Spirituality & political engagement

Catherine’s political engagement and her spirituality

Catherine has been credited with three political accomplishments.  1.  She persuaded pope Gregory XI to order a crusade.  2.  She persuaded Gregory to return to Rome from Avignon.  3.  She played a significant role in accomplishing peace between Florence and the Papal States.  As well, she was involved in promoting support for the Papacy of Urban VI when Clement VII was also elected as pope and set himself up in Avignon.

These accomplishments have been credited in great part to her extraordinary gifts as a mystic.  While Catherine did indeed advocate for the crusade, encouraged Gregory XI to return to Rome and traveled to see him in Avignon, she did not initiate these missions nor was she very instrumental in the accomplishments of these goals. (I show this in my peer reviewed article, Catherine of Siena’s Spirituality of Political Engagement).

However, these involvements offer us insights into her own spiritual journey and the letters she wrote advocating for these policies allow us to learn about major aspects of her wisdom regarding the Christian path.  I will describe this spirituality in this section.  In 2021, I have also written a series of three articles on Catherine’s spirituality and her political engagement for those interested in a more in-depth discussion


The geography and politics of 14th century Italy were completely different from these realities today and we cannot understand well Catherine’s involvement in papal politics nor her spirituality without this context.  We cannot apply our 21st century views to her reality.  Accordingly, I first offer a summary of these contextual issues.


In Catherine’s day, Italy was not a country. The Papal States ruled by the pope began just south of Rome and extended north to approximately Orvieto in today’s Umbria (central Italy), and stretched on the east of Italy until just north of Bologna. On the West were the independent Tuscan republics (Siena, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Arezzo) and north there was a large independent area belonging to Milan. The area south of Rome was the Kingdom of Naples whose rulers were connected to the French and other European royal families. North of Milan was the Holy Roman Empire that included among other regions, today’s Germany.

Church and state power intertwined

The above geographical description is important, because in the 14th century the church—this was before the Reformation so there was only one Western Christian church—was as much a temporal as a pastoral power.  The church was like a country today, with interest in preserving land and borders, with the task of making alliances or war, as well as the task of ruling the persons living on this land. The pope and representatives of the pope—cardinals, bishops, papal legates–had both civil and pastoral authority and power over large sections of Italy.  In other words, these men were involved in managing territories and the people who lived there.  In fact, civil and pastoral authority and power were intertwined in ways that seem unbelievable and scandalous to us today.

This is important because whenever Catherine became involved in a matter she viewed as pastoral, or for the good of the church, she was in fact also getting involved in ecclesiastical (church) politics; and church politics were also Italian and European politics, so Catherine was involved in European wide church politics.  It was not her intention to get involved in territorial or power struggles for their own sake; her goal was always pastoral, acting for the salvation/conversion of persons.  Her spirituality guided these involvements, and it is this spirituality that I will describe here.  However, to understand this spirituality well, it is important to have a few historical facts on hand.

The Christian Church as civil authority

The Church began to formally acquire territories and become a temporal power after it was recognized as a valid institution by Constantine in the Fourth century.  At the end of the 10th century with the Fall of the Carolingian Empire and the attacks of vandals from the North, Rome and territory belonging to the church fell into the hands of secular nobility, some of whom became cardinals in order to wield ecclesiastical as well as temporal power. [It wasn’t necessary to be a priest in order to be a cardinal] These developments, where many church authorities such as cardinals, were really lords with ecclesiastical titles, and therefore, persons interested in power rather than pastoral service, began a long period in history, that included Catherine’s late 14th century, where Italian and French nobles became cardinals and members of the papal curia in order to wield temporal power.  When Catherine spoke about corruption and sin in the church, she was in great part referring to the scandal of persons with the trappings, power and lifestyle of nobility also holding pastoral leadership.

There were those who followed this path from nobility to church leadership who were sincerely interested in the good of the church.  Pope Gregory XI with whom Catherine corresponded extensively was one of these.

