Saint Bernardine of Siena
Bob and Penny Lord
“Apostle of Italy” - Friar Minor - Missionary - Reformer
Our love story with St. Bernardine or San Bernardino, as we have known and loved him, began a long time ago - about the time we got to know St. Catherine of Siena and the Miracle of the Eucharist of Siena. For, you see, right adjacent to the Basilica of St. Francis is the Oratory of St. Bernardine. Each time, we would go to visit the Miracle of the Eucharist of Siena, we would see the sign of the Oratory; but along with it, the dreaded sign - the Oratory was being restored! Finally, one day, the door was open! and so we went in and took pictures. You could see the restoration had not been completed, if even started. That was over twenty years ago. But God has patience with us, and here we are twenty-three books later writing about our dear St. Bernardine.
We have so many memories of this fabulous Saint. One time, when we went to visit our loves in Siena, the Eucharist and St. Catherine of Siena, we just happened to land in the midst of a Festa celebrating the Feast Days of Saints Bernardine and Catherine, co-patrons of Siena. With all the pageantry of medieval Siena, the flags of their sixteen regions, twirling and blowing in the wind, young men, dressed as knights and pages, processed in the streets, carrying relics of Siena’s and our two beloved Saints. It was an awesome sight - Church in all its pomp and glory giving praise and honor to Our Lord and His Mother, through the memory of these two faithful Saints, who colored the lives, and continue to color the lives of all who learn about them!
Siena is a land of contrasts - the holy and the worldly! It is truly a Renaissance city, echoing days past, you think at first glance. But then your eyes and hearts travel upward to the tops of buildings everywhere, and you see niches with the Blessed Mother and the Child Jesus on almost every government building, home, palace and etc., as well as a plaque of the Holy Name of Jesus. (But more on that later!)
As you drink it all in, the tiny elegant shops, the ancient churches nestled in between them, the cobble stone streets where our two Saints walked, you find yourself keeping pace with the proud of Siena as they stroll and take time to renew old acquaintances and acquire new ones. And before you know it, you are enveloped in the Siena of yesterday and you are lost in awe and wonder. Every time, we think of our returning to Italy, our hearts beat a little faster for part of our Pilgrimage will most certainly be in Siena.
September 8, 1380 - an Apostle of Italy is born
To share with you the life of this electrifying Saint, we need to go back to the Tuscany of the 15th Century, puffed up by its ancient Etruscan history, and its involvement in the birth of Renaissance. As we walk through the narrow streets and glance at the age old walls that still surround Siena, we find ourselves in the 15th Century, our souls soaring. This is where it all happened, where God would take the impossible and make it miraculous. Siena and the Sienese are a proud people - set aside by their antiquity and culture. Amongst all this grandeur and pride, how will we find one from this class, who will embrace the life of the Poverello!
Our Story begins on the 8th of September, 1380 in the village of Massa Marittima, one of Siena’s seventeen contrade, or districts, in the home of the governor, a descendant of the nobility of the Albizeschi. - Etruscan civilization dating back to 800 B.C - It is purported these were tribes from Lydia, an ancient country in Asia Minor. They invaded much of Italy and ruled Rome from 6th Century B.C. till about the 3rd. Century B.C. They had a loosely structured religion, with many deities. They would meet once a year at the Shrine of Voltumna, overlooking Lake Bolsena and discuss religion.
Into this opulent setting a new life will begin - Bernardino, future Friar, Missionary and Reformer. The joy of bringing a new life into the world will not last for this couple. Before their little boy would reach his seventh year on earth, his parents would go to the Father.
But God does not leave us orphans. Bernardino would have the loving care of his devout aunt and her equally holy daughter, who would provide him with the tools, which would turn him into a future Saint. Not only did they nurture him, as if he was their very own son, they gave him an invaluable religious education which would fare him well later on in life. He continued to grow into a fine youngster, when at around eleven years old, he was sent by his uncles to a school in Siena, to receive the education required of people of his class - that of civil and canon law. The boy excelled in his studies. Not only that, but he was charming and handsome, a joy to be around, always the life of the party, very like his predecessor, his future father in Faith - St. Francis. But although he was fun to be around, he could not bear to hear profanity or crude jokes. That is when his good humor would evaporate and he would most sharply protest, taking exception with those engaging in this vulgar behavior. One time, a member of the upper class thought it would be a good idea to lead the young pious Bernardino into a life of immorality and depravity. That earned him a good beating at the hands of Bernardino, who, when the culprit tried again, asked his friends to aid him in discharging mud and stones at the would be tempter. Except for those rare times, you would find Bernardino engaging and loving, calm and gracious.
