I'm not Catholic, but I just wrote a biography of one of the church's most beloved saints -- St. Catherine of Siena who, along with St. Francis of Assisi, is the patron saint of Italy. Indeed, even those of us who've never attended Mass can appreciate the spunk of a girl who cut off her hair to protest being urged to marry and the confidence of a woman who said exactly what she was thinking to the most powerful of men.
Born in 1347, Catherine was a true rebel at a time when men held sway over all aspects of daily life. More than a century before Martin Luther penned his 1517 document attacking corruption in the Catholic Church, Catherine called out the highest ranks of the clergy for their avarice. She even exhorted the pope to greater holiness. With the artfulness of Botticelli, Catherine was able to convince Pope Gregory XI when no one else could to return the papacy from France to Rome after a nearly 70-year absence. Although illiterate, the major theological treatise on mankind's spiritual life that she dictated to secretaries, The Dialogue, is considered among the most brilliant works of early church literature. This and other feats earned her the title of Doctor of the Church in 1970 -- one of only four women to be so honored.
There are thousands of Catholic saints. But you'd be hard-pressed to find many who are able to inspire women today in the same way as Catherine. Here are five of the ways this daughter of a middle-class wool dyer in Siena, Italy, does just that.
1. She was forthright but never rude.
By adroitly blending boldness with humility, Catherine persuaded Pope Gregory to return the papacy from France to Rome in 1377. But she never once doubted his authority. Instead, she told him in a letter, "Esto vir" which means "Be a man" or "Be the boss." You can rail against the church for not granting women a greater role in Catholicism until the cows come home, but the fact is, in the 14th Century, a young woman with no education successfully influenced church policy by being direct -- but respectful.
2. She never gave in to pressure to marry.
Girls during this era were typically married off as soon as they were physically able to consummate a sexual relationship, usually around the age of 12 or 13. As Catherine entered her teen years, Catherine's family demanded that she pay more heed to her appearance so that she might attract a husband. Instead, Catherine did the opposite, cropping off her long hair -- considered her greatest physical asset -- close to the scalp to make herself as undesirable as possible. From all accounts, it was mission accomplished.
3. She respected her parents -- but stood up to them when she had no choice.
When it was clear her parents would continue their search for a suitable husband -- even after she cut off her hair -- Catherine sat them down one afternoon for a real talking to. "The more you try to do, the more you will discover that you are only wasting your time," she sternly warned them. Her declaration of independence -- which included her absolute refusal to marry -- left her family stunned. In the Middle Ages, a young boy making such a bold speech to his parents would have raised eyebrows. For a young girl to do so was absolutely unimaginable.
4. She cared not a whit for the trappings of wealth.
Just as the current Pope Francis has gained fans with his shunning of the Vatican's "pope suite" and other niceties, Catherine eschewed the palaces and pageantry of the church's hierarchy during the Middle Ages. When she visited Avignon, France, where the papacy moved in 1309, she was confronted with every opulent trapping of papal power. She only turned up her nose, and told the French cardinals they had no business being there. Forever humble, Catherine gave everything she had to the poor and made mercy the bedrock of her ministry.
5. She was utterly selfless and compelled people everywhere to put others before themselves.
Amid the relentless rise in narcissism in our modern culture, a look at someone so selfless was, for me, refreshing and motivating. Caring for the sick is a current that runs through Catherine's life -- even during times of plague, when Catherine used her bare hands to dig graves for the dead. Around 1373, when even no doctor would volunteer to care for a particularly disagreeable woman whose cancerous condition had caused a horrendous stench, Catherine stepped in, feeding and bathing the woman around the clock, day after day. Throughout it all, she never complained. "The poison of selfishness destroys the world," she once said. What a powerful sentiment then. What a powerful sentiment now.
Shelley Emling's book, Setting the World on Fire: The Brief, Astonishing Life of Catherine of Siena, was released Tuesday.