You may not know this, but the origin of the term “professor” denotes more than simply a title or rank in an academic setting. It literally refers to someone who “professes” to be an expert in a particular subject or art. They are considered to be among the highest rankings of teachers and instructors, but they got there by being devoted students passionate about their own learning and study.
St. Catherine of Alexandria was just such a student, and has come to be regarded by Catholics as the patron saint of students. She may not have held a position at a university or been granted an advanced degree, but Catherine was a professor of the greatest message of all time: the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She devoted herself to studying her faith, and when the time came she boldly professed it at the cost of her own life.
11 Facts About St. Catherine of Alexandria
#1 Was St. Catherine a real person?
St. Catherine’s life is considered a legend by some scholars who claim that there is no proof that she actually lived. There are also no primary sources that attest to her existence, and the earliest surviving account originated 600 years after she was said to have lived.
Church tradition remains the primary source of evidence for her life. She was the subject of intense devotion throughout the Middle Ages, being popularized in the artwork of the time.
Whether or not she actually lived, her story remains an example to the faithful of the church.
#2 When did St. Catherine live?
Catherine was born to the Roman governor of the province of Alexandria in Egypt in the year 287. This was during the rule of Emperor Maximian.
#3 What was her life like before coming into the church?
She became very studious as a girl. During her studies, she claimed to have received a vision of Mary and Jesus, which promoted her to become a Christian.
#4 What was her public ministry like?
Her public ministry was very short but very prominent. When Maxentius, son of Maximian, began persecuting Christians, she traveled to Rome and rebuked the emperor in front of his tribunal. When challenged to a debate by the greatest scholars of the day, she defeated all of their arguments.
As a result of this debate, they all professed Christianity, and were subsequently executed for their supposed heresy.
#5 How did this debate impact her life?
After this debate, Catherine was imprisoned and tortured. However, after imprisonment and the sentence of death by starvation, she was said to have been ministered to by the angels, and she emerged from her cell at the end of her sentence with greater beauty than before.
The emperor, who had failed to defeat her by oratory and had not broken her spirit by torture, offered a marriage proposal as a way to silence her. She refused, having devoted her virginity to Christ.
#6 How did she die?
Maxentius sentenced her to death, but when her body touched the spiked breaking wheel that was to be the instrument of her death, it miraculously shattered. She was ultimately beheaded, at the young age of eighteen.
#7 How does someone become a saint?
After a person has died, their life is investigated by an official expert authorized by the Church. Their initial report is submitted to the bishop of their diocese and further investigation is performed. They may then submit the individual to the office of the Pope for recognition by the universal church. If this recognition is granted, they will have been venerated by the Church, and are given the title “Venerable.”
The next level involves further research, and if warranted the person is beatified and is given the new title “Blessed.”
The final level of investigation determines whether or not miracles were performed. Proof of at least two miracles performed by God through this person must be verified. Once this is proven, the Pope may canonize this person as a saint through a public proclamation.
#8 How was she initially honored as a saint?
In the sixth century, Emperor Justinian, an advocate of Christianity before the more direct control of the Pope, ordered that a monastery be established in her name; it remains one of the oldest monasteries in the world.
While the bodies of saints are typically revered and kept in sacred sites or cathedrals dedicated to them, the body of St. Catherine is believed to have been moved by angels to Mount Sinai.
#9 What was her impact on the developing church?
There is a strong lack of historical evidence for her life, and her story can also be confused with those of other saints. However, she became a powerful figure for belief throughout the early centuries of the church. She was recognized as one of the “virgin martyrs,” a specific group of saints who were killed as virgins because of their faith.
Supposedly, 400 years after her death, her body was discovered with hair still growing and a healing salve flowing from her body. Churches named after St. Catherine became the site of pilgrimages for believers. She gained a cult-like following in the Middle Ages, and it was said that Joan of Arc heard her voice in her well-publicized visions of heaven.
#10 How is she honored in the Catholic Church today?
Catherine remains a very popular name in the Catholic Church today, a testament to her impact over the centuries. Her feast day is November 25.
The symbol known as the “Catherine wheel” is another visual sign of her ministry and death. It symbolizes the breaking wheel which broke when she touched it, and also symbolizes the wheel itself as the instrument of torture upon which many martyrs gave their lives for the Gospel.
#11 Who benefits from St. Catherine’s patronage?
St. Catherine is the patron saint of many causes and locations that have claimed her intercession over the years. However, she is best known as the patron saint of students. Her own devotion to study and learning in her life make her an ideal candidate for this type of patronage.
However, she is also very well known as the patron saint of unmarried girls and apologists. Because she died as a virgin and refused a marriage to the pagan Emperor Maxentius, she is venerated as the patron saint of “maidens,” which refers to young women who are virgins. She also provided a powerful public defense of the Gospel, which is the chief work of apologists, so she is also the patron saint of apologists.
Over time, she also became honored as a heavenly intercessor for craftsmen who worked with wheels (due to her miraculous breaking of the wheel of torture that was to kill her), as well as others who work in education, like teachers and librarians. She has also been adopted by many villages in the Philippines.
St. Catherine may not have been a real person, but her legend remains a potent example to dedication to Christ even in the face of certain death. Her example remains a symbol for the Church and a story that can encourage us in times of trial.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.