Dear Friend of Saint Francis:
I must admit to a bias in selecting Saint Bernardine of Siena (1380-1444) for this month’s Franciscan reflection on Beautiful Lives. He is the patron of public relations practitioners. Notwithstanding the nefarious reputation with which the practice is sometimes associated, I confess to have earned my own living in this field.
Saint Bernardine lost his parents at a young age. He studied theology and canon law before joining the Franciscans in 1402. The particular branch that he joined was then known as the Observants, which is part of the ancestry of today’s Friars Minor. The Observance (Regularis Observantia), signifying a more radical return to the rule regarding poverty, prepared the ground for a regeneration of the order. At first a fragmented movement, varying in different lands, it was given a definite character by Saint Bernardine of Siena and Saint John Capistran.
Three times, Saint Bernardine was invited to the episcopate. Three times he declined respectfully. His true vocation was preaching. His abilities as a communicator were noted by everyone, as was his holiness. His mission was to invite people to “repent and believe in the gospel.” When we hear this verse today, we know that the Gospel is indeed good news and that this belief leads precisely to conversion. It is good that we have communicators to remind us of the richness of the Gospel and how it reaches into every aspect of our lives. When we read or listen to well-grounded commentary on Scripture, we taste and see the goodness of the Lord; we benefit from his providence.
Saint Bernardine was canonized only six years after his death, and his feast is marked on May 20.
He hoped they would live up to the name by which they were saved and would, in the words of Saint Paul, “live worthy of your calling.” (Eph 4:1)
Patrick McCloskey, Franciscan Saint of the Day
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Saint Bernardine was both a holy man and an able communicator. Pope Pius II called him “a second Paul.” The Catholic Encyclopaedia points out that he is also referred to as “the apostle of Italy.” It is said that Saint Bernardine was the greatest preacher of his day, drawing tens of thousands of people to hear him in any given location. As a communicator, he was ahead of his time, using multi-media strategies to impress and inspire the people. He used plain speech, banners, rallies and processions.
Living in an age of deep social divisions caused by power and fear, the issues with which he dealt primarily were luxury and extravagance as these are often the causes or effects of sin. Today, we would find him eccentric for the bonfires in which people would be invited to throw playing cards, perfume and high-heeled shoes, but we must bear in mind that mass presentation of gospel messages was in its infancy. As today, astute preachers sought to move listeners from passivity to action.
Mercifully, “the devil’s castle,” as he called his bonfires, has not endured to our day, but his emblematic rallying theme has prevailed. Looking for a way to move Italians beyond the factions of region and class, Saint Bernardine proposed a single unifying name, the Holy Name of Jesus. He had banners made with the letters YHS, which we see mostly today as IHS, abbreviation of the Greek word for Jesus. He organized processions, using these banners.
The Catholic Encyclopaedia notes that “in spite of his popularity — perhaps rather on account of it — Bernardine had to suffer both opposition and persecution. He was accused of heresy, the tablets he had used to promote devotion to the Holy Name being made the basis of a clever attack by the adherents of the Dominican, Manfred of Vercelli, whose false preaching about Antichrist Bernardine had combated. The saint was charged with having introduced a profane, new devotion which exposed the people to the danger of idolatry, and he was cited to appear before the pope.
“This was in 1427. Martin V received Bernardine coldly and forbade him to preach or exhibit his tablets until his conduct had been examined. The saint humbly submitted, his sermons and writings being handed over to a commission and a day set for his trial. The latter took place at St. Peter’s in presence of the pope, 8 June, St. John Capistran having charge of the saint’s defence. The malice and futility of the charges against Bernardine were so completely demonstrated that the pope not only justified and commended the saint’s teaching, but urged him to preach in Rome.”
Innovation is never well received initially. Even when it is brilliant, change triggers antibodies in all social bodies. That is normal and even necessary. Conformity is the glue that binds any community. But conformity that stifles creativity soon extinguishes life because development is the vitality of any organism, including a faith tradition.
The name of Jesus is the glory of preachers, because the shining splendour of that name causes his word to be proclaimed and heart. And how do you think such an immense, sudden and dazzling light of faith came into the world, if not because Jesus was preached? Was it not through the brilliance and sweet savour of this name that “God called us into his marvellous light” (1 Pt 2:9)?
Saint Bernardine of Siena, Sermon #49
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The efficacy of any communication is enhanced or diminished by the integrity of the speaker’s behaviour. Saint Bernardine was a holy man. But what do we mean by that term?
I recently spent 10 days in Oxford, UK. That had not been my plan but I was “stranded” there after a volcano in Iceland spewed a cloud of ash so large that it grounded flights out of many Eurpoean cities for almost a week. Like blessings, I became the beneficiary of many unexpected surprises while I was there, including a visit to St. Mary the Virgin. It was from the pulpit still standing there that John Henry Newman, Vicar of the University Church, packed the nave for his sermons. He later converted to Roman Catholicism and was made a Cardinal in 1879.
Cardinal Newman had an interesting perspective, which merits our attention here, especially this year as we prepared to mark his beatification. In a sermon devoted to Saint Paul, speaking about those “of the highest order of sanctity,” he proffered, “They have the thoughts, feelings, frames of mind, attractions, sympathies of other men, so far as these are not sinful, only they have these parts of human nature purified, sanctified, and exalted; and they are only made more eloquent, more poetical, more profound, more intellectual, by reason of their being more holy.” Here Cardinal Newman was not speaking of being “not sinful” as immaculate behaviour. In fact, we recall that Saint Paul persecuted Christians and was plagued by behaviour of which he was ashamed. Rather, he is referring to sincerity and passion for doing what is virtuous insofar as one understands the good.
In another sermon, meditating on “the means which God has provided for the creation of the Saint out of the sinner,” Cardinal Newman added, “He takes him as he is…He turns his affections into another channel, and extinguishes a carnal love by infusing a heavenly charity…He instructs him in the depravity of sin, as well as in the mercy of God; but still, on the whole, the animating principle of the new life, by which it is both kindled and sustained, is the flame of charity.”
My own view is that a saint is someone who welcomes God’s unconditional love and transformative grace. To do so is to consent to change. Conversion follows a particular course, including repentance for sins and loving engagement with others. Along the way, the person becomes increasingly conscious, more and more authentic.
As a preacher and a public relations practitioner, I visited the basilica dedicated to Saint Bernardine while in the lovely medieval city of Siena.
The Basilica dell’Osservanza, constructed during the 15th century on the site of an old hermitage, was restored in accordance with the original using the same construction materials after its destruction by aerial bombardment in 1944. In the church and in the added monastery numerous keepsakes of the Saint are treasured. The Oratory of St. Bernardine is to be found in the Piazza S. Francesco where Saint Bernardine in 1425 held a cycle of his sermons. This Oratory is an admirable repository of beautiful architectural and decorative works of the Sienese Renaissance, which are fitting tributes to the use of beauty in evangelization. Saint Bernardine used everything at his disposal to speak of God’s love.
Everyone who calls out to the Lord for help will be saved. But how can they call to him for help if they have not believed? And how can they believe if they have not heard the message? And how can they hear the message if it is not proclaimed?
Saint Paul, Letter to the Romans 10: 13-14
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May the Father bless you with faith and hope in the Good News. May his Son grant you his wisdom and courage to witness to it in, with and through your very life. May the Holy Spirit fill you with the peace and joy that radiates the goodness of these blessings to all those you meet along our life’s journey.
Fraternally in joy and hope
crib and cross Franciscan Ministries