Saint of the Day – 28 September – Blessed Bernardine of Feltre OFM (1439-1494) Priest, Franciscan Friar, Missionary Preacher, Poet, peace-maker, Civil protestor against the practice of usury, defender of the poor. He was a true ‘child prodigy’ – by the time he was 12 he was fluent in Latin and at the age of 15 he composed a poem and read it in the Town Square to celebrate a local peace treaty. He is remembered most especially, in connection with the “Monti di Pietà” “Mount of Piety” of which he was the reorganiser and, in a certain sense, the Founder, together with the Blessed Michele Carcano. Born as Martin Tomitani in 1439 at Feltre, Italy and died on 28 September 1494 of natural causes. Patronages – bankers, pawnbrokers. He is also sometimes known as Bernardino of Feltre or Martin Tomitani.
A “Mount of Piety” is an institutional pawnbroker run as a charity in Europe from Renaissance times until today. Similar institutions were established in the colonies of Catholic countries; the Mexican Nacional Monte de Piedad is still in operation. It gave poor people access to loans with reasonable interest rates. It used funds from charitable donors as capital and made loans to the poor so they could avoid going to exploitative lenders. Borrowers offered valuables as collateral, making the Mount of Piety more like a pawn shop than a bank. The Monte di Pietà was developed on the principle of charity. It was designed to aid less fortunate people by providing an alternative to the socially unaccepted Jewish money lending system.
Martin Tomitani was born to the noble family of Tomitano and was the eldest of nine children. He achieved acclaim in his studies and to please his father he proceeded to study law. In 1456, while a law student in Padua, he heard St James of the Marches preach the Lenten course and was inspired to enter the Franciscan order. St James of the Marches himself, gave him the name Bernardine, after St Bernardine of Siena.
In May that year he joined the “Observantine” Franciscans, an austere branch of the Franciscan friars. He completed successfully his studies at Mantua and was Ordained Priest in 1463. He was small, shy and stammered but his superiors assigned him to preach home-missions. Cured of an impediment in his speech, Bernardine began his apostolate up and down the Italian peninsula. Every city of note and every province from Lombardy in the north to Sardinia and the provinces of the south became successively the scene of his missionary labours.
He was an extremely popular preacher because he spoke simply and powerfully against the vanity, ambition and greed rife at the time. The crowds that flocked to hear him were too large for the local churches, so he addressed them in the city squares and the fields. Like many other missionaries of his century, he had made a vast outdoor bonfire called “burning the Devil’s stronghold.” The crowds were asked to throw into the fire all objects of vanity and sin such as playing cards, dice, pornographic books and pictures, jewelry, wigs, superstitious charms, cosmetics and so forth.
Bernardine was able to reconcile warring communities. He also sought civic legislation to correct public injustices such as usury, the charging of excessive interest for loans, which was especially onerous on the poor.
In 1484, Bernardine established the charitable credit organisation, “Monti di Pietà” “Mount of Piety,” run by a joint committee of clergy and laymen. The institution was founded as an alternative to the high interest loans of the money lenders and Lombard travelling bankers of the Middle Ages.
His fund raising drives were generally preceded with a procession featuring an image of either the Man of Sorrows or Pietà to encourage charitable donations. His insistence on charging a low interest to protect the institution’s permanency raised a controversy among the theologians who thought it promoted the continuance of usury. (In 1515, Pope Leo X declared the institution meritorious and it spread rapidly throughout France, Italy and Spain.)
In 1491, Bernardine was expelled from Milan by Ludovico Sforza for contesting with the Duke’s astrologer.
Bernardine is generally represented in iconography as carrying in his hand a Monti di Pietà, that is, a little green hill composed of three mounds and on the top either a cross or a standard with the inscription Curam illius habe ‘Take care of’ (a snippet from the Vulgate translation of the Gospel of Luke’s Parable of the Good Samaritan).
The authorship of the well-known Anima Christi has as often as not been ascribed to Bernardine of Feltre. The fact, however, that the Anima Christi was composed sometime before 1439 disproves any claim that he might have of being its author, though much like St Ignatius of Loyola, Bernardine made frequent use of it and recommended it to his brethren.
On 13 April 1654, Pope Innocent X confirmed the culktus of Blessed Bernardine and he was formally Beatified in 1728 by Pope Benedict XIII.