Catherine Benincasa, the last of the 25 children of Ser Jacopo and Monna Lapa, was born in Siena on 25 March 1347.
While she was six years old, she had a spiritual experience that marked her life in a decisive way: in the sky directly above the church of the Dominican fathers, Jesus appeared to her, seated on a beautiful throne. From that day onwards, she spent much time in solitude, dedicating herself to prayer and practising penance. Her family, particularly her mother, tried to dissuade her from her intention of consecrating herself to the Lord, and kept her busy with heavy domestic work. But she had another crucial vision in this period, in which she saw St Dominic inviting her to enter his Order, clothing her with the habit of the Sisters of Penance.
Overcoming various difficulties, at sixteen years of age Catherine finally put on the habit of the Mantellate, leisured women, mostly widows, who followed the spirituality of St Dominic and assisted the Dominican fathers mainly through their services to the needy.
During this time, she continued to cultivate her passion for penance and contemplation; she had frequent visions and meetings with her Spouse, with whom she celebrated a mystical marriage on 2 March 1367.
From this moment, after 20 years of pure contemplation, intense social and political activity began for her. Catherine began to walk the city streets, went into prisons and the most dangerous districts, dedicating herself to care for the suffering, to people forgotten in hospitals, especially lepers, bringing medicines, and consoling those at the point of death.
The numerous letters sent by her to people of all social categories to counsel, comfort, reprove and encourage them were a major and intense activity.
Catherine felt strongly challenged by the political situation of her time, characterised by:
• widespread corruption inside and outside the Church, which was engaged in wars, and connived with temporal power; so preoccupied with its own interests that the Pope transferred the papal see to Avignon, in France.
• fragmentation of power among a huge number of princes in continual fratricidal conflict over obtaining power and possessing money.
With sorrow, Catherine discovered that the society in which she lived “did not know and love the Truth”. So she left Siena and undertook a series of journeys as a mediator of peace between the Pope and various cities - Pisa, Lucca, Florence - which were in continual conflict with the Papal State. She also went to Avignon, and, after much labour, succeeded in persuading the Pope to return to his See in Rome.
Catherine’s passion for God and for the salvation of her brothers and sisters found an echo in the hearts of many people who were the origin of the so-called “Beautiful Brigade”. These were men and women, politicians and artists, nobles and commoners, laity, priests and religious who considered her as their “Mother”, some serving as her secretaries and following her in her missions of peace.
Having poured into the “Dialogue” her deep knowledge of the divine Mystery revealed in Jesus, and consumed by her total self-giving to the Divine Mercy, Catherine died in Rome on 29 April 1380, without seeing the Church, divided by the great Western Schism, reconciled, but offering her life for that Church she had so loved and for which she had sacrificed so much.