the emperor, the King of Hungary, and the Count of Savoy took part. John Hawkwood, moreover, with his famous English lances, was engaged on the Pontifical side. The success was now chiefly on the side of the league, and Visconti once more betook himself to intrigues and negotiations at Avignon, where he obtained a truce in 1374. We find Saint Catharine writing, in 1372, to two great French prelates, the Cardinal Pierre d’Estaing, who had just been appointed legate at Bologna; and the Abbot of Marmontier, a relation of the Pope, who was sent at the same time to govern Peragia and discharge the office of nuncio in Tuscany. Her letters to the cardinal seem to show that she was already known to him. The first contains little but spiritual exhortation, though there is a hint at the end to the saints favorite subject at this time, the crusade against the infidels. In the second she speaks strongly for peace among Christians. The letter to the abbot – who afterward became a cardinal, and died on the schismatical side – is evidently an answer to a letter from him, asking advice for himself and also for the Pope. Saint Catharine urges him to prevail on the Holy Father to put down the nepotism that prevailed among high ecclesiastics, to discourage the luxurious worldliness of the prelates, and to choose good and virtuous men as cardinals. A little later we find her writing to the truculent Barnabo himself, the man who made papal legates eat the missives of excommunication which they were charged to deliver to him – who declared that he was Pope in his own dominions, and dressed up a mad priest in mock vestments to excommunicate the Pope in return, and made the monasteries under his rule take charge of his hounds. This letter, again, was in answer to a message brought to Siena from Barnabo by one of his servants. Catharine sets before him the crime he has been guilty of in going to war with the Pope, and exhorts him to make amends for it by taking part in the crusade. The letter seems to have been written after the peace granted to Visconti in 1374. The same date, or perhaps an earlier one, seems to belong to a long letter of the saint to Beatrice della Scala, the wife of Barnabo, in which that lady is urged to become more religious herself, and thus to influence her husband, especially to peace and obedience toward the Holy Father. This letter, also, is in answer to a message.

Catharine’s life became still more active than before about this time. She was sent for to Florence by the general of her order, and seems to have gone about to several other cities, such as Pisa and Lucca, and to have exercised great influence everywhere. Her presence had before this begun to attract crowds wherever she went: they came to speak to her, to consult her about the affairs of their souls or their family troubles; and her burning words wrought numberless conversions. The B. Raymond, speaking of this part of her life, tells us in his simple way, “If all the limbs of my body were turned into so many tongues, they would not be enough to relate the fruit of souls which this virgin plant, that the heavenly Father hath planted, did produce. I have sometimes seen a thousand persons or more, men and women, come at the same time, as if drawn by the sound of some unseen trumpet, from the mountains or from the villages in the territory of Siena, to see or to hear Catharine. These persons – I don’t say at her words, but even at the mere sight of her – were suddenly struck with compunction for their misdeeds, bewailed their sins, and ran to the confessors, of whom I was one; and so great was the contrition with which they made their confessions, that no one could doubt that a great abundance of grace had descended from heaven upon their hearts. This happened not once or twice only, but very often. For this reason Pope Gregory XI, of happy memory, who was both consoled and rejoiced at this great fruit in souls, granted letters apostolic to me and to my two companions, giving us power to absolve all those who came to see Catharine and to confess their sins, in all the cases for which the bishops of the dioceses had faculties. And that truth, that neither deceives nor can be deceived, knows well that many came to find us out who were laden with great sins, and who had never before made confession, or never received as it ought to be received the sacrament of penance. We – that is, my companions and myself – often remained fasting till evening, and were too few to hear all those who wished to confess; and indeed, to declare my own imperfection, and the influence of this holy virgin, so great was the throng of people wishing to confess that many times I found myself quite worn out and wearied by the excess of fatigue. But Catharine went on praying incessantly; and when the holy prey was won, she rejoiced fully in the Lord, as one who had won a victory, ordering her other sons and daughters to wait upon us, who were tending the nets that she had spread. No pen can express the abundance of the joy in her mind, nor even the signs of gladness that she gave, which indeed gave us so much internal delight as to make us forget the recollection of any sadness whatever we had to undergo.”