Popes, even those who took their pastoral leadership seriously, such as Gregory XI, saw themselves as temporal rulers and mixed what today we would see as spiritual/pastoral authority with temporal political authority. For instance, popes excommunicated adversaries in power struggles for control of territory or prohibited the administration of the sacraments to subjugate a whole city to their rule. In what might seem contradictory today, Catherine became involved on the side of Pope Gregory XI’s interdict, or prohibition of the administration of the sacraments to the citizens of Florence. I discuss this in my article on Catherine of Siena Controversial Discernments. Also see tab “Discernment<limitations of Catherine’s wisdom.”

Popes During Catherine’s public years

Catherine lived during a time when the popes and the central government of the church were located in Avignon, France (1309 and 1377), and during the beginning of the Great Schism of the papacy (1378-1417)—a time when two popes were elected at the same time, one living in Rome, the other in Avignon.  Four of Catherine’s politically active years were lived under Gregory XI; and two under the competing papacies of Urban VI in Rome and Clement VII (sometimes called the anti-pope) in Avignon.  Gregory XI, a Frenchman, had been made a cardinal in 1348, long before being ordained a priest in 1371 so that he could become pope. [A cardinal in the Middle Ages did not need to be an ordained priest or have a pastoral career.]  Urban VI, an Italian, was elected following Gregory’s death in 1378.

Catherine Chosen to engage in papal politics

Catherine’s involvement in papal policies, especially regarding the crusade, has been interpreted as fruit of her mystical gifts. The implication is that her closeness to God led her to come up with this policy and take the initiative of trying to get Gregory XI to implement the policy.  This view of Catherine’s role is not supported by historySee below.

Rather, Catherine was intentionally chosen by church authorities to become engaged in papal politics.  She was elected to fulfil a role often ascribed to female mystics in the Middle Ages, when women with reputations for holiness and for mystical gifts were held in high esteem.  Church leaders consulted them believing they would have special insight because of their closeness to God. Most often leaders wanted reassurance that God was, as it were, on their side, or they believed the woman’s prayers would help their goals.  Did God think their policies would be successful?  Could the woman pray for the leader and his policies? Or, they wanted a sort of oracle: could the woman foresee what should be done about a particular issue?

Pope Gregory XI had been advised by saint Birgitta of Sweden who as a widow settled in Rome and advised several popes.  When she died, Gregory sought a replacement.  It is thought that Gregory XI’s search for a new woman mystic to counsel him led to the assignment of Raymond of Capua as Catherine’s spiritual director and advisor so that he might guide her to support papal policies.

Historical documents show that Raymond himself wrote that he had been assigned to Catherine “for the saving of souls, the crusade, and other business of the Holy Roman Church.”[1] We also know through historical research that the pro-Papal League leaders in Florence together with Raymond planned Catherine’s trip to Avignon in order to advocate for a peace treaty between Florence and the Papal States, and that this was planned with the belief that the pope was more likely to listen to this female mystic (as opposed to a politically involved man).  It was during this trip that Catherine also encouraged the pope to further pursue his crusade policy.[2]

Three of Catherine’s letters (131, 133, 144) tell us that Raymond received a letter from Pope Gregory XI requesting help for the crusade and it was after this that Catherine’s most intense advocacy for this cause took place.  Catherine, then, was coached by Raymond regarding this mission.  He accompanied her on all her travels, and he was the contact with the highly placed dignitaries with whom she stayed and to whom she spoke.  As well, Raymond and other authorities undoubtedly advised Catherine regarding persons to whom she should write.

These historical facts tell us that Catherine did not initiate the idea of a crusade and Gregory XI did not need to be persuaded.  Catherine did not come up with the idea of going to Avignon to see Gregory.  The main goal of this trip was not advocating for the crusade, though Catherine did encourage Gregory to pursue this goal.  As to Gregory XI’s return to Rome, history tells us this was a goal he had from early in his papacy so that Catherine had little influence on him in this regard.[3]

Raymond’s historically inaccurate narrative

The narrative that Catherine had the idea of pursuing a crusade and it was she who persuaded the pope was started through legend, most likely promoted if not started by Raymond, who wrote in his hagiography:

Catherine always desired that the crusade take place and she worked very hard to accomplish this desire. Indeed, this was the main reason that she went to Avignon to see Pope Gregory XI. She wanted to persuade him to order the crusade, a goal she accomplished. I am a witness, I was present and I saw and heard all the effort made to accomplish this.’ (Raymond of Capua 1980:section 291) [my translation of Italian edition]

Raymond took liberties with history for the greater goal, from his perspective, of presenting Catherine as extraordinarily endowed by God’s grace and therefore worthy of canonization.  It’s an example of how hagiography can rearrange history.  In this process, Raymond’s hagiography has influenced the way Catherine’s life and spirituality have been understood and interpreted to this day.

