Some claim that St Catherine of Siena was the 25th child born to her parents. But actually Catherine was the 23rd of 25 children, born in 1347. Catherine had a twin sister who was the 24th and another child followed them. Catherine's parents were Lapa and Jacomo Benincasa. They were prosperous middle class folk, Jacomo made his living by dying wool; something that has often been described as a humble occupation with modest pay, but in fact he was an expert in the staining of all sorts of yarn and he prospered financially. 

They had enough money to send Catherine's twin sister to a wet nurse, while Catherine was nursed by her mother. The twin sister, however, died mysteriously as an infant and they always suspected that she had perished because she was sent out of the house everyday to be breastfed by a woman not her mother. That being said, the Black Plague was just about to rage in Siena at the time, and that may have been a factor in the little babe's sudden passing. 

Siena, the city of red brick houses, lost over 30 per cent of its population to the Black Plague. The 1340s was a time when the deadly pandemic spread faster than the people's understanding of how to curtail it. 

Catherine survived the plague and grew to be a very comely young woman with a heart-shaped face and gorgeous smile. Another death struck the family, her older sister died. This coincided with Jacomo's wish to marry Catherine off. At 16, he tried to make Catherine the wife of her late sister's husband. Catherine would have none of it, she had decided to stay single, stay celibate and live life as a Dominican, and follow a rule of life as laid down by St Dominic who fought off that lusty cult the Albigensians. 

Jacomo was upset by his daughter's refusal to wed the widower, and to punish her he fired their maid and forced Catherine to do all the household chores, even making her do the nastiest cleaning tasks, which in a time of no running water and no restrooms was loathsome. Catherine responded by embracing the domestic drudgery and by cutting her hair and making herself so boyish as to compromise her feminine prettiness. Finally, Jacomo relented when he saw that Catherine was determined to have Jesus as her Divine Spouse and to spurn the advances of the men of the 1350s who would only have been too happy to marry Catherine and enjoy her generous dowry. 

Jacomo's heart softened and he became convinced of his daughter's vocation.  He even allowed for her to have her own room as a type of hermitage where she could be all alone, pray, meditate and enjoy the celestial visions given her by Our Lord.

Father and daughter grew closer and closer as time went by. Catherine entertained no bitterness for her father's efforts to coerce her into conjugality. When Jacomo entered his last days, he fell so ill that he was bed-ridden.  Catherine prayed for him to Our Lord Who told Catherine that Jacomo was on the precipice of death, and that there was not much use in Jacomo living longer. For his part, Jacomo was ready to go to God and had no attachments to the world. 

But Catherine was not satisfied - she prayed to God that Jacomo could go from his deathbed to Heaven without having to pass through the fires of Purgatory. Our Lord was not going to readily answer her request, "Thy father has lived well in the conjugal state...I am in particular pleased with his conduct towards thee, but justice demands that his soul pass by the fire to purify it." Catherine couldn't bear the thought of her father in Purgatory - she had been given visions of the fire boxes there and so she beseeched Our Lord - "I entreat thy divine bounty not to permit his soul to leave his body before, by some means or other, it is perfectly purified and has no need of the fire of Purgatory."  Our Lord condescended to answer this plea. 

There ensued a quandary; Jacomo was fading fast, but he could not leave his body 'til justice had been satisfied, and 'til the debts he had accrued through sin had been paid. Catherine put herself forth as the one who would suffer her father's Purgatory for him,  and she proposed to Our Lord, "Let this justice be exercised towards me". Our Lord was happy to accept, "I exempt the soul of thy father from all expiatory pains, but during thy whole life thou shalt be victim of a pain that I will send thee."

At the moment, Jacomo died, Catherine was struck in her side by a searing ache that was with her all her life. She did her father's Purgatory during her lifetime. She placed herself in her father's place, like her Savior had placed Himself in our place to suffer for our sin. It was pain that did not make her depressive, she was also given a certain joy and even at her father's funeral she was beaming with cheerfulness as she celebrated her father's place in Heaven. 

Jacomo had pleased the Lord during his marriage to Lapa. Yet when his daughter had been shown the appalling torments of Hell and Purgatory, she discovered  why married people go to Purgatory and are assayed in agonizing flames, "I was shown in particular those who sin in the married state, by not observing the law it imposes, and by seeking in it nought but sensual pleasures". Catherine was perplexed because to use marriage merely as a means of gratifying the flesh was not the worst sin, but the souls who had done so were rudely chastised, and she asked why this was the case, "Because little attention is given to it, and consequently less contrition is excited for it, and it is more easily committed."

This is certainly far truer today than it was in the 1300s - scant attention is given the sin of using marriage only as a way of gaining sexual pleasure - even among faithful Catholics. And the net result is that little contrition is offered for it.  It bears asking as to whether the torments shown Catherine were really all that bad? Catherine said something chilling that inspires a sense of them, "Had poor mortals the faintest idea of them, they would suffer a thousand deaths rather than undergo the least of their torments."