Gregory XI seems before his election to have been well acquainted with Saint Bridget, for he was the cardinal through whom she had wished to communicate to Urban V the message that she had received to deliver to him. He kept up a correspondence with her as long as she lived, and received some tremendous warnings from her about the return of the Holy See to Rome. At the time of which we are speaking, 1374, in the fifth year of his reign, he sent Saint Bridget’s confessor to Catharine to recommend himself to her prayers. This may have been the opening of the intercourse between them. Of the fourteen letters to Gregory that remain to us, none seem to bear an earlier date than 1376. It does not appear certain, therefore, whether she had any direct influence upon the Pope’s desire to set on foot a new crusade, which he urged on with much vigor about the time of the peace granted to Visconti. But it was one of Saint Catharine’s three darling projects; the other two being the reform of the prelacy and the restoration of the papacy to Rome. The fact that her confessor and friend, Fr. Raymond, was appointed to preach the crusade seems to imply that she had been in communication with Gregory upon the subject. We have already said that she proposed to Barnabo himself to take the cross. The idea of sending all the turbulent spirits in Europe to fight against the Turks was not a new one; Urban V had proposed it to the “companies” who ravaged France and even insulted him by exacting a ransom for Avignon; but the freebooters naturally preferred the less dangerous, though less glorious, life that they were living in France. They were at last persuaded to enlist against Peter the Cruel. In Saint Catharine’s time there was a proposal of the same kind, with regard to the “bands” in Italy, whom we shall presently see the instruments of the greatest possible mischief to that unhappy country. We have a letter from her to Sir John Hawkwood, from which it appears that he and his followers had actually Engaged to serve in the crusade. Other letters on the subject of the same expedition show that she was now in a position to address herself with effect to the sovereigns of great states. She writes at this time to Queen Joanna of Naples, and to the queen-mother of Hungary, in hopes of her assistance in persuading her son, King Louis. But if the peace with Barnabo had made the crusade once more possible, fresh troubles soon ensued in Italy which prevented it, and which occasioned the still greater prominence of Saint Catharine as an earnest advocate of peace.

The disturbances were not, this time, the work of the Visconti. Barnabo turned them to his own advantage, but he was not their author. Historians concur in attributing a feeling of general discontent with the internal administration and external policy of the pontifical government in Italy to the conduct of the French legates. We find very strong charges against them; for example, in the chronicle of Saint Antoninus, written in the following century; but it may be questioned whether he did more than repeat what he found in other Florentine writers; and, in this case, the testimony of a Florentine is hardly to be admitted without suspicion. But it is very likely that many of the charges of tyranny, ambition, extortion, and luxury are not unfounded. Still, the internal administration of the States of the Church had been settled by Albornoz, and his system might have carried the government through without an outbreak, even under the trial of administrators quite unworthy to succeed him, had it not been for the suspicions that arose, in cities external to the pontifical territory, that its governors aimed at the subjugation of their neighbors. It thus seemed to become their interest not only to defend themselves, but to anticipate the danger by raising revolts in the States of the Church. It is quite clear that Gregory XI had no such design himself, and that he would not have tolerated it in his subordinates. Neither are the acts of the latter such as cannot be explained on other grounds. But what is clear to us at a distance was not necessarily so clear to the contemporaries of Saint Catharine. Certain measures of the legate at Bologna, and of the governor of Perugia, had an unfortunate look. In the first place, it seems that the diplomacy of that time did not insist, in the case of a confederacy of a number of powers against a common enemy, that peace should not be made by one member of the league without the consent of the remainder. The peace with Barnabo had been made, it appears, without the concurrence of Florence, Pisa, Siena, and the other allies of the Pope. Another cause of soreness was a measure adopted about the same time by the Cardinal Legate of Bologna, which pressed hardly upon Tuscany. The last two years had been years of great scarcity in that part of Italy, and he now forbade the exportation of grain from the Legation. He was no doubt afraid of relieving his neighbors at the risk of suffering himself. But there was more to come. Sir John Hawkwood and his followers had to be discharged on account of the peace; they were no sooner dismissed than they invaded the Florentine territory, attempted to make themselves masters of Prato, and ravaged the country up to the gates of Florence itself. Thus soldiers, only a few days before in the pay of the Holy See, were attacking one of its allies with fire and sword. It looked very like an attempt to enslave Tuscany. At the same time Siena had a complaint of the same sort against the abbot of Montmajor at Perugia. The powerful family of the Salimbeni were at that time in exile from Siena, the last revolution of which city had put the supreme power into the hands of the popular party. The pontifical governor of Perugia leagued himself with the exiles, and thus appeared to be aiming at the destruction of the liberties of Siena.