However, history contradicts Raymond’s hagiography, not just because we know Catherine was coached by Raymond regarding this involvement, but because of the historical record regarding Gregory and the crusade. Gregory XI had tried to get a crusade underway since he was elected pope but had run into many stumbling blocks from other European and church leaders who did not support his initiative.  The crusades which had started in the 12th century were no longer politically viable in the 14th century.  In fact, Gregory’s efforts ultimately failed; the few men sent on crusade towards the end of his life were defeated as soon as they arrived in the Balkans where they were expected to defend against the Turkish incursion.[4]

The crusade and Catherine’s spirituality

If Catherine’s involvement in papal politics was not the result of her mystical gifts, then what do these involvements tell us about her spirituality?  First, I will discuss what we learn by examining her involvement in the crusade, and secondly, I will discuss what we learn from her letters to Gregory XI.

Once asked to get involved, the crusades became for Catherine a passionate pursuit.  This is clear from her many letters on this subject.  She wrote fourteen letters to Gregory XI, two to Urban VI, and over 30 more to Kings, Queens, leaders of city states and knights, as well as a few to her own followers advocating pursuing the crusade declared by Gregory XI.  From these letters one can glean Catherine’s own crusade spirituality and from this spirituality we see the reason that this cause was so dear to her heart.  (See my article, Catherine of Siena’s Crusade Letters: Spirituality and Political Context.)

Catherine was drawn to the ideals of a spirituality of crusade from listening to readings on feast days and during the recitation of the Hours (today the Breviary recited by priests); as well these ideals would have emerged in popular stories about heroic acts on behalf of the faith.  Crusade spirituality—developed in the 12th century—described a penitential pilgrimage. Knights and any accompanying them on a crusade pilgrimage were expected to practice prayer, fasting and almsgiving; communal fasting and prayer often preceded engagement in battle. The Holy Land was revered as a shrine that belonged to Christianity and the fact that non-Christians were taking over these sacred places was considered an attack on the faith and the faith must be defended. Doing so was an opportunity to give of oneself to God for the good of Christianity.

For Catherine the spirituality of a holy pilgrimage to save the sacred places melded with a spirituality of martyrdom which also formed part of popular piety in the Middle Ages.  This spirituality highlighted a desire for martyrdom as an ultimate expression of love for God in the willingness to imitate Jesus and surrender one’s life.  Catherine was attracted to this heroic expression of love for God since her adolescent days of solitude at home, seeing the crusade as a possibility for martyrdom. See Letter 144.

Working towards the salvation and transformation of persons so that love of God and neighbor could more and more become the center of their lives was Catherine’s central life mission.  Thus, for Catherine a crusade offered the possibility of transformation and giving of oneself to God in service of the church; it was an opportunity for the conversion of non-Christians and a crusade pilgrimage offered the possibility of the ultimate giving of self to God, that is, martyrdom.  The crusade was such a passionate cause for Catherine because of this spirituality.  She longed to go on crusade herself and end her life as a martyr for the faith.  Letters to her followers—and amazingly to authorities hardly known for the practice of the faith—urged this spiritual and life goal. See letter 143.

Catherine envisaged the crusade as a possibility for the transformation and salvation of many across Italy and Europe.  Since she believed all the Europeans fighting among themselves were sinning through such fighting among “brothers,” a crusade would lead knights away from such sinful activity directing fighting instead to liberation of the Holy Land.  Crusaders and any other pilgrims joining them would be transformed through the pilgrimage and would as well have the possibility of offering their lives to Christ as martyrs for the rescue of the Holy Land.  A crusade would make peace possible among European factions, allowing the pope to focus on reforming church leaders and clergy, fostering the salvation of corrupt pastors. Finally, the recovery of the Holy Land would offer the possibility of salvation to those ‘unbelievers’ who could be converted.

