Saint Bernardine of Siena: Speaking Out to a World in Decline

St. Bernardine of Siena, a great devotee of the Blessed Virgin Mary, popularised devotion to the Most Holy Name of Jesus.

Redaction (25/05/2023 14:00, Gaudium Press) Born into the noble family of the Albizzeschi, Bernardine lost his mother before he was three years old and, before he was six, he lost his father too, leaving him in the care of his three aunts – Diana, Pia and Bartolomea – and his cousin Tobia, who took care of him and brought him up with great care.

One day, Bernardine surprised Tobia by saying:

“I am, indeed, enchanted by a very noble lady. I would give my life to rejoice in her presence, and I would not sleep at night if I spent the day without seeing Her.”

A few days later, Bernardine returned to the subject:

“I am going now to see my beautiful friend.”

“But who is she? Where does she live?”, asked Tobia.

“Beyond Porta Camollia.”

Knowing nothing more of him, his cousin, intrigued, decided to spy on him. And there he was, sneaking around the corners of the city of Siena, trying not to be seen.

Finally arriving at the Porta Camollia, Bernardine stopped and knelt before Our Lady Assumed into Heaven, portrayed there in a beautiful painting. Then, rising, the boy returned to the house.

Tobia, always on the sly, followed him again for several days, and always left edified. Then she succeeded in making her cousin declare who the noble lady was of whom he spoke:

“My mother.” he answered. “Since you command me, I will tell the secret of my heart. I am in love with the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God. I would like to fix my gaze upon Her forever, with the veneration that is due to Her.”

A life under the protection of the Mother of God

A doubt soon arose in his young heart: how was he to dedicate himself to Her? What would She want of him?

His eyes turned towards the Friars Minor. He became enthusiastic about their rule, and the divine call was confirmed in a dream. Having divested himself of the honours of his nobility and earthly goods, Bernardine took the habit of St. Francis. It was 8 September 1402, the feast of the Nativity of Our Lady and the date on which he turned 22 years old.

Thus it was always under the protective mantle of the Queen of Heaven that he took the great steps of his life, as he recounted:

“I was born on the day of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, and on the same day […] I was reborn, entering the Order of Seraphic Father Francis; on this day I professed vows in the Order, on this day I celebrated the first Mass and pronounced the first sermon to the people on the Blessed Virgin, by whose love and grace I hope on this day also to depart this life.”

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Untiring dedication and zeal for souls

On one occasion the young Franciscan went to attend a sermon by St. Vincent Ferrer, whose words shook the crowds, pointing out the doldrums and paganism into which Christendom was sinking. The day before, Bernardine had spoken personally with the Dominican, leaving full of gratitude and consolation. And St. Vincent, discerning the call of St. Bernardine, foresaw during the sermon the future that awaited him:

“O my sons, there is at this meeting a religious of the Order of Friars Minor, who will soon be an illustrious man in all Italy; his word and his examples will produce great fruit among the Christian people. I exhort you, therefore, to give thanks to God; let us all pray together to Him to fulfil what He has revealed to me”.

Some time would pass before the prophecy was fulfilled. For many years Bernardine hid himself in the mists of anonymity. In the silence of the convent, he climbed the steps of virtue and knowledge in order to later, from the pulpit, transmit not only doctrine but also to radiate holiness.

A lively and original method of moving hearts

From the pulpit, his genius and virtue united to attract sinners to friendship with God.

The story is told, for example, that on arriving in the city of Perugia in Umbria, he found a people indifferent to the affairs of the Faith, and prone to continual and ferocious wars. Although many came to his preaching, Bernardine was not satisfied.

One day, before the assembled crowd, he announced:

“Dear inhabitants of Perugia, in a short time I will show you the devil.

With curiosity kindled, the next day the audience grew. And after a few days, the preacher declared

“I am going to fulfil my promise and I am going to show you not just one devil, but several.”

Everyone stared at him, attentively, wondering what depths would open up for the father of darkness to become visible.