You may like to offer the prayer to the Holy Spirit written by St Catherine, and her beautiful prayer to the Trinity.

I am writing this post in preparation for the anniversary of St Catherine's death, April 29th.

* * *

Classic painting executed by Francesco Vanni. 

This post was informed by Blessed Raymond of Capua's splendid biography of Catherine of Siena. 


  1. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion. 1 Corinthians 7:9 makes no sense!!!!

    1. If they didn't married, it would be fornication... which would bring a more severe punishment - eternal damnation in Hell. Purgatory is only temporary, so 1 Corinthians 7:9 makes sense.

    2. Dear Kate and Mike,

      You are so right. Sex outside marriage is fornication. And Purgatory is only temporary.

      There is the example of extremely holy parents who form a child in virtue that the generations to come can call on as an intercessor. I think of the parents of the Little Flower 🌹 Louis and Zelie who formed Marie Francoise, as was her name before she became "Therese" in the convent. Louis and Zelie put radical love of God as the first priority in their marriage and this was inherited by their daughter who has poured blessings on humanity since she went to Heaven.

      Thank you for reading my post.

    3. I have a question. I am a catholic and married a fallen away Catholic and we were married by a Judge in So. America; where he was from.
      Our marriage didn't last but 2 yrs.; thank God and he has remarried 2 more times. My question is; I'm single(divorced) and wonder when I leave this world will I be reunited with him or my parents?

    4. Dear MauraM, I think you had best find a good, holy priest with whom you may discuss this most sensitive matter. But for now, you may pray for your ex husband and your parents and have Masses offered for their souls - because if they are in Purgatory - they may go to Heaven all the faster.

  2. If sensual pleasures were not the reward of the married state, there would be no offspring. Of course sexual acts against nature are forbidden to married people.
    Then where is sin?

    1. Dear Jack,

      Yes, I agree, licit and natural sensual pleasures are the reward of the married state. But the sin lies in the habitual way that a man and woman may have pleasure of the flesh as their one and only goal, and allow it to occlude the call to holiness, spiritual and corporal works of mercy that they may do as a couple, and the striving to be a Saint whereby they pray, take on challenges such as specific good deeds that are presented to them that need much grace to be completed properly and also prepare children and those who are witness to their marriage to do as they do; live lives of holiness by using their example. There is nothing wrong with a combination; a couple who partake of the marital act and do all they can to grow in holiness, but it is when the act becomes the be all and end all of their marriage that many opportunities are forfeited that could have benefitted the husband and wife and myriad people around them.

      Thank you for your question. God bless you always.

    2. Thank you for this very interesting information about the married state.
      I think many of us got married because we thought that's what adults did.
      I remember thinking having to get involved with the marital act was the price to pay for being married if one was not going to become a nun. And I remember my father saying to me I would not be able to live at home forever.

      So off I went looking for a husband. God found me the right person for me, and I hope not to have to suffer in purgatory as well as putting up with his faults all my life LOL.

      He has put up with me too, so it must be ok. Fingers crossed.

    3. When John Paul II was delivering his Wednesday audiences that we now call “theology of the body,” he was criticized when he mentioned in one of these talks how married couples can commit adultery with another in their own marriage - treating one another as objects rather than willing the good of the other (as true love is). Given this possibility as JP II identified it, 1 Corinthians 7:9 indeed makes sense both in the level of how Kate and Mike describe it, and from the point of view that married couples, in their proper living of chastity within marriage through their mutual giving of self/willing the good of the other, can help one another (with God’s grace) to grow in more perfect love and away from acting merely from passionate desire for pleasure (such that the pleasure in the act is transformed into a fruit of conjugal love and not a reason or motivation for it).

    4. Dear Father Joel,

      Thank you so much for your wonderful comment.

  3. I think a good example is contraception. Seeking the pleasure without being open to the fruit.

  4. Was there more in the book that indicated the Lord was speaking only of sexual pleasure? "Sensual" is the senses. Could this mean, as we're seeing today, that many couples spend their time in gratifying their senses with casinos, travel, buffets, internet and tv watching, selfish pursuits, boats, homes, their 401k's? Many have children and grandchildren away from the Church, many grandchildren I have met are not even baptized. The focus is on themselves and gratifying their senses and not in joining together for Mass, prayer, intercession for their own flesh and blood. I honestly don't believe this was only about sex, although it is part of a much larger issue the Lord was speaking about.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment and your question. I read over the section twice and truly it is the elevation of sexual pleasure that is the root of the sinfulness which led to these married people being "so rudely chastised". You are right to point out that there could have been a mix of other sensual pleasures, and perhaps some of the married people had misused their marriages as a means of gratifying other senses, but the one thing common to all the married couples was their sex lives. They could have used other relationships (friendships and other non-sacramental unions) to indulge their senses. But unless they had wanted to become adulterers, they could not have gratified their lusts outside their marriage.


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