Saint Catherine of Genoa was born in the Vicolo del Filo in that city, in 1447. She was of the great Guelph family of Fiesca, being the daughter of Giacomo Fiesca, at one time Viceroy of Naples, and granddaughter of Roberto Fiesca, whose brother was Pope Innocent IV. Another Fiesca was Pope Adrian V; for this family gave several princes to the Church and many bold and skillful warriors and statesmen to the state. The saint's mother, Francesca de Negro, was likewise of aristocratic birth.
Catherine, who was one of five children, was brought up piously. Her earliest biography, written by the priest Cattaneo Marabotto, who was her confessor in her latter years, and by her friend Ettore Vernazza, relates that her penances were remarkable from the time she was eight, and that she received the gift of prayer in her thirteenth year. When she was thirteen she declared to her confessor her wish to enter the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, in Genoa, a house of Augustinian Canonesses of the Lateran in which her elder sister Limbania had already taken the veil. He pointed out to her that she was still very young and that the life of a religious was hard, but she met his objections with a "prudence and zeal" which seemed to him "not human but supernatural and divine ". So he visited the convent of her predilection, to which he was confessor, and urged the mothers to accept her as a novice. But they were obdurate against transgressing their custom by receiving so young a girl. Catherine's disappointment gave her "great pain, but she hoped the Lord Almighty would not forsake her."
She grew up to be very lovely: "taller than most women, her head well proportioned, her face rather long but singularly beautiful and well shaped, her complexion fair and in the flower of her youth rubicund, her nose long rather than short, her eyes dark and her forehead high and broad; every part of her body was well formed." About the time she failed to enter the convent, or a little later, her father died, and his power and possessions passed to her eldest brother Giacomo. Wishing to compose the differences between the factions into which the principal families of Genoa were divided--differences which had long entailed cruel, distracting and wearing strife--Giacomo Fiesca formed the project of marrying his young sister to Giuliano Adorni, son of the head of a powerful Ghibelline family. He obtained his mother's support for his plan, and found Giuliano willing to accept the beautiful, noble and rich bride proposed to him; as for Catherine herself, she would not refuse this cross laid on her at the command of her mother and eldest brother. On the 13th of January, 1463, at the age of sixteen, she was married to Giuliano Adorni.
He is described as a man of "strange and recalcitrant nature" who wasted his substance on disorderly living. Catherine, living with him in his fine house in the Piazza Sant' Agnete, at first entirely refused to adopt his worldly ways, and lived "like a hermit", never going out except to hear Mass. But when she had thus spent five years, she yielded to the remonstrances of her family, and for the next five years practiced a certain commerce with the world, partaking of the pleasures customary among the women of her class but never falling into sin. Increasingly she was irked and wearied by her husband's lack of spiritual sympathy with her, and by the distractions which kept her from God.
Her conversion is dated from the eve of St. Bernard, 1474, when she visited the church of St. Bernard, in Genoa, and prayed, so intolerable had life in the world become to her, that she might have an illness which would keep her three months in bed. Her prayer was not granted but her longing to leave the world persisted. Two days later she visited her sister Limbania in the convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and at Limbania's instance returned there on the morrow to make her confession to the nuns' confessor. Suddenly, as she was kneeling down at the confessional, "her heart was wounded by a dart of God's immense love, and she had a clear vision of her own wretchedness and faults and the most high goodness of God. She fell to the ground, all but swooning", and from her heart rose the unuttered cry, "No more of the world for me! No more sin!" The confessor was at this moment called away, and when he came back she could speak again, and asked and obtained his leave to postpone her confession.
Then she hurried home, to shut herself up in the most secluded room in the house, and for several days she stayed there absorbed by consciousness of her own wretchedness and of God's mercy in warning her. She had a vision of Our Lord, weighed down by His Cross and covered with blood, and she cried aloud, "O Lord, I will never sin again; if need be, I will make public confession of my sins." After a time, she was inspired with a desire for Holy Communion which she fulfilled on the feast of the Annunciation.
She now entered on a life of prayer and penance. She obtained from her husband a promise, which he kept, to live with her as a brother. She made strict rules for herself--to avert her eyes from sights of the world, to speak no useless words, to eat only what was necessary for life, to sleep as little as possible and on a bed in which she put briars and thistles, to wear a rough hair shirt. Every day she spent six hours in prayer. She rigorously mortified her affections and will.
