Saint Catherine of Genoa
1447 - 1510
Memorial: September 15
Saint Catherine of Genoa, original name Caterina Fieschi, (born 1447, Genoa [Italy]—died Sept. 15, 1510, ; canonized 1737; feast day September 15), Italian mystic admired for her work among the sick and the poor.
Catherine was born into a distinguished family and received a careful education. Her early aspirations to become a nun were frustrated by an arranged marriage to Giuliano Adorno. After several years of unhappiness she led a life of pleasure for a time but was converted by a mystical experience in 1473, which marked the beginning of her life of close union with God. This she combined with assiduous service to the sick in a hospital at Genoa, in which her husband joined her after he, too, had been converted.
Catherine was the last of five children. Catherine's parents were Jacopo Fieschi and Francesca di Negro, both of illustrious Italian birth. The family was connected to two previous popes, and Jacopo became Viceroy of Naples.
Catherine wished to enter a convent when about 13, perhaps inspired by her sister Limbania who was an Augustinian nun, but the nuns to whom her confessor applied refused her on account of her youth, after which she appears to have put the idea aside without any further attempt. After her father’s death in 1463, she was married by her parents' wish at age 16 to a young Genoese nobleman, Giuliano Adorno, a man who, after several experiences in the area of trade and in the military world in the Middle East, had returned to Genoa to get married. Their marriage was probably a ploy to end the feud between their two families. The childless marriage turned out wretchedly: Giuliano proved to be faithless, violent-tempered and a spendthrift, and he made the life of his wife a misery. Details are scanty, but it seems at least clear that Catherine spent the first five years of her marriage in silent, melancholy submission to her husband; and that she then, for another five years, turned a little to the world for consolation in her troubles. Then, ten years after her marriage, she prayed "that for three months He (God) may keep me (Catherine) sick in bed" so that she might escape her marriage, but her prayer went unanswered.
She was converted by a mystical experience during confession on 22 March 1473; her conversion is described as an overpowering sense of God's love for her. After this revelation occurred, she abruptly left the church, without finishing her confession. This marked the beginning of her life of close union with God in prayer, without using forms of prayer such as the rosary. She began to receive Communion almost daily, a practice extremely rare for lay people in the Middle Ages, and she underwent remarkable mental and at times almost pathological experiences, the subject of Friedrich von Hügel's study The Mystical Element of Religion.
She combined this with unselfish service to the sick in a hospital at Genoa, in which her husband joined her after he, too, had been converted. He later became a Franciscan tertiary, but she joined no religious order. Her husband's spending had ruined them financially. He and Catherine decided to live in the Pammatone, a large hospital in Genoa, and to dedicate themselves to works of charity there. She eventually became manager and treasurer of the hospital.
She died in 1510, worn out with labours of body and soul. Her death had been slow with many days of pain and suffering as she experienced visions and wavered between life and death.
For about 25 years, St. Catherine, though frequently going to confession, was unable to open her mind for direction to anyone; but towards the end of her life a Father Marabotti was appointed to be her spiritual guide. He had been a director of the hospital where her husband died in 1497. To him she explained her states, past and present, and he compiled the Memoirs. During this period, her life was devoted to her relationship with God, through "interior inspiration" alone.
In 1551, 41 years after her death, a book about her life and teaching was published, entitled Libro de la vita mirabile et dottrina santa de la Beata Caterinetta de Genoa. This is the source of her "Dialogues on the Soul and the Body" and her "Treatise on Purgatory", which are often printed separately. Her authorship of these has been denied, and it used to be thought that another mystic, the Augustinian canoness Battistina Vernazza, who lived in a monastery in Genoa from 1510 till her death in 1587, had edited the two works, a suggestion discredited by recent scholarship, which attributes a large part of both works to St. Catherine, though they received their final literary form only after her death.
Catherine's thought on purgatory, for which she is particularly known, and her way of describing it has original characteristics in relation to her era.
Beatification and canonization
Catherine's writings were examined by the Vatican's Holy Office and pronounced to contain doctrine that would be enough, in itself, to prove her sanctity, and she was beatified in 1675 by Pope Clement X, and canonized in 1737 by Pope Clement XII. Her writings also became sources of inspiration for other religious leaders such as Saints Robert Bellarmine and Francis de Sales and Cardinal Henry Edward Manning. St Catherine of Genoa's liturgical feast is celebrated on 15 September. Pope Pius XII declared her patroness of the hospitals in Italy.