Thought for the Day – 20 May – Monday of the fifth Week of Easter, C and the Memorial of St Bernadine of Siena OFM (1380-1444)
Most of the saints suffer great personal opposition, even persecution. Bernardine, by contrast, seems more like a human dynamo who simply took on the needs of the world.
He was the greatest preacher of his time, journeying across Italy, calming strife-torn cities, attacking the paganism he found rampant, attracting crowds of 30,000, following St Francis of Assisi’s admonition to preach about “vice and virtue, punishment and glory.”
Compared with Saint Paul by the pope, Bernardine had a keen intuition of the needs of the time, along with solid holiness and boundless energy and joy. He accomplished all this despite having a very weak and hoarse voice, miraculously improved later because of his devotion to Mary.
When he was 20, the plague was at its height in his hometown of Siena. Sometimes as many as 20 people died in one day at the hospital. Bernardine offered to run the hospital and, with the help of other young men, nursed patients there for four months. He escaped the plague but was so exhausted that a fever confined him for several months. He spent another year caring for a beloved aunt whose parents had died when he was a child and at her death began to fast and pray to know God’s will for him.
At 22, he entered the Franciscan Order and was ordained two years later. For almost a dozen years he lived in solitude and prayer but his gifts ultimately caused him to be sent to preach. He always travelled on foot, sometimes speaking for hours in one place, then doing the same in another town. For nearly a quarter of a century he crisscrossed Italy on foot, calling people to repentance in exhortations like this:
“A sinner who repents learns to be prudent. He is like a donkey that, once he has fallen in a spot, afterwards looks more carefully where he sets his foot. For fear of punishment he takes care not to fall into those sins again, or into any others. Now, I want to ask older people about this. Old man and old woman, are you there? “Yes.” Tell me, have you fallen into sin over and over again? “Yes.”
Well, have you returned to God? “Yes.” They have fallen often and so they walk more gingerly. They think about how they had better set their feet. As they see death approaching, they thank God that they have had time to turn to him. And they do not trust themselves not to fall, but always ask God to help them not to fall again.”
Especially known for his devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, Bernardine devised a symbol—IHS, the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek—in Gothic letters on a blazing sun. This was to displace the superstitious symbols of the day, as well as the insignia of factions – for example, Guelphs and Ghibellines. The devotion spread and the symbol began to appear in churches, homes and public buildings. Opposition arose from those who thought it a dangerous innovation. Three attempts were made to have the pope take action against him but Bernardine’s holiness, orthodoxy and intelligence were evidence of his faithfulness.
General of the Friars of the Strict Observance, a branch of the Franciscan Order, Bernardine strongly emphasised scholarship and further study of theology and canon law. When he started there were 300 friars in the community, when he died there were 4,000. He returned to preaching the last two years of his life, dying while travelling.
Another dynamic saint once said, “…I will not be a burden, for I want not what is yours but you…. I will most gladly spend and be utterly spent for your sakes” (2 Corinthians 12:14). There is danger that we see only the whirlwind of activity in the Bernardines of faith—taking care of the sick, preaching, studying, administering, always driving—and forget the source of their energy. We should not say that Bernardine could have been a great contemplative if he had had the chance. He had the chance, everyday and he took it.