Saint Bernardine of Siena, Confessor

May 20

Today is the feast day of Saint Bernardine.  Ora pro nobis.

By Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876

St. Bernardin, of whom the Roman Martyrology says that he was a light to all Italy, by his teachings and his holy example, was born at Massa, in the republic of Sienna, in the year 1380. He became an orphan early in life and a pious aunt took charge of him and educated him in the fear of the Lord. His only pleasure in boyhood consisted in praying, studying and going to Church. He used to repeat to other boys the sermons that he had heard with so much ability that he even astonished older people. All his words and actions evinced great inclination to retirement and a truly angelic purity. No indecent word was ever heard to pass his lips, and he was so well known for his modesty, that when his school-mates conversed in too unrestrained a manner and only saw Bernardin far off, they immediately interrupted their conversation, saying: “Hush hush! Bernardin is coming.” A grown man, who was not ashamed to speak indecently, he slapped in the face. Against another, who persisted in indecent discourse, he assembled all his young companions and pelted him with dirt until he was obliged to flee from the town. Diana, his aunt, had a very pious daughter, named Tobia, whom Bernardin sometimes visited in order to receive religious instructions. One day, he told her he had fallen deeply in love with a most beautiful virgin, and that he had no peace day or night, unless he had paid her a daily visit. The pious Tobia, not a little shocked at this speech, said nothing, but followed him when he left the house, to ascertain who this virgin was, and where she lived. She soon saw, to her great comfort, that it was no other than the Virgin Mother, of whom an exceedingly beautiful image stood on one of the city gates. To her Bernardin went daily to say his prayers on bended knees. He confessed also, later, to Tobia, that it was she, the Blessed Virgin, to whom he was thus devoted and whom he daily requested to guard him from all danger and keep him spotless and pure. To this end he also fasted every Saturday and did other good works.

When he had reached his twentieth year, he nursed, during four months, in the hospital, persons who were infected with a frightful pestilence, and also persuaded others fearlessly to follow his example. Two years later, he distributed his fortune among the poor, and entered the Seraphic order of St. Francis, to which he was called in a vision. Two years after he had taken the vows, his superior appointed him preacher, which duty he discharged almost to his death. He generally preached daily, sometimes oftener, and always with such zeal and fervor that he was called the Apostle of Italy. Everywhere the people desired to hear him, and he had to go from one town to another. The number of those who came to listen to his sermons was often so large, the churches could not contain them, and he had to preach in the open air. He spoke fearlessly and with great success against public abuses and vices. In a certain town he represented so energetically the evils which arose from the use of dice and immoderate card-playing, that no one could be found in the whole city who would touch either dice or cards. A tradesman, who had earned his living by making such articles, complained to the Saint that he had thus lost his livelihood. Bernardin, admonishing him to trust in God, advised him to paint, or represent in some other manner, the holy Name of Jesus and put it up for sale as the Saint, in many of his sermons recommended, his hearers to honor and invoke this holy Name, which he himself always carried with him upon a tablet. The tradesman followed the advice, and afterwards said that he had gained more by it than formerly by his dice and cards. Besides his sermons, St. Bernardin did much good in the cloisters. He restored among their occupants the first rules of the Seraphic founder and wonderfully increased the number of the members.

To relate all the virtues of this Saint would fill volumes. Among them shone most brilliantly, his humility, his patience and purity. Three important bishoprics were offered to him: one of them even by the Pope: he, however, firmly refused these dignities, saying, that he believed he could do more good by preaching. More than once he was accused of heresy to the authorities and even to the Pope. Those, whose vices he attacked in his sermons, slandered and persecuted him most violently, but without being able to disturb him or make him impatient. He refuted the false accusations and left the rest to God. The first time he walked in the streets of Sienna with his beggar’s bag, some boys ran after him and his companion, deriding them and pelting them with mud and stones. His companion began to murmur, but the Saint said: “Brother, let the children enjoy themselves; they assist us thus in earning by patience the kingdom of God.” When he was gathering alms at Sienna, a noble lady called him into her house. The Saint, of course, supposed that she [would bestow upon him a rich alms, but was soon convinced that he had been mistaken. The impudent woman dared to make shameless advances to the chaste man, threatening him that in case he refused to comply with her wishes, she would call loudly for help and say that he wished to do violence to her. Bernardin became pale with fear, and not knowing how to-escape the danger, he raised his eyes to heaven and begged for help. Suddenly he drew out a sharp scourge, which he carried with him and applied it so well upon the indecently clothed woman, that she quickly changed her mind. In this manner he saved his purity.

