St. Catherine de Ricci (1522-1589) was a great Dominican stigmatist and mystic nun who lived in Tuscany in the 16th century.
St. Catherine was born in 1522 to the noble Ricci family of Florence, wealthy merchants and bankers. She was baptized under the name Alexandrina. (Catherine was the name she took in holy religion after donning the veil.) When she was still an infant, her mother passed away. Yet her parents had chosen for her a pious and devout godmother: Fiammetta da Diacceto. Fiammetta quickly recognized the extraordinary graces her goddaughter was receiving and diligently collaborated by forming her well in the Faith. From her youth Catherine had a great attachment to prayer. In fact, whenever young Catherine was missing, she would be found on her knees praying in some secluded corner of her house. When she was seven, her father, Peter de Ricci, sent her to be educated at the Convent of Monticelli, just outside of Florence. Her aunt, Louise de Ricci, was a nun there. Catherine saw the convent as a veritable paradise, away from the noise, tumult and vanities of the world. Here she was able to make rapid progress in the spiritual life without obstacles or distractions. A few years later, considering that she was sufficiently pious, beautiful, skilled in the matronly arts, and soon to be of marriageable age, her father brought her back to his home. Catherine strove to continue her spiritual practices, but found life in the world caused her a great uneasiness that dissipated her recollected spirit.
ENTERING THE CONVENT
Only with great difficulty and much perseverance was Catherine finally able to receive her father’s blessing to renounce any possible marriage and instead return to the religious life. Shortly thereafter her father changed his mind. He only relented after his daughter became so sick he feared she would die. However, her troubles only increased after having secured Peter de Ricci’s permission to enter religious life. She visited many convents but found them all too lax and irreligious for her delicate conscience and ardent charity. Finally, in 1535, Catherine visited the Dominican convent at Prat in Tuscany. Her uncle, Father Timoteo de Ricci, was its director. This convent had only been in existence for about thirty years, but the nuns strove for excellence in such a manner that even Catherine saw her ideals being met. Fr. Timoteo accepted his fourteen year old niece’s religious profession and gave her the name of Catherine, after the great Dominican tertiary ‘Saint of Siena’ It was here in the Convent of San Vincenzio that Catherine “put on Christ“, mystically shared in His Passion, and reached the perfection of contemplative prayer and sanctity.
A CHALLENGING NOVITATE
Her two year novitiate was extremely difficult. She suffered terrible pains and was so sick that the nuns believed she would soon die. Every remedy they attempted only worsened her diseases. Catherine’s only solace was meditation upon the Passion of Christ. This enabled her to bear her sufferings with a perfect interior disposition. After she recovered, new troubles arose on account of her ecstasies. She would be engaged in normal tasks and appear to the other nuns as if she would inexplicably fell asleep or faint. She would fail to perform a duty by dropping a broom, breaking a dish, ruining the food she was cooking, or falling “asleep” during the communal prayer of the office. Some questioned her sanity, others humiliated her, and her superiors considered dismissing her from the convent. Some of the nuns doubted her visions and ridiculed her out of envy or distrust. She only intensified her penitential life. In the end, it was her eminent practice of virtues, especially obedience, meekness and humility, that convinced the prioress that she did indeed have a Dominican vocation.
A LIFE OF MORTIFICATION
Every week Catherine would fast several days on bread and water. Some days would pass without her consuming any nourishment at all. She chastised her flesh with the discipline and sharp iron chains which she work next to her skin under the habit, and even about her neck. Despite these self-imposed penances, it was her humility that truly helped her advance upon the path of holiness. Catherine wanted to be completely unknown. She would be very uncomfortable anytime another person spoke well of her or tried to praise her virtue. Her prompt obedience in all matters, even the most displeasing, is what often earned her the admiration of fellow sisters. Her heroic virtue was such that she would vigorously resist all that was evil and every temptation as soon as it presented itself. She would not allow the devil even the tiniest fraction of advance in her soul. Yet it was her deep life of prayer that led her to the heights of sanctity and enthroned Christ as the absolute Sovereign over her mind and will. In one sublime prayer of love she would gain more merit than by a hundred exterior acts of penance and ardor. Her greatest joy came from her profound meditations and contemplations upon the Passion of Christ.
