Don Brophy’s new biography of St. Catherine of Siena is subtitled A Passionate Life. This is truly an appropriate description of how Catherine lived. The Latin root of passion means to suffer or submit. In our modern day English, it implies great intensity of feeling. Catherine lived all these definitions.
She submitted her life totally to Christ; she suffered intensely, both through her self-inflicted sacrifices and penances as well as through the disapproval of others; and she always acted with great intensity. She lived only 33 years, but in that short period of time, she challenged the expected roles of a woman of her era, changed the course of history, and left a legacy remembered through the ages via her letters, prayers, and book, The Dialogue also known as The Treatise on Divine Providence (all of which were dictated to scribes). Canonized in 1461, she was named a Doctor of the Church in 1970, one of the first two women to receive t his honor.
In his “Author’s Note,” Brophy states that “the main focus of this biography is Catherine’s ‘public’ life rather than her private, interior life that pious biographies have focused on in the past. To accomplish that, it has to describe the political and social world she moved in.”
He acknowledges, however, that it is impossible to fully separate her public role from her spiritual core. “Her motivation for engaging in events of her day flowed out of her conviction that she was called to the task by God. There is simply no way to appreciate her life or guage her place in history without exploring that conviction.”
Brophy succeeds in his task. While those who are searching for a full discussion of her spirituality would be better served elsewhere, those who are looking for a discussion and exploration of her role in political and Church events of her day will be well served by Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life.
It is evident that Brophy did copious amounts of research in order to compile this biography. He provides very informative notes on the text. He also displays a solid understanding of the Italian world of the time period, as well as a thorough grasp of Catherine’s spirituality.
The Catherine presented here is immensely human, a task not always achieved in biographies of saints. She is no less holy, but she is a woman who struggles, and with God’s help, perseveres. Catherine of Siena: A Passionate Life is a worthy addition to the body of literature about this remarkable woman.