Ergo omnis furiis surrexit Etruria justis. Nothing had indeed been done which did not admit of explanation; And, if his legates had really been guilty of aggression, Gregory XI could, have readily disavowed them. Indeed, he ordered the edict against the exportation of grain from the Romagna to be revoked; in which, however, the cardinal at Bologna refused to obey him. But this conciliatory order came too late. Under such provocation men, and especially Italians, would not wait for explanations. They were jealous of their liberties, and they hated the idea of foreign domination; the representatives of the pontifical government at the time were foreigners to them, and seemed to be seeking to enslave them. Florence flew to arms: she had been long devoted to the Holy See; now she gave herself over to the rule of the faction within her, who had ever been the minority, because they were the enemies of the Pope; and these men, feeling themselves still in reality the weaker party, lost no time in plunging into the most frantic excesses, that they might alienate their country from the Holy Father beyond hope of reconciliation, and wreak their own vengeance on their personal enemies so fully as to leave them no chance of again recovering their power. Hawkwood was soon disposed of; he was bought off for a large sum. The movement in Florence became a revolution, with all its accompaniments of blood, spoliation, and terror. The inquisitors were massacred, the prisons destroyed; the prior of the Carthusians, who presented himself as papal envoy with overtures of reconciliation, was torn to pieces, and his flesh thrown to the dogs. The clergy were withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the Pope; the nomination of benefices assumed by the magistrates of the republic. These, however, were all changed; a committee of eight, a sort of Comité du Salut Publique – called, in derision, the Eight Saints – seized the helm of government; it was a complete reign of terror. But they were not content with turning Florence against the Pope; they sent envoys throughout the whole of Tuscany and Umbria, inviting all the cities to join in league against the pontifical government, and bearing with them red banners inscribed with the word “Libertas.” The conduct of the French governors had but too well prepared the subjects of the Pope for these invitations. Citta di Castello led the way; Perugia, Narni, Viterbo, Montefiascone followed; before the end of 1375 nearly the whole of the pontifical territory, the Patrimony, the Duchy of Spoleto, and the March of Ancona, were in open revolt. All that Albornoz had done for the Holy See seemed to have been done in vain. Bologna, almost alone, remained faithful; but even there the government of the legate was very insecure.

It was felt at Avignon that something was now to be dealt with very different even from a war against the Visconti. Some “companies” of Bretons were then ravaging or ransoming cities in the south of France, under two famous captains of the day, Jean de Malestroit and Silvestre de Bude; they were enlisted under the flag of the Church, and prepared to descend on Italy. But Gregory XI determined to try the method of conciliation before letting them loose. He sent envoys to Florence, who offered terms to which no prudent person could make objection. Perugia and Citta di Castello were to be free, but the Florentines were to cease in their revolutionary propaganda in the States of the Church, and particularly in Bologna. The “eight saints” had all that was reasonable and good in Florence against them, and they dared not openly refuse to entertain terms such as these. But they sent secret instructions to their commander in the field while the negotiations were being carried on; he marched on Bologna, raised the people in revolt, and made the legate a prisoner. They succeeded in their ulterior object: the Papal envoys left Florence without concluding any peace.

After this fresh provocation, nothing remained for the Pope but to attack the Florentines with every weapon at his disposal. The Breton companies were ordered to march, under the general command of the Cardinal Robert of Geneva, a man, it seems, with more of the soldier than the priest about him, who was to be, within three years from the time that he began his expedition, the first of the miserable line of Antipopes who opposed themselves to the legitimate successors of Gregory XI. His present campaign was distinguished chiefly by two events, neither of which cast credit on the pontifical cause: a treaty he made with Visconti (who had before allied himself with the Florentines), by which the Guelfic party in the north of Italy were sacrificed to the enmity of the tyrant; and the awful sack and massacre of Cesena by the Breton troops. But the Pope used spiritual weapons also against offenders like the Florentines; and in their case the temporal consequences of the solemn excommunication under which they fell made themselves far more swiftly and keenly felt than in that of a great seigneur like Barnabo. Their merchants and agents were in every country of Europe: the sentence of the Pope exposed them everywhere to confiscation, imprisonment, and slavery; their commerce was ruined, and it is said that the immediate loss to the city amounted to three million florins. At all events, early in the year 1376, and but a few weeks aft«r they had chosen not to avail themselves of the moderate overtures made by the Papal envoys, the Florentines began to desire peace. It is probable that there had always been but a narrow majority in favor of the violent measures of which we have spoken; now, the great misfortunes of the state made even its revolutionary rulers look about them for a mediator, for their first attempt at negotiation had proved a failure. They had sent two ambassadors to Avignon; but instead of apologizing for their undeniable aggressions, they laid all the blame on the pontifical delegates, and were dismissed by Gregory with a confirmation of their sentence. A mediator, therefore, was necessary; and instead of asking the kind offices of the emperor, or the king of France, or some other of the sovereigns of Europe, they determined to seek the help of Catharine of Siena.