He felt strongly about living a life worthy of His Mother Mary, of whom he had a great affection. At age seventeen, in 1397, having completed his studies, he enrolled in the Confraternity of Our Lady, which was connected to the Santa Maria della Scala Hospital. He spent the next three years, removed from the world, in quiet meditative contemplation, when, in 1400, a plague struck Siena, and he came out of his solitary life to aid the suffering masses. He not only tended their fever-racked bodies, he addressed their fears of dying. And when they succumbed to the fever, he prepared them for their final journey to the Father. Not only that, but with the aid of ten companions, he took upon himself the entire supervision of the hospital for the next four months. And this was at age twenty!
Needless to say, he was quite up to the task.
But a price had to be paid! Some of his companions were infected with the deadly fever and died. But God was not finished with Bernardine, yet. The unrelenting, night and day, care of the plague-stricken masses did not kill him, but so debilitated his health, he contracted a fever, and never quite regained his strength. But that did not stop him! He had many more years to serve his Lord and Lady, and he would not let weakness of body stop him from his appointed task.
After the plague was over, Bernardine returned home, only to find his favorite aunt blind and confined to her bed. He spent the next fourteen months compassionately caring for his aunt, as he had for the victims of the plague. This gentle soul spoke quietly to his aunt and one night, she gave up her spirit to the Lord, nestled in her nephew’s arms.
Time to begin
Now, with no longer any family responsibilities, Bernardine dedicated himself to prayer and fasting, seeking the Will of God in his life. Twenty-two years to the day, after he was born, on September 8th, 1402, having given always all his earthly goods -lands and possessions to the poor, Bernardine was vested in the habit of the Friars Minor in the Basilica of San Francesco in Siena. But too soon, Bernardine discovered there were too many distractions and influences from the community’s proximity to worldly Siena, family and friends. Consequently, he left for Columbaio, to the convent of Observants. This was more to his liking, as they were observing the true Rule of St. Francis.
Mother Mary always had Her eye on him, what with momentous stepping stones coming to pass on Her birthday. Bernardine was born on September 8th; he was baptized on September 8th; he entered the Friars Minor in Columbaio on September 8th, and here we are one year after joining the community, September 8th, 1403, and Bernardine is making his final profession. That no sooner done, one year later, again on the anniversary of his and Mother Mary’s birth, September 8th, 1404, he was ordained to the priesthood.
The church is still cared for by the Franciscans (only they are the Conventuals). The Miracle of the Eucharist is venerated there.
The success of the Observants is largely due to St. Bernardine, who would be their vicar-general for twelve years.
Here we are; it’s the year 1406 and we find our Bernardine in Alexandria in the Province of Piedmont, and he is listening to a very famous preacher - St. Vincent Ferrer, whose eloquence had been felt throughout Europe. Filled with the Holy Spirit, St. Vincent prophesied that one who was in the audience, attending his lectures, would inherit his mission, as he was returning to France and Spain. With this, in essence, St. Vincent was passing on to Bernardine the apostolate of evangelizing the people of Italy, he had not reached. All well and good, it would not be for twelve years before Bernardine would realize this gauntlet10 passed on to him by St. Vincent.
There is not much on those twelve years, but it appears Bernardine was living a solitary life, once more, only now in Capriola, located in Northern Italy
St. Vincent Ferrer was born in Valencia, Spain; but his preaching reached not only across Spain, but into France and to some degree Italy. He was a prophet, a healer, a preacher whose sermons resulted in countless conversions. Smack in the midst of the great schism, with pope after pope in Avignon claiming they were the true popes, not the one in Rome, he adopted the role as peace-maker who strove for unity within the Church
The bud opens, to expose a beautiful rose.
It was time for Bernardine to begin his mission as Apostle and Reformer; but how would God bring this about? We find our Saint now in a convent in Fiesole, Italy. For three nights, one after the other, after matins,11a novice is heard calling out, insistently, “Brother Bernardino! Hide no longer the gift that is in you. Go to Lombardy, for all are awaiting you there!” Admonished12for speaking out during prayer time, his superiors asked the novice why he had interrupted matins three nights in a row, with this outburst. Helplessly, he explained, “I couldn’t help it!” Taking this as a sign from God, his superiors sent forth Bernardine to begin the walk God had designed for him, from the very beginning. And he said Yes!