We pass in silence many other examples of his virtues, as obedience, mortification, love of God and his neighbor, fervor in prayers, and devotion to the Virgin Mother. We will only say a few words of his happy end. He was on his way to Naples, where he was going to preach. Not far from the town of Aquila, a serious illness seized him. St. Celestine, the Guardian Saint of the town, appeared to him and informed him that his last hour was approaching. Bernardin was rejoiced at this message, and after having received the Holy Sacraments with great devotion, he requested to be laid on the floor which was strewn with ashes. Raising his eyes to heaven, with a cheerful countenance, he gave his soul into the hands of Him whom he had so constantly served upon earth, and whom he had so zealously endeavored to make known. He was canonized six years after his death, on account of the many miracles which God wrought by his intercession. (1)

Saint Bernardine

By Dom Prosper Gueranger 1870

In that Season of the Liturgical Year, when we were loving and praying around the Crib of the Infant Jesus, one of its days was devoted to our celebrating the glory and sweetness of his Name. Holy Church was full of joy in pronouncing the dear Name chosen, from all eternity, by her heavenly Spouse; and mankind found consolation in the thought, that the great God, Who might so justly have bid us call him the Just and the Avenger, willed us henceforth to call him the Saviour. The devout Bernardine of Sienna, whose feast we keep today, stood then before us, holding in his hands this ever blessed Name, surrounded with rays. He urged the whole earth to venerate, with love and confidence, the sacred Name which expresses the whole economy of our salvation. The Church, ever attentive to what is for the good of her Children, adopted the beautiful device. She encouraged them to receive it from the Saint, as a shield that would protect them against the darts of the evil spirit, and as an additional means for reminding us of the exceeding charity wherewith God has loved this world of ours. And finally, when the loveliness of the Holy Name of Jesus had won all Christian hearts, she instituted, in its honour, one of the most beautiful solemnities of Christmas tide.

Bernardine, the worthy son of St. Francis of Assisi, returns to us on this twentieth day of May, and the sweet flower of the Holy Name is, of course, in his hand. But it is not now the prophetic appellation of the new-born Babe; it is not the endearing Name, respectfully and lovingly whispered by the Virgin Mother over the Crib; it is the Name, whose sound has gone through the whole creation, it is the trophy of the grandest of victories, it is the fulfillment of all that was prophesied. The Name of Jesus was a promise to mankind of a Saviour; Jesus has saved mankind, by dying and rising again; he is now Jesus in the full sense of the word. Go where you will, and you hear this Name, the Name that has united men into the one great family of the Church.

The chief priests of the Synagogue strove to stifle the Name of Jesus, for it was even then winning men’s hearts. They forbade the Apostles to teach in this Name; and it was on this occasion that Peter uttered the words, which embody the whole energy of the Church: We ought to obey God, rather than men (Acts. v. 28, 29). The Synagogue might as well have tried to stay the course of the sun. So too, when the mighty power of the Roman Empire set itself against the triumphant progress of this Name, and would annul the decree that every knee should bow at its sound (Philip. ii. 10), there was not merely a failure, but, at the end of three centuries, the Name of Jesus was heard and loved in every city and hamlet of the Empire.

Armed with this sacred motto, Bernardine traversed the towns of Italy, which, at that period, (the 15th century,) were at enmity with each other, and, not unfrequently, were torn with domestic strifes. The Name of Jesus, which he carried in his hand, became as a rainbow of reconciliation; and wheresoever he set it up, there every knee bowed down, every vindictive heart was appeased, and sinners hastened to the sacrament of pardon. The three letters (I H S), which represent this Name, became familiar to the Faithful; they were everywhere to be seen, carved, or engraven, or painted; and the Catholic world thus gained a new form, whereby to express its adoration and love of its Saviour.

Bernardine was a preacher, whose eloquence was of heaven’s inspiring. He was also a distinguished master in the science of sacred things, as is proved by the writings he has left us. We regret not being able, from want of space, to give our readers his words on the greatness of the Paschal mystery; but we cannot withhold from them what he says regarding Jesus’ appearing to his Blessed Mother, after the Resurrection. They will be rejoiced at finding unity of doctrine, on this interesting subject, existing between the Franciscan School, represented by St. Bernardin, and the School of St. Dominic, whose testimony we have already given, on the Feast of St. Vincent Ferrer.