Catharine had been in the midst of the tumult, doing what she could to maintain peace. It seems that Gregory XI had begged her to go to Lucca, where she was held in great veneration, to keep that city from joining the league against the Church. She had also exerted her influence at Pisa, and seems to have succeeded in both places, though with some difficulty. From Pisa she wrote the first of her series of letters to the Pope. She was still there when the magistrates of Florence invited her to undertake their cause. She visited the city, conversed with the principal men of all parties, and it was agreed that they should send another and a humbler embassy to Avignon, on condition that she should precede the envoys, and endeavor to soften the heart of the Holy Father toward his rebellious children. She was already sending letters to Avignon imploring peace, and urging the Pope to return to Rome, and to raise the standard of the crusaders, in order to unite all discordant elements by directing them to a common object. She had sent her most intimate confidant and confessor, Father Raymond, to plead the cause of the Florentines; and soon followed him herself, accompanied by a number of her “disciples,” arriving at Avignon about the middle of June, 1376.

As is so often the case in the lives of the chosen instruments of Providence, Catharine was to do a great work at Avignon, but not the work for which she apparently went there. She was received by the Pope with the greatest kindness and distinction; she was even intrusted by him with full powers to make peace with the Florentines. But Gregory XI knew the men with whom he was dealing better than she. The government of Florence was still in the hands of the eight; they did not really desire peace, at least on any terms that the Pope could grant them. They had yielded to the vast majority of their fellow-citizens in seeming to wish for what would be in reality the end of their own power. The envoys delayed their journey to Avignon: when they did arrive, and Catharine proposed to use the full powers the Pops had given her, they replied that they had no authority to treat with her; nor were they more honest in their dealings with the Pope himself. The time, then, for the particular task that Catharine had undertaken was not yet come; but she was at Avignon now, at the side of Gregory XI, and she was to decide him to a step far more important than the granting a peace to Florence.

The character of Gregory XI is so constantly represented in the same colors by historians of every grade, that it would seem almost rash to suppose that they could all have been mistaken in the picture. It has a softness and beauty about it that are extremely touching, when viewed in the light of his many misfortunes and early death, overshadowed as it was by the threats of the still greater troubles from which it saved him. He had been marked out for high ecclesiastical dignity from the very first, and was but eighteen when his uncle, Clement VI, made him cardinal. His career after his elevation justified his premature advancement; he made himself famous for learning, and even more so for his tender piety and the unsullied purity of his life. His humility and sweetness won all hearts: perhaps the more because his frail health, his pale countenance, and evident delicacy of constitution, gave a kind of plaintive charm to his very appearance. Though he was barely forty years of age at the death of Urban V, he had been elected Pope after the conclave had lasted but a single night. He had refused at first, but at last had been forced to accept the crown of Saint Peter as a matter of duty. He was then only in deacon’s orders. No one has ever questioned the purity of his aims, or even the rightness of his views and the soundness of his judgment. We have already said, with regard to one great paramount question of the time, that he had secretly vowed to take back the papacy to Rome, if he ever should be elected pope. But, inheriting as he did the traditions of Clement VI, surrounded in France by noble and powerful relatives, and by cardinals almost exclusively his fellow-countrymen, and with health and constitution that were almost sure to be ruined at once by the air of Rome, everything seemed to forbid him to make the effort that was required. The earlier years of his reign had passed away, not indeed without many thoughts and even declarations on the subject, but without any steps being taken to put the design in execution. In 1374 he had announced his intention of visiting Rome to the emperor; in the following January he had written in the same sense to Edward III and to other kings of Europe. But that summer and autumn saw the outbreak at Florence, and the great revolution that arrayed almost the whole of the Ecclesiastical States in rebellion against the Church; and the advocates of the French residence of the papacy must have thought themselves safe now that Italy had risen against Gregory. He was not, like Urban V, a pope elected from outside the College of Cardinals, with little sympathy and but few ties with them. He was of one of the great Limousin families, the nephew of the most brilliant of the Avignon popes, surrounded by powerful relatives, all of whom were interested in keeping him where he was. The quiet security of Provence suited him, and he was one of those gentle characters, not wanting in ordinary firmness and decision, which still are more fitted for tranquil times than for days of disturbance, and are more capable of suffering and of patience than of initiating bold measures and breasting the waves of a great emergency. Family and personal influence had much weight with him; not from any active ambition or spirit of nepotism, so much as that it had become at Avignon a matter almost of course that many of the splendid prizes in the gift of the Popes should be bestowed on their relatives. He himself owed his position originally to that custom. At a time when reform was much needed in the prelacy, and many abuses and scandals existed which required to be sternly rebuked and punished, he could see what was wanting more easily than carry it out with a severity alien to his nature. He was influenced by the atmosphere around him. In the same way, notwithstanding his own strong inclination to grant peace on any terms to the Florentines, he seems to have yielded as to his actual policy to the more violent and relentless counsels of the French cardinals, headed by Robert of Geneva, who led the Breton companies over the Alps. It might well have been thought that such a pontiff would not now act against the advice and the wishes of all around him, and that the actual state of Italy would be enough to make him adjourn indefinitely his promised journey to Rome.

