April 29th is the feast day of the great St. Catherine of Siena.
Known for her holiness, St. Catherine was a mystic, theologian, philosopher, and spiritual advisor. Famously, she helped convince Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome (the papacy had resided in Avignon, France for decades). Today, she is honored as a Doctor of the Church, is the patron saint of Rome, of Italy, and of Europe, and is generally revered as one of the greatest saints in the history of the Church.
Despite all of her accomplishments, one of the most inspiring – and instructive – events of her life was her death.
Attached to the end of her most famous work, Dialogues, is a letter written by Ser Barduccio di Piero Canigiani, in which he describes his eye-witness experience of the final moments of St. Catherine. Here’s what he says happened:
Just before her 33rd birthday, St. Catherine became ill such that eating and drinking became difficult for her. After a few weeks of suffering, she had a stroke so terrible that her caregivers thought she had died. However, while they were mourning her apparent passing, she suddenly awoke, stood up, and “did not seem the same person as she who had fallen.”
That’s when things started to get interesting.
Her bodily suffering increased, but so did her devotion to prayer. She would pray 1 to 2 hours in the morning, walk a mile to St. Peter’s Basilica (she was in Rome), and spend the rest of the day there in prayer, “returning to the house so worn out that she seemed a corpse.”
Finally, her body gave out again and she was confined to her bed. But her suffering was not only physical, but spiritual: “[She suffered] the infinite afflictions of the soul which she derived from the consideration of the sins which she saw being committed against God, and from the dangers ever more grave to which she knew the Holy Church to be exposed, on account of which she remained greatly overcome, and both internally and externally tormented.”
These sufferings continued for the next 8 weeks. Yet as a new wave of pain would wash over her, “she would joyously raise her eyes and her heart to God and say: ‘Thanks to You, oh eternal Spouse, for granting such graces afresh every day to me, Your miserable and most unworthy handmaid!'”
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This continual suffering took a physical toll: “[her body] was reduced to such a state that it seemed like a corpse in a picture” – but with an important qualification: “though I speak not of the face, which remained ever angelical and breathed forth devotion.”
This all continued until the morning of the next Sunday, when she seemed to become aware that her end was drawing near and asked for absolution from a priest for her sins. A priest arrived and offered her both absolution and extreme unction (anointing of the sick).
Then suddenly, it appeared to those around her that she was experiencing a demonic attack:
“After this unction she began altogether to change, and to make various signs with her head and her arms as if to show that she was suffering from grave assaults of demons, and remained in this calamitous state for an hour and a half, half of which time having been passed in silence, she began to say: “I have sinned! Oh Lord, have mercy on me!”
“And this, as I believe, she repeated more than sixty times, raising each time her right arm, and then letting it fall and strike the bed. Then, changing her words, she said as many times again, but without moving her arms, “Holy God, have mercy on me!” Finally she employed the remainder of the above-mentioned time with many other formulas of prayer both humble and devout, expressing various acts of virtue, after which her face suddenly changed from gloom to angelic light, and her tearful and clouded eyes became serene and joyous…”
Then she sat up, fixed her eyes on the crucifix in the room, and prayed aloud:
“It is my fault, oh eternal Trinity, that I have offended You so miserably with my negligence, ignorance, ingratitude, and disobedience, and many other defects. Wretch that I am! for I have not observed Your commandments, either those which are given in general to all, or those which Your goodness laid upon me in particular! Oh mean creature that I am!
“Saying which, she struck her breast, repeating her confession, and continued: I have not observed Your precept, with which You commanded me to seek always to give You honor, and to spend myself in labors for my neighbor, while I, on the contrary, have fled from labors, especially where they were necessary.
“Did You not command me, oh, my God! to abandon all thought of myself and to consider solely the praise and glory of Your Name in the salvation of souls, and with this food alone, taken from the table of the most holy Cross, to comfort myself? But I have sought my own consolation. You did ever invite me to bind myself to You alone by sweet, loving, and fervent desires, by tears and humble and continuous prayers for the salvation of the whole world and for the reformation of the holy Church, promising me that, on account of them, You would use mercy with the world, and give new beauty to Your Spouse; but I, wretched one, have not corresponded with Your desire, but have remained asleep in the bed of negligence.
“Oh, unhappy that I am! You have placed me in charge of souls, assigning to me so many beloved sons, that I should love them with singular love and direct them to You by the way of Life, but I have been to them nothing but a mirror of human weakness; I have had no care of them; I have not helped them with continuous and humble prayer in Your presence, nor have I given them sufficient examples of the good life or the warnings of salutary doctrine.
“Oh, mean creature that I am! with how little reverence have I received Your innumerable gifts, the graces of such sweet torments and labors which it pleased You to accumulate on this fragile body, nor have I endured them with that burning desire and ardent love with which You sent them to me.
“Alas! oh, my Love, through Your excessive goodness You chose me for Your spouse, from the beginning of my childhood, but I was not faithful enough; in fact, I was unfaithful to You, because I did not keep my memory faithful to You alone and to Your most high benefits; nor have I fixed my intelligence on the thought of them only or disposed my will to love You immediately with all its strength.”
Then she requested a plenary indulgence from the priest, saying that it had been granted her by the pope.
She turned her attention to those present and, among other things, asked them to forgive her for not caring enough about their salvation. She exhorted everyone to love and follow Jesus above all other things.
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She turned her attention back to God, and, making the sign of the cross, prayed aloud, “You, oh Lord, call me, and I come to You, not through my merits, but through Your mercy alone, which I ask of You, in virtue of Your Blood!” and many times she called out, “Blood, Blood!” Finally, imitating the example of Christ, she said, “Father, into Your Hands I commend my soul and my spirit,” and died.
Ser Barduccio di Piero Canigiani reports she died “sweetly, with a face all shining and angelical, she bent her head, and gave up the ghost.”
Her body was left unburied for two days, “without any odor being perceptible, her body remaining so pure, intact, and fragrant, that her arms, her neck and her legs remained as flexible as if she were still alive.”