Saint Catherine de Ricci
Today, as Lent approaches, we celebrate the feast day of Saint Catherine de Ricci (born 1522, deceased 1589). Known for her sanctity and piety, Saint Catherine was both a mystic and a stigmatist, who spent her days serving others and deeply contemplating the Passion of Our Lord. Her devotion to the suffering of Jesus, coupled with her own personal suffering, led her to experience a beautiful “Ecstasy of the Passion” every week, from Thursday at noon until Friday at 4 p.m., for several years. In her ecstasy*, Catherine experienced the stages of Our Lord's Passion, actually realizing, and showing forth to others with wonderful vividness, all that His Blessed Mother suffered in witnessing it.
*Ecstasy, as recognized by the Church, is defined as a state which, while it lasts, includes two elements: (1) when the mind rivets its attention on a religious subject, generally internal and invisible to others; (2) when the activity of the senses is suspended, so that not only are external sensations incapable of influencing the soul, but considerable difficulty is experienced in awakening such sensation, generally visible to others through observable bodily signs. Many saints throughout the ages have been blessed with ecstatic experiences. Those of Saint Catherine de Ricci have been well studied and authenticated by the Church.
Catherine was born to a wealthy family in Florence, Italy. When her mother died, Catherine was raised by a loving and devout stepmother, who immediately recognized the holiness and sanctity of her charge. Even in infancy, Catherine was prone to spending long periods of time in solitary prayer, a practice her stepmother encouraged. In her youth, Catherine was determined to join a religious order, but none she encountered were serious enough for her, their rules too relaxed for her devotion to the Lord. At age fourteen, finding what she wanted, Catherine entered the Dominican convent of San Vincenzo in Tuscany. Her early years in the convent were marked by suffering and humiliation at the hands of the community. Her supernatural gifts of mysticism were not well understood, but eventually her sisters came to recognize her faith, humility, and service to others. Shortly thereafter she was chosen as Mistress of Novices, and at age 25, the community embracing her calling, Catherine was made Perpetual Prioress of the Order.
Gaining her position so young, Catherine served as counsel to many, including three future popes (Marcellus II, Clement VIII, and Leo XI). She corresponded supernaturally with Saint Philip Neri (“The Apostle of Rome, feast day: May 26), and she is reported to have miraculously appeared to him in visions during his life (they never having physically met).
Throughout her life, Catherine endured countless physical ailments and sufferings, the remedies offered at the time seemingly only increasing the severity of her symptoms. Despite her suffering, she engaged in extreme fasting and penance, and is said to have worn a heavy iron chain around her neck in recognition of the chains of sin that Jesus loosed for all humanity. As Father Stephen Razzi, a Dominican Friar who knew her, wrote in 1594, “Her obedience, humility, and meekness were still more admirable than her spirit of penance.” She was known for treating the poor, sick, and ill, traveling the countryside on her knees in service and humility to others.
Saint Catherine’s experience of the Passion of Our Lord occurred for twelve years, until she and the community prayed for it to stop. The attention and the visitors the convent was gaining due to her ecstasy had become disruptive to the Rules of the Order. During her weekly experience, Catherine’s body was tortured, allowing her sisters to follow the Passion step by step. Catherine would bleed as if being scourged, her forehead would run with blood as if she were being crowned with thorns, a large indentation on her shoulder appeared where Jesus had carried the cross. She further experienced the stigmata and bled from a wound in her side where the lance had been thrust. During these moments, and other moments of deeply penitential prayer, a coral ring would appear on Catherine’s finger, a sign of her marriage to the suffering of Christ. During her first ecstatic experience, she was presented with The Canticle of the Passion (text found below) by Our Blessed Mother—a prayer which Mary urged her to share with others, so that they, too, may contemplate the sufferings of the Lord.
Saint Catherine died in 1589, her body having suffered both the trauma of the Passion, as well as a long illness. Her remains repose in the Convent of San Vincenzo where the Dominican Order still serves the Lord and the world.
As we prepare to begin our Lenten journeys leading up to the Passion of the Lord on Good Friday and His glorious resurrection on Easter Sunday, we look to the faith, sacrifice, and suffering of Saint Catherine de Ricci. In her suffering, she experienced the joy of union with Christ. We can experience our daily sufferings in the same way, by linking our hardships in prayer and contemplation to those of Jesus-- remembering that without the suffering, there is no redemption; without the darkness of the crucifixion, there is no glory of the resurrection; without sacrifice, there can be no true joy.