The Mystic Maid of Prato
As is so often the case, Alessandra's piety and obvious devotion disturbed and annoyed her parents, but she persevered and the Lord appeared to her with Our Lady and virgin saints to encourage her and bless her. At the age of twelve she entered the sisters' convent of St Vincent at Prato and was clothed in the white habit of St Dominic in 1535 and given the religious name Catherine in honour of St Catherine of Siena, for whom she had great love and admiration.
Upon entry into religious life, the Lord kept her grounded in humility. It seems that He kept her in continual conversation with Himself so that she was completely abstracted from earthly matters. Hence, she persistently failed in the outward observances of the Rule and appeared unable to attend to her manual labours or chant in the Office! The community despaired of this novice and yet the saint persisted in humility, bearing the rebukes of the community. When it became clear that the community wanted to send her away from the convent, St Catherine stormed heaven with her prayers and engaged in penances which enabled the community to allow her to make Profession!
St Catherine had a great devotion to Fra' Girolamo Savonarola, the prophetic Dominican friar who had stirred such controversy in Florence only years earlier. However, it seems that he appeared to her in visions and healed her of illness and under his inspiration she promoted the regular life of the convent.
Burning with love for the Holy Spirit and incessantly seeking the glory of God, in 1541, her fervent prayers were answered and she was given a new heart, fashioned after the Immaculate Heart of Mary. From then on, an ethereal mystical quality surrounded her and she experienced a 'mystical espousal' to Christ and then received the stigmata and finally she experienced weekly ecstasies of the Passion, at which she was mystically present. These phenomena continued for twelve years and came under investigation by the Order and the Holy See. The commission which investigated her declared that the "extraordinary graces of which they themselves had just been witnesses constituted a most striking demonstration of the truth of the Catholic faith."
She twice served the as prioress, governing the community with exemplary prudence and kindness. However, she did have the most unusual counsellors; she received visits from Our Lady, St Dominic, St Vincent Ferrer and St Thomas Aquinas and other saints who would counsel her on matters of importance. She was also filled with a zeal for souls and she wrote letters and prayed for many. Among her letters which remain are those to St Philip Neri, St Charles Borromeo and St Mary Magdalen de' Pazzi. In this regard she mirrored St Catherine of Siena and also in the fact that many influential people began to call upon her for advice and to seek her prayers.
Her spirituality was typically Dominican, balancing her contemplation and mystical experiences with her passion for souls and an active letter-writing apostolate. Heresy and violence were a source of deep concern to her and she offered her sufferings in expiation for these sins; an expression of her love for humanity. At the same time, she had a deep love for Jesus in the Eucharist and His Passion. Next in her heart was Our Blessed Mother and then her ardent love for the souls in Purgatory, for whom she prayed ceaselessly.
St Catherine de' Ricci died in Prato on 2 February 1590 and she was canonized by Pope Benedict IX on 29 June 1746.
This holy virgin's deep love for God and neighbour and her contemplation of the Passion of Christ is an example we can aspire to imitate in some way. She truly bore in her own flesh the sufferings of Christ and, like her Master, she offered her sufferings for the salvation of souls as an expiation for their sins. Thus we can sing of her in the Magnificat antiphon: "The wise virgin, Catherine, sharing in the sufferings of Christ, trimmed her lamp; when the Lord came, she went in with him to the marriage feast." By her prayers and God's grace, may we too join her there one day!