When Your Family Opposes You: St. Catherine's Example

· Italian Saint,Dominican,Doctor of the Church
When Your Family Opposes You: Saint Catherine's Example from Letters from the Saints Blog with an image of Saint Catherine of Siena

How many of us have faced opposition in our lives? Unless you are a completely agreeable person who never rocks the boat, you are bound to have faced some sort of opposition. The most difficult kind of opposition to deal with is that which comes from your own family. You love them, but they have made it clear that they are strongly against your position. What should you do? St. Catherine of Siena can teach us a lesson in how to move forward when even your family is against you.

An Early Calling

Catherine was born in 1347 as the youngest of twenty-four children born to Jacomo and Lapa Beincasa. She had a twin, but the twin died at birth. The Beincasas was prosperous due to their family business of clothes dying. They lived in a large home in the central part of Siena. The upper part of the house was the living quarters, and the bottom was dedicated to the cloth dying business in which many of the family members took part.

Even as a very young child, Catherine was known for her cheerful disposition. The neighbors gave her the nickname "Eufrosina" which means "joy". And there were many times that her mother Lapa had to call around the neighborhood homes in order to find the infant Catherine because she had been "borrowed" by a neighbor who relished her exuberance.

The town of Siena where she had been born, had been dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary almost 90 years before Catherine was born. At that time, the town had entrusted themselves to Our Lady in order to protect themselves against an attack from the rival city of Florence. After the victory over their enemies, the town celebrated for three days and devotion to Mary was cemented in their hearts.

As a result, children of Siena soon learned how to say, "Ave Maria" as soon as they began to talk. Little Catherine was no different. Indeed, she made it a practice of honoring Our Lady with her newly learned words. She would go up the stairs on her knees saying "Ave Maria" on each step.

It was clear that the Lord had marked out this child for a special mission. When she was not much older, perhaps five years of age, her mother sent Catherine and her older brother to visit one of their older sisters who was married and lived nearby. As the two young children made their way home, Catherine stopped while her brother kept walking.

Annoyed with Catherine's delay, her brother called to her to catch up with him. She was fixated on what she saw in the sky. It was a vision of Our Lord who blessed Catherine with His right hand. Enraptured, she had lost all sense of where she was or what she was doing. Then, the vision ceased, and by this time her brother had run back to urge her on.

She burst into tears after the vision disappeared. Catherine could only tell her brother that if he had seen what she had seen, he would not have been trying to pull her away from it. Only years later, would she tell a confessor what she had actually seen.

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Taking a Vow

Catherine would turn again in her mind to this vision over the next several years. As she grew a little older and her faith in God grew, she understood that she should take a vow of complete consecration to Jesus. And thus, at the tender age of six, she made a vow to Our Lady that she would live solely for Christ.

When she played with the other children in her family and neighborhood she asked them to play act as the saints. In particular, she always wanted to be a hermit. And in fact, at one point she decided to live as a hermit by staying in a nearby cave. She planned to stay the night. However, all went well with her plan until it started to get dark. At that point, she decided it was best to go home and ran home as fast as she could.

Even at home, she would act out the lives of hermits by secretly giving away part of her meals. Catherine had learned that often hermits subsisted on very little food so she would give some of her food to her older siblings or slip the food under the table for the cats to eat as an act of mortification.

As a sign of things to come, she found herself drawn to the local order of Dominicans. She learned that they were founded by St. Dominic for the express purpose of preaching the Gospel, and this thrilled her young heart. When she saw a Dominican, she would follow him in order to walk in his steps.

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Time to Grow Up

By the time she reached the age of 12, her parents were already beginning to make plans to have Catherine married. They were urging Catherine to present herself in a more respectful way. Jacomo and Lapa wanted her to comb her beautiful hair and to dress well in order to be more attractive to any possible matches they were attempting to make. Of course, for the time period, this was not unusual. However, for Catherine it made no sense because she had dedicated herself to God and had no plans to be married.

Catherine's refusal to comply with their wishes and actual pronouncement that she would not marry did not go over well with her parents. They responded to what they thought was youthful stubbornness in a rather harsh way.

Catherine's parents knew that she enjoyed her time in prayer in her room so they took away her room. Furthermore, they assigned to her the kitchen duties which had beforehand been given to their servant. In her parents' eyes, she now was a servant of the home rather than their daughter. Their hope was that through this arrangement, she would give up this obstinacy because she would be too busy with chores to have time for her frivolous prayers.

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A Loving Response

Rather than react, Catherine calmly responded. She first resolved to create a monastic cell in her heart where she could go to be with the Lord. Second, she took to the tasks given to her by imagining that she was serving the Holy Family in Nazareth. She envisioned her father as St. Joseph and her mother as the Blessed Virgin Mary. Catherine's older brothers and sisters, she considered the apostles. Third, she completed the tasks with the love that one would expect to be given to the Holy Family and the disciples of Christ. Her family was surprised by her response, and they did not know what to do with her unexpected behavior.

Nonetheless, Catherine did show her determination to not marry by cutting off her long and beautiful hair. The affect of this act angered her mother Lapa even more. On the other hand, her father Jacomo was slowly beginning to understand that his determined young daughter was not just childishly stubborn. In his mind, he considered her loving response to being made a servant combined with her will to do what she thought was right in the eyes of God.

To confirm her in her calling, the Lord granted another vision to Catherine. St. Dominic appeared to her and showed her the habit of the Third Order Dominicans. He promised her that one day she would wear this habit.

As the Lord was working on the heart of Catherine's father, he experienced his own special vision. One day, he passed a room in which Catherine was kneeling to pray. Unbeknownst to her, he saw a white dove hovering above her head. The experience left a deep impression upon him and Jacomo shared the story with his wife Lapa.

Not long after this, Catherine believed it was time to tell her parents why she would not marry. As she told them of her vow to Our Lord through Our Lady, she let them know that she was willing to remain as a family servant if they wanted. However, in any case, she was indeed determined to keep her vow and to not marry.

As she shared this with them, her father's heart which had been softened by her gentle response to his harsh treatment, accepted Catherine's words as the will of God. He was, after all, a good man, but a man of his time, and he had expected his daughter to be married as all of her older sisters had.

Lapa was not as favorably disposed. In fact, for the remainder of her life, she never fully accepted Catherine's calling to be completely devoted to Christ. However, as she loved her husband and daughter, she did agree with Jacomo's words that they would no longer hinder Catherine's calling.

To be fair to them, what Catherine was called to do was unique for the time period. At that time, really only widows joined third orders. For widows who had no family or who could not be supported by their family, the consecrated life of a third order religious was a way to provide them with means to live while providing important services for supporting parishes and priests.

For young women, there were essentially two choices: marriage or entering a religious convent. However, God's plan was for Catherine to become a Third Order Dominican as a young woman. With her parent's permission, she created a small monastic cell within the family home under the staircase. It would be there that Catherine would live and serve her family for a couple of years as the Lord prepared her for a much more public ministry that would take up the remainder of her life.

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