To such a character it is sometimes everything to have support and companionship – the mind and the voice of another, however inferior, that seem to give body and life to thoughts and designs not new indeed, but which seemed before to belong rather to the world of dreams and imaginations than of possible realities; to change wishes and longings into practical resolutions; to chase away phantom difficulties, and nerve the will to efforts and sacrifices which the conscience has long prompted. With all of us our own ideas and designs seem sometimes to date their real existence from the moment that we found they were shared by some one else. In the case of Gregory XI, he seems, before the arrival of Catharine at Avignon, to have been almost alone in his wish to return to Italy; and he had already seen something of Saint Bridget, and learnt from intercourse with her what the personal influence of great sanctity might be. Catharine at once won his perfect confidence, and her presence gave him the courage to follow out the course which he had long felt to be the right one. It is this which makes it historically true that she had so great a part in the final return of the Holy See from Avignon. It is easy to find reasons why Gregory should have returned; it is easy to show that there was danger that an attempt might be made by the Romans to give their city a bishop of their own creation; or, on the other hand, that Gregory had intended to take the step long before he took it. If these things are alleged to show that the influence of Saint Catharine has been exaggerated by her historians, they are beside the point. Her providential mission at Avignon was not to put new considerations before the mind of Gregory, but to strengthen his will to act upon considerations already familiar to him.

