May 19, 2017

St. Bernardine of Siena, the Apostle of Italy

Saint Bernardine of Siena

On May 20th, the Church celebrates the optional memorial of Saint Bernardine of Siena. If Bernardine were alive today, there is no doubt that he would be a media sensation. Renowned as one of the most influential preachers of his time, he was even compared to St. Paul by Pope Pius II for both his zeal and the charismatic nature of his words. Though not without his detractors, who would themselves be silenced by Pope Martin V, Bernardine became known as the "Apostle of Italy."

Bernardine was born in the region of Siena, Italy, in 1380, and was orphaned at an early age. He was raised by pious aunts and, by all accounts, led a blameless youth. In 1400, when Bernardine was 20, the plague was at its most terrible in Siena, carrying off almost two dozen people a day. Rather than flee from the contagion, Bernardine and some of his friends instead offered to tend to the sick and dying at the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. The young man threw himself heart and soul into the work for four months, after which he collapsed from extreme exhaustion. It took several months for him to recover his strength.

Once Bernardine was well, he went back to caring for the sick. This time it was his beloved aunt that he tended for a year. Upon her death, Bernardine began to seriously search out God’s will for his life. His prayerful discernment led him to enter the Franciscan Order at the age of 22. He was ordained two years later.

It would be almost 12 years before the world would hear from Bernardine again. Although the Franciscans were a preaching order, the young man’s voice was so weak and hoarse that he instead retreated into a life of study and prayer. It wasn’t until he was sent on a mission to Milan around 1416 that a miracle seemed to have taken place. Not only was his voice strong and resounding, but his message was a powerful one of both repentance and God’s mercy. Bernardine began to travel — on foot — all over Italy, preaching to large, enthusiastic crowds. It was said that conversions in the hundreds followed in his wake.

Bernardine was especially dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus, and he devised a devotional image that is still seen in churches today. It consists of three Gothic letters, IHS, (the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek) superimposed on a blazing sun. The devotion to the Holy Name and its representation spread in popularity, replacing many of the superstitious symbols that were prevalent in Bernardine’s time. There is even a story about a merchant who made his living painting playing cards, who complained that Bernardine’s preaching against gambling was ruining his business. The saint suggested that he begin painting the IHS symbol instead. The merchant did this, and was so overrun with orders that he soon became a wealthy man.

Not everyone was pleased by Bernardine’s innovation. There were three separate attempts to silence him and declare the symbol heretical. Each time the saint’s detractors were themselves found to be in error. The pope was so impressed with Bernardine that he was invited to Rome to preach and display the Holy Name.

Bernardine refused a bishopric, but could not refuse being made vicar general of the Franciscan Friars of the Strict Observance. With his characteristic energy and enthusiasm, he increased the number of community members from 300 to 4,000 and insisted on scholarship, especially in the fields of theology and canon law.

Bernardine died of natural causes in 1444, while traveling and preaching. He is the patron of advertising and public relations. O God, who gave the Priest Saint Bernardine of Siena a great love for the holy Name of Jesus, grant through his merits, prayers and intercession, that we may ever be set aflame with the spirit of your love. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

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