Soon, guided by the Ladies of Mercy, she was devoting herself to the care of the sick poor. In her plain dress she would go through the streets and byways of Genoa, looking for poor people who were ill, and when she found them she tended them and washed and mended their filthy rags. Often she visited the hospital of St. Lazarus, which harbored incurables so diseased as to be horrible to the sight and smell, many of them embittered. In Catherine they aroused not disgust but charity; she met their insults with unfailing gentleness.
Her earliest biography gives details of her religious practices. From the time of her conversion she hungered insatiably for the Holy Eucharist, and the priests admitted her to the privilege, very rare in that period, of daily communion. For twenty-three years, beginning in the third year after her conversion, she fasted completely throughout Lent and Advent, except that at long intervals she drank a glass of water mixed with salt and vinegar to remind herself of the drink offered to Our Lord on the cross, and during these fasts she enjoyed exceptional health and vigor. For twenty-five years after her conversion she had no spiritual director except Our Lord Himself. Then, when she had fallen into the illness which afflicted the last ten years of her life, she felt the need for human help, and a priest named Cattaneo Marabotto, who had a position of authority in the hospital in which she was then working, became her confessor.
Some years after her conversion her husband was received into the third order of St. Francis, and afterwards he helped her in her works of mercy.
The time came when the directors of the great hospital in Genoa asked Catherine to superintend the care of the sick in this institution. She accepted, and hired near the hospital a poor house in which she and her husband lived out the rest of their days. Her prayers were still long and regular and her raptures frequent, but she so arranged that neither her devotions nor her ecstasies interfered with her care of the sick. Although she was humbly submissive even to the hospital servants, the directors saw the value of her work and appointed her rector of the hospital with unlimited powers.
In 1497 she nursed her husband through his last illness. In his will he extolled her virtues and left her all his possessions.
Mrs. Charlotte Balfour underlined in her copy of the saint's works an indicative extract from her teaching. "We should not wish for anything but what comes to us from moment to moment," Saint Catherine told her spiritual children, "exercising ourselves none the less for good. For he who would not thus exercise himself, and await what God sends, would tempt God. When we have done what good we can, let us accept all that happens to us by Our Lord's ordinance, and let us unite ourselves to it by our will. Who tastes what it is to rest in union with God will seem to himself to have won to Paradise even in this life."
She was still only fifty-three years old when she fell ill, worn out by her life of ecstasies, her burning love for God, labor for her fellow creatures and her privations; during her last ten years on earth she suffered much. She died on the 15th of September, 1510, at the age of sixty-three. The public cult rendered to her was declared legitimate on the 6th of April, 1675. The process for her canonization was instituted by the directors of the hospital in Genoa where she had worked. Her heroic virtue and the authenticity of many miracles attributed to her having been proved, the bull for her canonization was issued by Clement XII on the 30th of April, 1737.
Saint Catherine's authorship of the 'Treatise on Purgatory has never been disputed. But Baron von Hugel in his monumental work the "Mystical Element in Religion as Studied in Saint Catherine of Genoa and her Friends" concludes convincingly, after a meticulous examination of the "Dialogue of the Blessed and Seraphic Saint Catherine of Genoa," that its author was Battista Vernazza:" The entire "Dialogue" then is the work of Battista Vernazza." Thus this work is not, as has been thought, the saint's spiritual autobiography, nor indeed does it ever claim to be other than what it is, her spiritual biography. It is the life of her soul, dramatized by a younger woman who had known her and her intimates, who had a singular devotion to her, and who was peculiarly qualified to understand her experience.
Baron von Hugel believed that Saint Catherine first became acquainted with the Genoese notary Ettore Vernazza during the epidemic in Genoa in 1493, that is nineteen years after her conversion, when she was forty-six years old and he in his early twenties. She wrote of "a great compassion he had conceived when still very young, at the time the pestilence raged in Genoa, when he used to go about to help the poor ". Von Hugel describes him, after profound study of his life and works, as "a man of fine and keen, deep and world-embracing mind and heart, of an overflowing, ceaseless activity, and of a will of steel". He was "the most intimate, certainly the most perceptive of Catherine's disciples" and with Cattaneo Marabotto wrote the earliest life of her. In 1496 he married Bartolomea Ricci, and they had three daughters of whom the eldest, Tommasa, had Saint Catherine for godmother.
