The Fast of St. Catherine of Siena
The fast of St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1 380) has been recorded for us by none other than one of her confessors, BI. Raymond of Capua. In his biography of St. Catherine he informs us that following a vision of Our Lord, food was no longer necessary to the saint. BI. Raymond writes: “When she was obliged to take food, she was so incommoded that it would not remain in the stomach and it would be quite impossible to describe her grievous pains on such occasions.” At the start of her fast, the confessor who served her at the time commanded her to take food daily, but after a time the saint asked him: “If therefore you see, by the numerous experiments of which you have been witness, that I am killing myself by taking nourishment, why do you not forbid me, as you would forbid me to fast, if the fast produced a similar result?”
BI. Raymond tells us that the confessor had nothing to reply to this reasoning and said to her, “Henceforth act according to the inspirations of the Holy Ghost, for I perceive that God is accomplishing marvellous things in you.” Sometime later, when her confessor inquired whether she did not at least experience an appetite, the saint replied, “God satisfies me so in the Holy Eucharist that it is impossible for me to desire any species of corporal nourishment.” On asking if she did not at least experience hunger on the days on which she did not communicate, the saint answered, “His sole presence satiates me, and I acknowledge that to be happy, it even suffices for me to see a priest who has just said Mass.”
When St. Catherine’s fast becoming well-known many criticised her, and even religious persons were opposed to her. Some attributed the fast to “. . . a kind of vanity, that she did not fast really, but fed herself well in secret.” Others said she wished to be noticed and that she was being deceived by the devil. Bl. Raymond writes: “Catherine was willing to appease their murmurs, and determined that every day she would go once and take a seat at the common table and endeavour to eat. Although she used neither meat, nor wine, nor drink, nor eggs, and did not even touch bread. what she took, or rather, what she tried to take, caused her such sufferings that those that saw her, however hard-hearted they were, were moved to compassion; her stomach could digest nothing, and rejected whatever was taken into it; she afterwards suffered the most terrible pains and her whole body appeared to be swollen; she did not swallow the herbs which she chewed, she only drew from them their juice and rejected their substance. She then took pure water to cool her mouth, but every day she was forced to throw up what she had taken, and that with so much difficulty that it was necessary to assist her by every possible means. To this BI. Raymond adds, “As I was frequently witness of this suffering, I felt an extreme compassion for her, and I counselled her to let men talk, and spare herself such torture . .”
“For the seven year period prior to her death, Saint Catherine of Siena took no food into her body other than the Eucharist. Her fasting did not affect her energy, however. She maintained a very active life during those seven years. As a matter of fact, most of her great accomplishments occurred during that period. Her death had nothing to do with malnutrition or anything connected with lack of food.”
Not only did her fasting not cause her to lose energy, but became a source of extraordinary strength, she became stronger in the afternoon, after having received our Lord in His Eucharist. One of the only sufferings she found almost intolerable, was to be denied Her Lord in the Eucharist. Neither the Priests at the Basilica of Saint Dominic nor Catherine’s Superior in the Mantellate approved of her receiving the Eucharist daily. They tried to discourage Catherine, unsuccessfully. The Priests flatly refused, insisting she receive solely from her Confessor; it didn’t matter if he was out of town. At that time, Catherine would seek comfort looking at the Priest during the Mass. After all, through his consecrated hands, he was bringing her Lord to her on the altar where she could adore Him, even if she could not receive Him. Catherine endured the worst anguish over this until Raymond came to Siena and she was able to receive Communion daily. When he was in town, he would only have to hear her plea, “Father, I hunger,” and if at all possible, he would celebrate Holy Mass.
Pope Gregory XI, who Catherine convinced to return to Rome from Avignon, later decreed a papal bull allowing her to receive daily, her Lord in His “Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity”16, the Eucharist.