Optional Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
St. Bernardine of Siena was the Billy Graham of his day. Graham was a well-known American evangelist who traveled ceaselessly from city to city preaching the good news of the Gospel over many decades. However, today’s saint was so much more than just a roving evangelist. He was first and foremost vowed to poverty, chastity, and obedience as a Franciscan Friar. St. Bernardine was also ordained into the one Priesthood of Jesus Christ by a successor of the Apostles. And he had received a long and complete theological and humanistic education before he ever opened his mouth in front of a crowd. He was even a doctor of canon law.
Fifteenth century Italy was hot with reform of the Church. Ever since 1417 and the end of the Great Schism (an era of two and even three competing popes), the need for Church reform was on the lips of anyone who believed enough to care. Unfortunately, every effort to compel a bishop to live in his diocese, to head only one diocese, to form better educated, holier priests, to purify indulgence selling, Church courts, the appointment of bishops, commerce in relics, and so on and so forth, was ignored or resisted. The roots of some weeds are tangled and ferocious. They cannot be pulled from the ground. The 1400s were a lost century for Church reform. The Popes tightened their grip on Church power so that no Council would ever pry their fingers from it. The needed reforms would have to wait until the immensely successful Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century. But it was too late by then. Fr. Martin Luther and others were tired of waiting. The Reformation began in 1517, one hundred years after the Great Schism ended. Vast populations of northern Europe were cleaved from the true Faith.
St. Bernardine of Siena was one of the many bright lights of fifteenth century Italy who did everything in his power to create a holier Church through his preaching and witness. He was such a thoroughly compelling and entertaining speaker that enormous crowds turned out to hear him mostly first thing in the morning. He encouraged devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus and often held the IHS monogram in his hand when preaching. This devotion was later to be incorporated into the universal calendar of the Church. He exhorted his congregations to melt their mirrors, playing cards, perfumes, dice, wigs, and other distractions in a “Bonfire of the Vanities” roaring near his pulpit.
In the Franciscan tradition, he walked everywhere. No horse or mule or carriage for the journey. He excoriated usury, superstition, and the deplorable scourge of homosexual acts, in the starkest terms. Compared to the modern penchant for market research, polling, and tailoring a message to audience expectations, St. Bernardine was fearless. He spoke the unvarnished truths of his religion to the adherents of the same. Preaching, he understood, was an essential charism of the Priesthood of Christ, not an add-on. St.Bernardine also published, far ahead of his time, works on entrepreneurship, business practices, a just wage, and the determining of just values for a product or service. St. Bernardine was a sophisticated thinker with a common touch.
The fact that St. Bernardine lived almost to the dawn of the age of the printed book meant that many of his sermons and works were accurately preserved. It also meant that images of his likeness were uniform and accurate. A famous painting by El Greco shows the emaciated friar standing, not at rest. He is in a worn franciscan habit, with the three knots showing on his white cincture, representing poverty, chastity, and obedience. His right hand holds a standard bearing the monogram of the name of Jesus —IHS. In his left hand is a book, perhaps the Bible. He is educated. And at his feet are three bishops’ miters, resting on the ground. St. Bernardine was three times offered to be made a bishop by the Holy See. And three times he said “No.” In addition to all of his considerable virtues, our saint possessed the queen of the virtues as well—humility. No bishopric for him. St. Bernardine was canonized in 1450, six years after he died, after numerous miracles were attributed to his intercession.
St. Bernardine of Siena, inspire all preachers to not count the personal cost of stating uncomfortable truths, but instead to suffer the repercussions of honest talk and to buttress their clear words with an impeccable life of prayer, fasting, devotion, and virtue, just as you did.
From Butler’s Lives of the Saints:
IN 1408 St. Vincent Ferrer once suddenly interrupted his sermon to declare that there was among his hearers a young Franciscan who would be one day a greater preacher than himself, and would be set before him in honor by the Church. This unknown friar was Bernardine. Of noble birth, he had spent his youth in works of mercy, and had then entered religion. Owing to a defective utterance, his success as a preacher at first seemed doubtful, but, by the prayers of Our Lady, this obstacle was miraculously removed, and Bernardine began an apostolate which lasted thirty-eight years. By his burning words and by the power of the Holy Name of Jesus, which he displayed on a tablet at the end of his sermons, he obtained miraculous conversions, and reformed the greater part of Italy. But this success had to be exalted by the cross. The Saint was denounced as a heretic and his devotion as idolatrous. After many trials he lived to see his innocence proved, and a lasting memorial of his work established in a church. The Feast of the Holy Name commemorates at once his sufferings and his triumph. He died on Ascension Eve, 1444, while his brethren were chanting the antiphon, “Father, I have manifested Thy Name to men.” St. Bernardine, when a youth, undertook the charge of a holy old woman, a relation of his, who had been left destitute. She was blind and bedridden, and during her long illness could only utter the Holy Name. The Saint watched over her till she died, and thus learned the devotion of his life.
Reflection.—Let us learn from the life of St. Bernardine the power of the Holy Name in life and death.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.