It was now 1417, and we find Bernardine in Milan, in a city not only unknown to him, but in a place that had never heard of him. But he obeyed that which he believed came from the Almighty and began to preach. He was so touchable, so compassionate, so very eloquent (but not beyond the average man and woman’s understanding). When they would reluctantly let him go, it was with the promise he would soon return. But his way would not be by the easy road. From all his preaching, he developed a hoarse throat, at times barely able to speak, and inaudible at best. But, every time it happened, he would pray to Our Lady, his ever present Mother, and he would regain his resonant voice, ready, strong, and able to preach to the multitudes anxiously awaiting his Good News.
Bernardine evangelized from the west of Italy to the east, from the north to the south, always true to the Word of God and the teachings of the Catholic Church. He journeyed by foot, preaching in tiny village after tiny village and grand city in between, sometimes for as much as three or four hours at a time. His way clear, he preached several sermons in a day, at times before audiences as large as 30,000. Pope Pius II, who, as a young man, had been part of the multitudes listening to Bernardine, later proclaimed “he was another St. Paul.” He received acclaim after acclaim. A famous biographer from Florence said of His sermons, “Bernardino cleansed all Italy from sins of every kind in which she abounded.”13
As the need arises, the Lord sends His messengers to proclaim His Word. Italy and the rest of Europe were in sorry straits, with morality and piety practically non-existent. And God sent Bernardine! His message clear, his reputation spread and penitents converged on him, lining up to have him hear their confessions. We have always said people are innately good, made in God’s Image. There is a hunger to return to God and His Love. Bernardine’s call to reform touched every walk of life. He not only influenced members of the Church; but lawmakers as well. Reforms of St. Benedict were included in their laws, under the title of Riformazioni di frate Bernardino.14
No one was excused from his preaching. He called for reform from the common man as well as from people in high places, in one instance, boldly calling to task the Duke of Milan. He brought about change! His message was so powerfully accepted, the people lit bon fires and cast their sins and worldly temptations upon them, as a firm resolve to live better, more holy lives. One of the scourges of the time was usury - the practice of exacting exorbitant interests, often resulting in the inability of the lender to pay, losing his home and all his worldly goods. To respond to this evil, Bernardine founded a society of beneficial loan societies called “Monti di Pieta.”15
Although he preached relentlessly on reform, Bernardine spoke with the gentle, compassionate Heart of Jesus and that of his father Francis. Peace was his primary focus, and toward that aim, he journeyed to the far corners of Italy reconciling warring factions like the Guelphs and Ghibellines. The Guelphs were members of a political party that supported the authority of the Pope against the aristocratic party of the Ghibellines. The Ghibellines, in contrast to the Guelphs, supported the German emperors in Italy, who, hell bent on stealing all the Papal lands from the Papacy, challenged the authority of the Pope. Where all modes of diplomacy and compromise failed, Bernardine with his preaching of Peace and Love succeeded, bringing about reconciliation among the two warring factions.
Bernardine carries the symbol of Jesus
As Bernardine traveled, so did the Holy Name of Jesus. Everywhere he went, he persuaded the dignitaries of the different cities to take down the emblems of the warring factions from their buildings - their churches and palaces - and instead place on them the Holy Name of Jesus. And till today, you can see the initials IHS - the Holy Name of Jesus on all the buildings in Siena and Florence, just to mention a few.
This symbol became his vanguard, as he paved the way for devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. His preaching on the Holy Name of Jesus was so potent and caught on so quickly, he was asked to speak in city after city. When he spoke, he held a plaque with the emblem of the Holy Name of Jesus on it, in front of him; and with the passion of He, Whom it represented, Bernardine moved the hearts of everyone in the audience to desire the emblem. Soon the emblem was clamored for, to place not only on the outside of buildings, churches and etc., but on homes.
Now, there was a craftsman, in Bologna, Italy, who painted playing cards. Bernardine’s sermons against gambling caused him to lose his primary income. He was furious! But his anger soon turned to joy, as Bernardine persuaded him to paint the emblems IHS16 on plaques. In place of his earlier pursuit of creating cards, that were instruments of temptation, he now was painting day after day, the emblem of the Holy Name of Jesus, consequently becoming an instrument, bringing the Lord’s presence into the midst of a worldliness that would blot Him out. These powerful signs of hope and love spread and spread. And then because God is so generous to those who honor Him, with the huge demand for the plaques, the craftsman soon recouped his original assets and then some.