Catherine’s crusade letters reveal several themes of her spirituality:

  • The salvation of persons was her greatest desire for her closeness to God revealed God’s love and mercy and God’s desire to offer this love and mercy for the conversion of persons. Catherine saw her vocation as being a facilitator so that God could accomplish this.
  • This passionate desire and clarity of mission—to be facilitator of salvation–led Catherine to advocate for those causes that she saw as mediating this goal. She saw the crusade as a particularly powerful event for the transformation of many.  Unfortunately, the crusade never materialized, and Catherine’s vision of a crusade spirituality was never viable.  However, her crusade spirituality shows us her single-minded concern for the salvation/transformation of persons.
  • Her crusade spirituality also shows us that Catherine considered the cultural/political context relevant to the journey of transformation. For instance, she felt that engagement in crusade would enable warriors to stop fighting each other and instead participate in a pilgrimage; through a crusade there would be greater peace in Europe and the pope could then better perform his function of reform of the church, which Catherine saw as essential for the transformation of many.  In other words, Catherine’s spirituality was not just about a relationship to God; it was not just about working for the direct transformation of persons.  Her spirituality also included working towards a change in historical reality so that this reality would support and help transformation.
  • Catherine’s crusade letters confirm her attraction to martyr spirituality; including her desire to personally die a martyr.
  • The broad range of persons to whom Catherine wrote reveals her blind faith in God’s power to work in the hearts of persons no matter how distant they were from pursuing a committed Christian path. For instance, she invited the Queen of Naples to consider martyrdom when this woman was known for her worldly and sinful life.
  • The crusade letters, as did all her letters, reveal her wisdom about the spiritual journey. This wisdom will be spelled out in detail in other sections of this website.

[1] Cited in F. Thomas Luongo, 2006, The Saintly Politics of Catherine of Siena. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, p. 70.

[2] Luongo, pp. 169-173.

[3] André Vauchez, 2018, Catherine of Siena: A Life of Passion and Purpose, translated by M. F. Cusato. NY/Mahwah: Paulist, p. 51; Luongo p. 48.

[4] For more detail see, Paul Thiebault, 1985. “Pope Gregory XI (1370-1378) and the Crusade ” Canadian Journal of History 20 (3): 313-336. https://doi.org/10.3138/cjh.20.3.313.  The article is available free at the foregoing link.

Letters to Pope Gregory XI and Catherine’s spirituality

Catherine wrote 14 letters to Gregory undoubtedly begun under Raymond’s mentorship.  She also met with him in Avignon as already described.  According to historical evidence, Catherine’s influence on Gregory despite her letter writing and her visit to Avignon is likely to have been minimal though her exhortations to a greater commitment to a relationship with God may have born some fruit.

We have discussed Catherine’s correspondence with Gregory regarding the crusade above.

Gregory XI’s return to Rome from Avignon

History documents that Gregory XI planned to return to Rome since the beginning of his papacy; however, for reasons of politics among his cardinals and calculations about keeping church power, he delayed his return to Rome until less than two years before his death.  Thus, while Catherine did urge Gregory to return to Rome in her letters and almost certainly during her visit to Avignon, his intention to return had little to do with her.  It is unclear from historical data if Gregory listened to Catherine in terms of the timing of his return, though he did want her prayers for the endeavor.