Our Lord appeared to her and espoused Himself to her with a ring as he had done with Catherine of Siena and Catherine of Alexandria. However, her beautiful ring would only become visible to others when she was deep in prayer. It appeared to them as a red square and a circlet around her ring finger, whereas Catherine saw it as golden band set with beautiful diamond. Christ also graced her with the stigmata and she would bleed spontaneously as if scourged. Not a day would pass that Catherine wouldn’t meditate intensely upon the suffering of Christ. She is perhaps best known for her famous “Ecstasy of the Passion.” She first suffered this during Lent in 1542, and from then on every Thursday from noon until Friday at 4 pm, for the last twelve years of her life! It was during these mystical ecstasies that Christ would share the most painful and intimate sufferings of His Passion with her. She lived through all the states of His Passion and was given to know and experience many of the sufferings of our Blessed Mother as well. After these ecstasies, the nuns would find her covered in wounds and she even bore an indentation on her should from the carrying of the Cross. After the first such ecstasy (some sources claim it occurred on 2 Feb 1452), she fell so ill that all thought she was at the point of death. Yet a vision of the Risen Lord speaking with St. Mary Magdalene revived her health. Truly it can be said of her that it was no longer she who lived, but Christ who lived in her.
While she was still quite young, Catherine was made mistress of novices. By the age of 25 she was made sub-prioress and five years later, when she was only 30, she was named perpetual prioress. Her reputation of extraordinary sanctity, prudence, and efficient administration drew many people, noblemen, princes, and ecclesiastics to seek her counsel. Cardinals and bishops frequently sought her advice. Her visitors included those men who would later become Pope Marcellus II, Pope Clement VIII, and Pope Leo XI. She also corresponded with St. Charles Borromeo and Pope St. Pius V.
THE COMMUNION OF SAINTS
St Catherine de Ricci and St. Philip Neri (the “Apostle of Rome”, whose heart had grown so large on account of his love for God that it broke two ribs in order to fit) developed a spiritual friendship through letters. Each desired to visit the other but they were unable to do so. Thus, God granted Catherine the grace of bilocation: while both saints were at prayer, God allowed Catherine in spirit to visit St. Philip Neri. The two held spiritual conversations that mutually enriched the other greatly. St. Philip testified to this miracle and Pope Gregory XV authenticated it in a bull.
God also allowed St. Catherine de Ricci to spiritually bi-locate in order to converse with St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, who lived in the enclosed Carmelite Monastery of St. Mary of the Angels in Florence. Like St. Mary Magdalene de Pazzi, Catherine de Ricci had a great devotion for the holy souls in Purgatory and suffered much penance for them. Once God gave her to know that a certain man was in Purgatory. So great was her charity for her neighbor that she begged God to allow her to suffer for him. She was stricken with the most intense pains of purgatorial fire for forty days which left her utterly incapacitated. Yet at the conclusion of these torments the soul was indeed released from Purgatory.
Many people came to see her and witnessed the miraculous wounds. Skeptics and hardened sinners were quickly converted, even just be the sight of her sufferings. The monastery received such a throng of pilgrims that all the nuns began to pray that their prioress’ wounds would cease to be visible!
DEATH AND VENERATION
After a very long and painful illness, Catherine died at her convent at the age of 67. As it had been her lifelong desire, she left this world and entered Heaven on the Feast of the Purification of Our Lady (2 Feb 1589). There were many difficulties and delays regarding her being raised to the altars of the Church – perhaps on account of her ardent longing to remain humble and unknown. Yet Pope Clement XII beatified her in 1732 and Pope Benedict XIV canonized her in 1746.
Her relics remain visible under the altar of the Minor Basilica of San Vincenzio in Prat next to the convent where she lived her life, now more commonly referred to by the locals as St. Catherine’s. Her feast is kept on February 13th and is still celebrated by the faithful Catholics of Prat. She serves as patroness for the sick.