Little Tommasa was a sensitive, loving, bright child with a turn for writing, as she shewed in a few simple lines of verse which she wrote to her "most holy protectress" and "adored mother" when she was only ten. Was she addressing her godmother, or her mother in the flesh who died not long afterwards? Her father, after his wife's death, sent her and her little sister Catetta to board in that convent of Augustinian canonesses in which Saint Catherine had not been allowed to take the veil. Perhaps the nuns had been taught by the saint that very young girls may have a true vocation to religion, for Tommasa was only thirteen when, on the 24th of June, 1510, she received in their house the habit of an Augustinian Canoness of the Lateran and changed her name to Battista. She spent all the rest of her ninety years on earth in that convent in Genoa.
Twelve weeks after her reception Saint Catherine died, and Baron von Hugel tentatively identifies Battista with an unnamed nun to whom, and to six other friends and disciples of the saint, Battista's father among them, "intimations and communications of her passage and instant complete union with God" were vouchsafed at the moment of her death.
Battista's literary remains include many letters, poetry--both spiritual canticles and sonnets, and several volumes of spiritual dissertations in which are "all but endless parallels and illustrations" to the teachings of Saint Catherine. She wrote also three sets of "Colloquies," and in one of them relates certain of her own spiritual experiences. In all her writings, but especially in these narrations, Baron von Hugel notes the influence of Catherine's doctrine and spiritual practices.
The "Dialogue" reproduces the incidents of the saint's spiritual life as these are recorded in her earliest biography, and its doctrine is that embodied in the "Treatise on Purgatory and in her recorded sayings, from which even its language is in large part derived. That its matter has passed through another mind, Battista's, gives it an added interest: there is the curious, vivid dramatization; there is, in some passages, a poignant and individual quality; and there is an insight which proves that Battista herself was also a mystic, one who had spent all her days in the spiritual companionship of Saint Catherine. We are shewn not only the saint but also her reflection in the mirror which was Battista's mind. "A person", says Von Hugel, speaking of Battista at the time when she wrote the "Dialogue," "living now thirty-eight years after Catherine's death, in an environment of a kind to preserve her memory green.... Battista, the goddaughter of the heroine of the work, and the eldest, devoted daughter of the chief contributor to the already extant biography; a contemplative with a deep interest in, and much practical experience of, the kind of spirituality to be portrayed and the sort of literature required; a nun during thirty-eight years in the very convent where Catherine's sister, one of its foundresses, had lived and died, and where Catherine herself had desired to live and where her conversion had taken place."
The "Dialogue," long generally accepted as Catherine's own account of her spiritual life, has been allowed by the highest authorities to embody, with her "Treatise on Purgatory," the saint's doctrine. These two treatises and the earliest biography, translated into several languages, spread that doctrine and devotion to her throughout the Catholic world in the centuries between her death and her canonization. The bull which canonized her alludes to the "Dialogue" as an exposition of her doctrine: "In her admirable "Dialogue" she depicts the dangers to which a soul bound by the flesh is exposed."
The Vicomte Theodore Marie de Bussierne includes the "Dialogue "with the "Treatise on Purgatory" in his translation into French of the saint's works, published in 1860. It was from this translation that Mrs. Charlotte Balfour translated the first half of the "Dialogue" into English. She meant to make an English version of all the saint's works but had worked only on the "Dialogue" at the time of her death. Her work has been carefully collated with the Italian original and revised where necessary, the edition used being that included in the beautiful "Life and Works" of Saint Catherine which was printed in Rome in 1737, the year of her canonization, by Giovanni Battista de Caporali, and dedicated to Princess Vittoria Altoviti de' Corsini, the Pope's niece. As here printed, the whole Dialogue may be regarded as translated from Battista Venazza's original work. Mrs. Balfour would certainly have wished to acknowledge her debt to Monsieur de Bussierne's French version. The latter part of the Dialogue and the whole "Treatise on Purgatory" have been directly translated from the 1737 Italian edition of the saint's works.
Saint Catherine's earliest biography concludes with the following words:
" It remains for us to pray the Lord, of His great goodness and by the intercession of this glorious Seraphin, to give us His love abundantly, that we may not cease to grow in virtue, and may at last win to eternal beatitude with God who lives and reigns for ever and ever."