Gregory and other ecclesiastical authorities at one point tasked Catherine with mediating a peace overture between the Papal States and Florence.  This plan sought to use her to gain a hearing with the Florentines who were expected to listen to this woman with a reputation for holiness more than they would a male emissary.  Historians conclude Catherine’s role in the negotiations with Florence was ultimately marginal in its influence, though Catherine advocated for peace between Florence and the Papal States in many of her letters to a variety of correspondents.[1]

Catherine: self-styled spiritual mentor to Gregory XI

Catherine believed the pope was “Christ on Earth,” God’s representative to all people in terms of the offer of salvation.  This theology and its related belief persuaded her that the pope must be converted and guided to pursue a strong relationship with God.  She felt called to act on this conviction by exhorting Pope Gregory to engage in a spiritual journey of close relationship to God, allowing God’s love to transform him and work through him.  Catherine repeatedly and relentlessly exhorted Gregory that without this closeness to God he would not accomplish his role as the key person in charge of the right ordered behavior of the church and all its authorities and pastors.  Without Gregory’s personal transformation he would not be an effective mediator of salvation through the ministry of the church.  See examples of her exhortations in Letters 255, 270, 209. Letter 252 emphasizes Gregory’s role in salvation.

Catherine’s initiative in taking on this role of spiritual guide to the pope, evidences how her own deep connection to God led to inner clarity that she had a central mission to advocate for the reform of the church so that the church could better pastor God’s people, thus aiding in their spiritual journey.   She discerned that this mission had to start with the spiritual growth of the pope so that he would live out his role in the most constructive manner and mediate the transformation of others.

Catherine was so filled with Holy Spirit that she—a young lay woman—was not deterred from chiding, exhorting and “ordering” the pope to converted behavior.  As a woman, young and unmarried, who was not an abbess or noblewoman, she was someone with no power or status in medieval society.  That despite this, she forcefully exhorted the most powerful persons in the church and in civil society, is a compelling witness to the power of the Spirit acting through her. That the Spirit acted so powerfully within her reflects the depth of Catherine’s transformation and closeness to God. See Letters 196 to Gregory XI and 138 to Giovanna, Queen of Naples for examples of how Catherine ordered the powerful, both religious and temporal.

Catherine’s letters to Gregory, then, evidence the level of her own close relationship with God and openness to the Spirit working through her.  This is directly in line with Jesus’ words to his disciples about the importance of adhering closely to him in order to be his powerful instruments in the world.  For instance, in the parable of the vine in John 15, Jesus tells the disciples to adhere to him; when adhered to God as branches to a vine, they will be empowered by the Spirit to do much more than they can imagine.

Catherine’s letters to Gregory also offer a record of her wisdom about transformation, the wisdom for which she is named Doctor of the Church, and which I will spell out in other sections of this website.

Summary of Catherine’s Spirituality from letters to Gregory XI

As we saw, holiness involves allowing oneself to be transformed through a relationship with God into someone like Jesus in capacity for love and truth and into someone who accomplishes God’s plan in this world.  Catherine was exceptional in the way she allowed herself to be transformed and used by God as his instrument.  This is evidenced in her letters to Gregory XI in that they show:

  • The clarity of Catherine’s discernment regarding her mission to work for the reform and proper functioning of the church as mediator of salvation/transformation.
  • Her passion and singlemindedness in the pursual of these goals.
  • The courage and lack of self-consciousness in offering spiritual advice to popes despite her lack of any status and only through the authority of her experience of God.

[1] Documentation for these assertions in note n. 15 of my article, Catherine of Siena’s Spirituality of Political Engagement.

Pope Urban VI

Catherine moved to Rome after Urban VI’s election.  She considered it her mission to advocate for his papacy against that of Clement VII, the Frenchman elected shortly after Urban.  Catherine also wrote to Urban urging him to a committed relationship with God and to reform of the Church.  She probably met with him more than once.  Thus, after Gregory’s death, Catherine continued her forceful mission of spiritual guide to popes as part of the vocation she felt to work for the effective functioning of the church as mediator of salvation and transformation.  See Letters 346, 351 to Urban VI.

Catherine’s prophetic mission

In the Old Testament the prophets were persons chosen by God to speak God’s word, often to those in power.  In Greek prophet means spokesperson, so a prophet is a spokesperson for God. In these terms, Catherine lived a prophetic spirituality, that is a vocation to speak God’s word to persons in power always including forceful exhortations to transformation through relationship with the God of love.  This prophetic role is clear not only in her letters to Gregory XI and Urban VI, but also in her letters to many authorities both ecclesiastical and temporal. See footnote 1 and “prophetic experience and charism of wisdom.”