Even in ages when spirituality is in decline, God does not deny great saints to the world. The early 16th century was one such period; its corruption called forth the violent scandal of the Reformation. Yet it also produced saints who worked strenuously for a Catholic reform. One of these was St. Catherine de’ Ricci of Prato, Tuscany. Catherine (or, to give her baptismal name, Alessandra Lucrezia Romola) de’ Ricci was born into one of Florence’s most distinguished banking and mercantile families. Perceiving that Alessandra was precociously devout, her conscientious stepmother, Fiammetta da Diaceto, encouraged her growth in piety. The young girl early decided to join a religious order, but it was only in 1535 that she found a religious community strict enough to please her. This was the Dominican convent of San Vincenzo at Prato. It had been founded by nine Tuscan ladies who were inspired by the reformist preaching of the Florentine Dominican, Fra Girolamo Savonarola. She entered the Prato house in 1534, aged only 12. Having made her novitiate, in 1535 she was given the veil and the religious name Catherine.
During the next four years, young Sister Catherine showed herself already advanced in prayer-life, and was the recipient of special mystical graces. It is significant that the senior nuns at San Vincenzo took these reports of extraordinary graces with more than a grain of salt. Catherine, however, so demonstrated her holiness and humility that eventually the sisters were convinced that she was the “real thing.” From then on, despite her youth, she was promoted from one important convent office to the other. Most of her later years (she died at 68) she spent as either prioress or sub-prioress. Like many another true mystic, she also proved to be an efficient business woman and administrator.
Thanks to the rigorous investigation made of St. Catherine preparatory to her canonization, we have ample details of her mystical experiences. One was her “bilocation”; i.e, being in two places (apparently, at least) at the same time. St. Philip Neri, who lived in Rome, testified that Catherine, though then in her convent at Prato, had visited and conversed with him in Rome. Philip was normally slow to give credence to visions and the like, but testifying to this miracle, he was backed by the sworn statements of five others. St. Catherine also visited St. Mary Magdalen de’ Pazzi in the same way.
Catherine de’ Ricci became especially well known for her ecstasies of the Passion. From 1542 to 1554, each Thursday and Friday she experienced in a trance the events of Christ’s passion, “acting out” its episodes herself. While in the same trance she would unconsciously exhort those about her with an eloquence beyond her native talent. She also received on her own body the stigmata (the wounds) of Christ’s passion. Advancing to the state of “mystical marriage” with Christ, Catherine was given by Jesus, in 1542, a ring to symbolize that she was a “bride of Christ.” The singular fact is that all who saw this ring on her index finger saw it differently, and some saw it not at all.
As a result of these supernatural phenomena curious crowds began to visit the convent of St. Vincenzo. Subsequently, these visitors so disturbed the routine of the sisters that Catherine and the community prayed that the ecstatic visions of the Passion cease. After 12 years of them, the prayer was answered. But Prioress Catherine continued to be sought out for advice by cardinals, bishops, religious superiors, three future popes, and other suppliants, especially the poor.
In her early years St. Catherine had been deeply influenced by Savonarola. The friar eventually associated his program of reform with that of the king of France. This brought Girolamo into an imprudent political conflict with Pope Alexander VI, and led to his eventual excommunication and execution. But Savonarola’s doctrine and zeal were orthodox, and many persons loyal to the papacy considered him a saint. Catherine was one of them. She attributed to his prayers her recovery from an illness in 1540.
In the very years, therefore, when Protestant reformers were denouncing the unholiness of the Roman Catholic Church, St. Catherine de’ Ricci was demonstrating by her prayerfulness that the Church is indeed a source of holiness to those who will stand with Christ on Calvary.
–Father Robert F. McNamara