The esteem in which the Pope held her was not only manifested by the reception he gave her, and by his inviting her even to speak in public as to what she thought to be required for the best interests of the Church; it also shielded and defended her from the dislike with which her unwelcome presence was viewed by many a magnificent prelate and many a brilliant official of the court of Avignon. The reforms that she spoke of as so necessary, and the return to Rome that she recommended, were equally distasteful to them. Three of the most learned prelates asked leave of the Pope to visit her, and began to catechise her most severely both as to her presumption in coming as the envoy of Florence, and as to her preternatural gifts of prayer and her extraordinary mode of life. But they left her overwhelmingly convinced of her sanctity and wonderful gifts. The fine ladies about the court – the sisters, nieces, and relations of the Pope and the cardinals – looked on her with instinctive dread. Some of them even tried to patronize and make her the fashion; but she either exhorted them plainly to conversion, or turned from them with that stern silence with which her Master received the overtures of the blood-stained paramour of Herodias. One of them – a niece of the Pope – knelt beside her in apparent devotion, as she was rapt in prayer before communion, and plunged a needle or bodkin into her bare foot, to see whether she could feel it. When her state of abstraction ceased, Catharine could hardly walk, and her sandal was full of congealed blood. The French king heard of her influence with the Pope, and sent his brother, the Duke of Anjou, to dissuade Gregory from listening to her; but Catharine won the respect and admiration of the duke, prevailed on him to offer himself for the crusade, and suggested him to the Pope as its captain-in-chief. Then an attempt was made to influence Gregory by means of the deference that he paid to the advice of saintly souls. A forged letter was sent him – as it appears, in the name of the holy Peter of Aragon – telling him that if he went to Italy he would be poisoned. Catharine showed him that the letter was not such as a servant of God would write, and that poison could be given him in France as well as in Italy. After all, the Pope still hesitated; he made preparations and issued orders, but it was with slowness and reluctance; and at any time a change might come over the state of affairs in Italy that might be the occasion of indefinite delay. One day again he asked her opinion. She said she was a poor weak woman; how should she give advice to the sovereign Pontiff? “I do not ask you to counsel me,” he replied, “but to tell me what is the will of God.” Again she excused herself; and Gregory again urged her, commanding her at last, by virtue of her obedience, to tell him what she knew of God’s will as to the matter. She bowed her head – “Who knows the will of God better than your holiness, who have promised him by vow to return to Rome?” Gregory had never revealed his vow to living soul; and from that moment his determination was taken. Still the opposition was great and powerful. The cardinals urged him with the example of an excellent Pope, Clement IV, who had never done anything without the approval of the Sacred College. Catharine met their arguments, she even went so far as to urge the Pope to depart secretly, so obstinate and so influential was the party that wished to retain him in France. At length, on September 13, 1376, amid the remonstrances of his family and the tears of his aged father, as well as the sullen complaints of the whole court, Gregory XI left Avignon. Catharine had remained to the last, and then went on foot with her companions to Genoa, whither the Pope was to pass by sea. It seemed as if every kind of influence that could beat down his courage was to be allowed to work upon the failing heart of Gregory. Everything that could be turned into a bad omen was carefully noted. His horse refused to let him mount; then it became so restive that another had to be brought. As he passed by Novis, Orgon, and Aix to Marseilles, everywhere the inhabitants were in tears and gloom. Marseilles itself, when he came to embark, was the scene of a grand explosion of grief. Then there came the terrors of a dangerous voyage, from the extremely severe weather encountered by the fleet. The grand master of the Knights of Saint John himself took the helm of the galley in which the Pope sailed – a weather-beaten veteran, accustomed to perils of all sorts, who had to exert all his skill under the storm that came on as they made across toward Genoa. They were obliged to put into Villafranca for some days. It was not till the 18th of October, sixteen days after leaving Marseilles, that Genoa was reached. Here the Pope was met by bad news from Rome and from Florence; the Florentines, alarmed at his approach, were preparing for the most desperate hostilities; the Romans seemed quite unwilling to put the government of the city into his hands. A consistory was held (the greater number of the cardinals were with the Pope), and the resolution was adopted not to proceed further with the journey. All seemed lost; but Catharine with her company was in Genoa. The Pope sought her out – it is said, by night; and from her calm and fervent words gained fresh strength and courage to pursue his journey to the end.

So, after ten days spent at Genoa, the fleet once more put to sea, to be driven again into Porto Fino, where the feast of All Saints was kept. It arrived at Leghorn on the 7th of November, and there again lingered ten or eleven days. As far as Piombino all went well. When the galleys left that port, another storm – the most violent of all they had met with – arose, and drove them back shattered and disabled; three cardinals were seriously ill, one of whom died at Pisa a few days later. At last Corneto was reached on December 6, more than two months after the departure from Marseilles. Gregory remained there for several weeks to regain his strength, and then sailed up the Tiber, landing near the basilica of Saint Paul on January 17, 1377, the day before the feast of the Roman Chair of St Peter. His entrance was a triumph that seemed to promise him every security for peace and tranquillity; and the joy and devotion of the Romans may have taken away for the moment the mournful feelings with which he had turned his back on France. Thus, a year and a half after the revolution at Florence, which, had caused so rapid and widespread a defection among the cities of the Pontifical States, and seemed to threaten the very existence of the temporal power of the Church, these very events, which might have seemed likely to furnish reason for the prolonged exile of the papacy, brought about, under the providence of God, the fulfilment of the resolution to return to Rome which the Pope had so long delayed to accomplish. The instrument of the deliverance of the Holy See from its dangerous position was the envoy of its rebellious children, the humble maiden from Siena.

– text taken from Catholic World magazine, January 1866