From the fact of there being no mention made in the Gospel of the visit wherewith Christ consoled His Mother, after His Resurrection, we are not to conclude, that this most merciful Jesus, the source of all grace and consolation, who was so anxious to gladden His Disciples by His presence, forgot His Mother, who He knew had drunk, so deeply of the bitterness of His Passion. But it has pleased divine Providence that the Gospel should be silent on this subject; and this for three reasons.

In the first place, because of the firmness of Mary’s Faith. The confidence which the Virgin Mother had of her Son’s rising again, had never faltered, not even by the slightest doubt. This we can readily believe, if we reflect on the special grace wherewith she was filled, she the Mother of the Man-God, the Queen of Angels, and the Mistress of the world.

To a truly enlightened mind, the silence of the Scripture, on this subject, says more than any affirmation could have done. We have learned to know something of Mary by the visit she received from the Angel, when the Holy Ghost overshadowed her. We met her again at the foot of the Cross, where she, the Mother of Sorrows, stood nigh her dying Son. If then the Apostle could say: As ye are partakers of the sufferings, so shall ye be also of the consolation (II. Cor. i. 7); what share must not the Virgin-Mother have had in the joys of the Resurrection? We should hold it as a certain truth, that her most sweet Jesus, after His Resurrection, consoled her first of all. The holy Roman Church would seem to express this, by celebrating at Saint Mary Major’s the Station of Easter Sunday. Moreover, if, from the silence of the Evangelists, you would conclude that our Risen Lord did not appear to her first, you must go farther, and say that He did not appear to her at all, inasmuch as these same Evangelists, when relating the several apparitions, do not mention a single one as made to her. Now, such a conclusion as this would savour of impiety.

In the second place, the silence of the Gospel is explained by the incredulity of men. The object of the Holy Spirit, when dictating the Gospels, was to describe such Apparations as would remove all doubt, from carnal-minded men, with regard to the Resurrection of Christ. The fact of Mary’s being His Mother would have weakened her testimony, at least in their eyes. For this reason, she was not brought forward as a witness, though, most assuredly, there never was or will be any creature, (the humanity of her Son alone excepted,) whose assertion better deserved the confidence of every truly pious soul. But the text of the Gospel was not to adduce any testimonies, save such as might be offered to the whole world. As to Jesus’ Apparition to his Mother, the Holy Ghost has left it to be believed by those that are enlightened by His light.

In the third place, this silence is explained by the sublime nature of the Apparition itself. The Gospel says nothing regarding the Mother of Christ, after the Resurrection; and the reason is, that her interviews with her Son were so sublime and ineffable, that no words could have described them. There are two sorts of visions: one is merely corporal, and feeble in proportion; the other is mainly in the soul, and is granted only to such as have been transformed. Say, if you will, that Magdalene was the first to have the merely corporal vision, provided that you admit that the Blessed Virgin saw, previously to Magdalene, and in a far sublimer way, her Risen Jesus, that she recognized Him, and enjoyed His sweet embraces in her soul, more even than in her body (Sermo. lii. Dominica in Resurrectione, art. iii).

Let us now read the Life of our Saint, as given, though too briefly,
in the Lessons of today’s Office.

Bernardine Albizeschi, whose parents were of a noble family of Sienna, gave evident marks of sanctity from his earliest years. He was well brought up by his pious parents. When studying the first rudiments of grammar, he despised the favourite pastimes of children, and applied himself to works of piety, especially fasting, prayer, and devotion to the Blessed Virgin.

His charity to the poor was extraordinary. In order the better to practice these virtues, he, later on, entered the Confraternity, which gave to the Church so many saintly men, and was attached to the hospital of our Lady of Scala, in Sienna. It was there that, whilst leading a most mortified life himself, he, with incredible charity, took care of the sick, during the time when a terrible pestilence was raging in the city. Amongst his other virtues, he was preeminent for chastity, although he had many dangers to encounter, owing to the beauty of his person. Such was the respect he inspired, that no one, however lost to shame, ever dared to say an improper word in his presence.

After a serious illness of four months, which he bore with the greatest patience, he began to think of entering the religious life. As a preparation for such a step, he hired, in the farthest outskirts of the city, a little hut, in which he hid himself, leading a most austere life, and assiduously beseeching God to make known to him the path he was to follow. A divine inspiration led him to prefer to all other Orders, that of St. Francis.