“Look at one another,” continued Brother Bernardine, “and you will see demons!”

And in a tone of extreme gravity that admitted no joking, the Saint warned the people that they practiced the works of Satan and therefore deserved to be called his children. Finally, grace, inspired by Brother Bernardine, reached the heart of those people and conversion was complete.

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A man of God is not to be trifled with!

Years later, however, discord and violence reigned again in the city and the Franciscan Saint returned there.

God has seen your dissensions, which He detests,” he said, going up to the pulpit, “and has sent me to you, as His Angel, to speak to men of good will.”

Four sermons followed, and Bernardine struggled to reconcile those souls. On the last day, he solemnly concluded:

“Let all men of good will, desirous of peace, place themselves at my right hand.”

The people, moved by his words, positioned themselves en masse to the right of the Saint. All, except one, who defiantly remained alone with his family on the left. Then the humble Franciscan showed that his zeal also transformed him, in need, into an implacable judge:

“Here you are alone,” he said to the unhappy man, “obstinate in your error. I exhort you, in the name of God, once again to forgive others from the heart for what they may have done against you and your family. If you do not listen to me, you can be sure that you will not return home alive.”

That poor wretch did not give up his bad behaviour and, when he got home, he died without receiving the Sacraments of the Church.

Accused of heresy…

The old enemy could not remain inactive while the Franciscan Saint snatched so many souls from his hands. And in Rome, Brother Bernardine was accused of heresy. Heresy? Yes, because some chose to see aspects of idolatry in his way of venerating the name of Jesus!

Pope Martin V summoned the illustrious preacher to the Eternal City to present his explanations. The moment was one of great commotion, especially for Italian Catholics, who had received so much from Brother Bernardine. Everyone seemed to be afraid, except him. Many who had once applauded him now scorned him.

One day, on seeing with admiration how, after receiving great insults, he retired to study calmly in his cell, he replied: “Every time I enter my cell, all insults remain outside; no outrage dares enter with me, so that they cause me neither hindrance nor displeasure.”

To defend the honour of the offended master, one of his disciples, also a renowned preacher, came to the Eternal City carrying an ostentatious banner bearing the name of Jesus: it was the audacious Capuchin St. John of Capistrano.

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Finally, both men appeared before the Pontiff and a debate took place between them and their opponents. The victory of Bernardine, or rather of Jesus, was complete; the Pope, in reparation, ordered a procession in honour of His Most Holy Name, which from then on would appear on the tops of churches and rooftops, even in Rome.

Last efforts, entire dedication

Even though he felt he was nearing the end of his life, Brother Bernardine never rested. On the contrary, thirsting for souls, he went in search of those whom his charity had not yet succeeded in reaching, and to those who tried to dissuade him he replied: “I am not unaware that I am old and not able to bear weariness, but the love that urges me on forces me, as long as I can move my tongue, never to stop proclaiming the Word of God, to exhort the people and, for this work, to undertake journeys, even to distant lands”.

The Kingdom of Naples was his next destination. On 30 April 1444, he secretly left Siena. On the way he said goodbye to the old city of Perugia, from where he left to visit for the last time the Convent of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi.

In Spoleto, his strength began to fail. When he reached Cittaducale, on the border with the Neapolitan kingdom, Bernardine climbed a pulpit for the last time. At L’Aquila, he was forced to rest in a Franciscan monastery.

And then, at the age of sixty-four, of which forty-two had been spent as a religious and at least twenty as a preacher, Brother Bernardino gave his beautiful soul to God. He had wanted to die on the feast of the Nativity or the Assumption, but Jesus had asked him to renounce this holy desire. It was the eve of the Ascension of the Lord.

Surely in Heaven Bernardine was saying to God the words that his brothers were piously singing in the chapel as they paid their last respects to him: “My Father, I have made Your name known to the men You gave me, and now I pray for them, not for the world, for I come to you. Alleluia.”

By Sr. Maria Beatriz Ribeiro Matos, EP

Text adapted from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 233, May 2021.

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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