Why yes, I did!
Our recent group trip to Siena, organized and led by our chaplain Fr. Carola, was a bit like stepping into another world. Siena is a wonderfully preserved medieval city in the Italian region of Tuscany. It is quiet in the city center, and its not hard to see why – the winding roads, steep hills, and narrow stairs were not intended for navigation by motor vehicle. As we moved about the city from place to place, it really felt like walking around in another time: like we could have run into St. Catherine of Siena herself.
And in one way, we did. Our first stop was at the church of San Domenico. Fr. Carola showed us a side-chapel in which the great saint of Siena used to pray. Then he pointed us in the direction of an altar in the center of the church, where Catherine’s head was displayed. As I knelt and asked for her intercession, I remembered the short biography Fr. Carola had given on the bus into town, which taught me almost everything I know about the saint: she lived in Siena in the 14th century, and was a hugely influential figure in the Church in her time. At an early age she consecrated herself to God, and denied her parents’ wishes for her to marry. As a tertiary Dominican, she acted as a sort of ambassador between Florence and the Papal States. She would eventually be responsible for the return of the papacy to Rome. During her life, she was visited by Christ and St. Dominic in several visions, wrote important spiritual works and letters, and today she is recognized as a Doctor of the Church.
We moved next to the Basilica of San Francesco, where there occurred a Eucharistic miracle in 1730. Thieves broke into the church, and stole a chalice containing 223 consecrated hosts. They dumped the Precious Body into a collection box in another church, where they were found and recovered. Today, 282 years later, the hosts are miraculously preserved, having baffled scientists sent to examine them. Identical but unconsecrated hosts have been kept in the same conditions, and quickly rot. We adored and prayed before the Sacrament of the Altar before moving to our next destination.
The Duomo of Siena is a magnificent church, and possibly my favorite yet. Bold black and white stripes circle the interior and exterior of the church, which is situated at the crest of the hill that is Siena. Inside, carved faces of the popes watch over the faithful, and scenes from the Gospel look back up from the floor. Across the piazza stands a lone wall — what would have been the façade of the Duomo if limits imposed by money and history hadn’t hit the town during construction. We were able to climb stairs to the top of this wall, however, to get a commanding view of all of Siena and indeed all of Tuscany.
Following in the footsteps of St. Catherine, we ended our time in Siena with mass in the church that has been built above her house. You can still go beneath it to see the room where she spent many years early in her life. Every day in Italy I appreciate more the importance of the saints and of their relics, and it was a blessing to be so close to St. Catherine in this real and immediate way, to learn about her life, and to be encouraged to follow her in the path of holiness.
St. Catherine of Siena, pray for us.