Accordingly, he entered, and soon began to excel in humility, patience, and the other virtues of a Religious man. The Guardian of the Convent perceiving this, and having previously known that Bernardine was well versed in the sacred sciences, he imposed the duty of preaching upon him. The Saint most humbly accepted the office, though he was aware that the weakness and hoarseness of his voice unfitted him for it: but he sought God’s help, and was miraculously freed from these impediments.

Italy was, at that time, overrun with vice and crime; and, in consequence of deadly factions, all laws, both divine and human, were disregarded. It was then that Bernardine went through the towns and villages, preaching the Name of Jesus, which was ever on his lips and heart. Such was the effect of his words and example, that piety and morals were, in great measure, restored. Several important cities, that had witnessed his zeal, petitioned the Pope to allow them to have Bernardine for their Bishop; but the Saint’s humility was not to be overcome, and he rejected every offer. At length, after going through countless labours in God’s service, after many and great miracles, after writing several pious and learned books, he died a happy death, at the age of sixty-six, in a town of the Abruzzi, called Aquila. New miracles were daily being wrought through his intercession; and, at length, in the sixth year after his death, he was canonized by Pope Nicholas V. (1,3)

St. Bernardine is accounted the foremost Italian missionary of the fifteenth century, the greatest preacher of his day, the Apostle of the Holy Name, and the restorer of the Order of Friars Minor. He remains one of the most popular of Italian saints, more especially in his own Siena. With both painters and sculptors he has ever been a favourite figure. He frequently finds a place in della Robbia groups; perhaps the best series of pictures of his life is that by Pinturicchio at Ara Coeli in Rome, while the carved reliefs on the facade of the Oratory of Perugia, built in 1461 by the magistrates of that faction-rent city in gratitude for Bernardine’s efforts for peace among them, are considered one of the loveliest productions of Renaissance art. But the best portrait of Bernardine is to be found in his own sermons and this is especially true of those in the vernacular. That we are able to enter so thoroughly into the spirit of these Prediche volgari is due to the pious industry of one Benedetto, a Sienese fuller, who took down word for word, with a style on wax tablets, a complete course of Bernardine’s Lenten sermons delivered in 1427, and afterwards transcribed them on parchment. Benedetto’s original manuscript is lost, but several very ancient copies of it are extant. All the forty-five sermons it comprises have been printed (Le Prediche Volgari Di Siena, 1880-88, 3 vols.).

These sermons which often lasted three or four hours, throw much light on the fifteenth-century preaching and on the customs and manners of the time. Couched in the simplest and most popular language — for Bernardine everywhere adapted himself to the local dialect and parlance — they abound in illustrations, anecdotes, digressions, and asides. The saint often resorted to mimicry and was much given to making jokes. But his native Sienese gayety and characteristic Franciscan playfulness detracted nothing from the effect of his sermons, and his exhortations to the people to avert God’s wrath by penance, are as powerful as his appeals for peace and charity are pathetic. Very different from these popular Italian sermons taken down della viva voce are the series of Latin sermons written by Bernardine, which are in fact formal dissertations with minute divisions and subdivisions, intended to elucidate his teaching and to serve rather as a guide to himself and others than for practical delivery. Besides these Latin sermons which reveal profound theological knowledge, Bernardine left a number of other writings which enjoy a high reputation — dissertations, essays, and letters on practical, ascetical, and mystical theology, and on religious discipline, including treatises on the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, used in the Breviary lessons, and a commentary on the Apocalypse. Bernardine’s writings were first collected and published at Lyons in 1501. De la Haye’s edition, “Sti. Bernardini Senensis Ordinis Seraphici Minorum Opera Omnia”, issued at Paris and Lyons in 1536, was reprinted there in 1650, and at Venice in 1745. As a result of the petition addressed to the Holy See in 1882 by the General Chapter of the Friars Minor, requesting that St. Bernardine be declared a Doctor of the Church, a careful inquiry was instituted as to the authenticity of the works attributed to the saint. Some of these are certainly spurious and others are doubtful or interpolated, while not all the saint’s genuine works are contained in the editions we possess. A complete and critical edition of St. Bernardine’s writings is much needed. An excellent selection from his ascetical works was recently issued by Cardinal Vives (Sti. Bernardini Senensis de Dominicâ Passione, Resurrectione et SS. Nomine Jesu Contemplationes, Rome, 1903). (6)

Image:  Statue of Saint Bernardino of Siena in the Capella del Voto; Duomo; Siena, Italy (10)



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