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The saint who was renowned for extreme fasting

A detail from The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine of Siena by Giovanni di Paolo

Caterina di Giacomo di Benincasa was born on March 25 1347 in Siena. Her father was a cloth dyer who ran the business with the help of his sons. Catherine’s mother bore 22 children, but half of them died. She had a twin who was cared for by a wet nurse while her mother looked after Catherine. The twin later died.

As a child Catherine was nicknamed Euphrosyne, which is Greek for joy. Her older sister, Bonaventura, had died in childbirth and her parents wanted Catherine to marry her widow. She was so opposed to this that she began fasting and, instead of marriage and motherhood, want to live a life of prayer, outside the convent walls, following the Dominican model.

Catherine eventually received the habit of a Dominican tertiary from the friars of the order but lived at home with her family. She lived in almost total silence. She would not accept food, saying that there was a table laid for her in heaven with her real family.

Catherine took care of the ill and the poor, in hospital and at home, attracting a group of followers. She travelled with them throughout northern and central Italy, advocating reform of the clergy and saying that repentance can come “through the total love of God”.

She had a long correspondence with Pope Gregory XVI, asking him to reform the clergy and the administration of the Papal States. She eventually persuaded him to return his administration to Rome in January 1377.

Catherine established a woman’s monastery in Siena. Gregory XI then ordered her to travel to Florence to seek peace between that city and Rome. In late November 1378, following the outbreak of the Western Schism, the new pope, Urban VI, invited her to Rome. She dedicated her time to persuading others to accept his legitimacy.

St Catherine was renowned for extreme fasting and was advised by her confessor, Blessed Raymond of Capua, to eat properly. But from the beginning of 1380 Catherine could not eat or swallow water. By February she lost the use of her legs and she died in Rome in April at the age of 33, having suffered a stroke eight days earlier.

She was canonised by Pius II and proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1970 by Pope Paul VI.