Bernardine of Siena, St.
BERNARDINE OF SIENA, ST.
Franciscan preacher and propagator of devotion to the Holy Name; b. Massa Marittima, in the territory of Siena, Sept. 8, 1380; d. Aquila, May 1444.
Life. When Bernardine was three years of age his mother (Nera degli Avveduti) died, and three years later the death of his father (Tollo degli Albizzeschi) left him an orphan. He was confided to the care of a maternal aunt, but at the age of 11 he was taken by paternal relatives to Siena, where he attended school and studied the humanities and philosophy (1391–97), and for another three years he studied Canon Law at the university in that city. Bernardine was devoted to the Latin classics, but he gave himself with no less enthusiasm to the study of Scripture and theology and to practices of piety. During the pestilence of the jubilee year 1400 he spent four months ministering to the plague-stricken in the hospital of Santa Maria della Scala until he himself became ill. He entered the Friars Minor when he was 22, was professed in 1403, and was ordained the following year. In 1405 he was commissioned to preach, and he continued in that work until his death.
Little is known of the first 15 years of his religious life. No doubt he spent them gathering his abundant knowledge of scholastic writings. During this period he transcribed or caused to be transcribed various books, two of which, entirely in his own hand, were discovered in 1962–63 (Codex 102 in the library of the University of Budapest and Codex VI. A. 19 of the National Library of Naples). He also began to attract attention as a preacher. For three years (1414–17) he held the office of vicar provincial of the Observants of Tuscany, at the completion of which he gave himself completely to the evangelization of Lombardy. The years 1417–29 were the most important period of his preaching. During this time he was engaged without remission in preaching throughout central and northern Italy. In the last 15 years of his life Bernardine continued his apostolic journeys, but these became more slowly paced because of the infirmities of age and his administrative responsibilities (he was vicar general of the Observants of Italy, 1438–1442) and because of his repeated and increasingly prolonged stays in the Sienese convent of Capriola, his ordinary place of residence, for the purpose of writing down and revising his treatises and sermons. In 1444, after completing his Lenten preaching in his native city of Massa, and in spite of his age and infirmity, Bernardine set out to evangelize the Kingdom of Naples. Some miles from Aquila in the Abruzzi he was stricken with a fever and could not go on. He was taken to Aquila and received in the convent of St. Francis, where he died peacefully on the vigil of the Feast of the Ascension. The city gave him the honor of a funeral of unprecedented splendor, and he was buried in the church of St. Francis. He was canonized by Nicholas V, May 24, 1450. His body was transferred May 17, 1471, to the nearby basilica erected in his honor and put in a magnificent shrine, where it is still preserved in an incorrupt state.
Preaching. The apostolate of Bernardine was singularly fruitful. He was the greatest preacher of his time. Cities everywhere invited him to come and preach, and when he did appear, churches were too small to contain the throngs that gathered to hear him, so that he was obliged to preach in the open. It is said that his audience sometimes numbered as many as 30,000. The reason for his success was, above all else, his holiness of life. St. Francis was his model of virtue, and he was like the holy patriarch also in his zealous concern to maintain a high standard of religious observance in the Franciscan community and to labor tirelessly for the moral reformation of the people. He was Franciscan—persuasive, fervent, joyous, and sometimes even merry. Other factors contributing to his success were: his acute intelligence, coupled with an intuitive understanding of the needs of his time and the mental and spiritual condition of his hearers; his superb gift of eloquence; the clarity and vivacity of his language; his use of a kind of dialogue form in the development of his argument; and his practicality in confining himself to themes of general interest. He disapproved of the practice, common at the time among preachers, of inveighing against the vices of ecclesiastics. He considered it better to inspire the people with reverence for the priestly state, and it was his wont to speak to the clergy separately at the conclusion of his "missions." He was temperate when touching upon political matters and strove to rise above factionalism and differences of government.
Devotion to the Holy Name. St. Bernardine is especially remembered for his zeal in promoting devotion to the Holy Name. This devotion was not a new thing in the Church, but he contributed greatly to its spread, and he devised a symbol to help people appreciate its profound theological basis. This was the trigrammatic abbreviation "yhs," in minuscule Gothic letters, of the name of Jesus. The trigram was set in the midst of a blazing sun, to whose spreading rays he attributed a mystical significance. He desired that this emblem should displace superstitious symbols and the insignia of factions. Through the apostolate of Bernardine and his disciples the cult of the Holy Name spread rapidly, and its symbol began to appear in churches, homes, and public buildings. Certain humanists and theologians of the time viewed this with distrust and considered the devotion a dangerous innovation. Three attempts were made to induce ecclesiastical authority to take action against Bernardine (in 1426 under Martin V, and in 1431 under Eugene IV, and in 1438 an appeal was made to the Council of Basel). St. Bernardine's vindication was such that no shadow of suspicion remained upon his orthodoxy, the rightness of his intentions, or the holiness of his life. Perhaps by way of amends and reward he was offered, successively, the bishoprics of Siena (to which he was elected), Ferrara, and Urbino, but he declined these honors.
Writings. Bernardine's literary work is almost entirely homiletic. A distinction should be made between the sermons, etc., edited by himself for the use of preachers, and true theological treatises, compiled with acumen and discernment from the writings of the great scholastic doctors, from the Expositio super Apocalypsim of Matthias of Sweden (of Linköping), from the Arbor vitae crucifixae of ubertino of casale, and from the writings of peter john olivi. Of notable importance are the sermons and treatises on the name of Jesus, the Passion, and St. Joseph. Of special value, also, are the 11 sermons on the Madonna, which, taken together, constitute a complete Mariology. For their novelty and originality of method the sermons met with great success, which explains the considerable number of codices (about 300), all transcribed within the span of about 40 years, until they were all printed in various incunabula editions (1470–1501) or reprinted in sequence in S. Bernardini Sen. Ord. Min. opera quae exrant omnia (4 v. Venice 1591; Paris 1635; Lyons 1650; Venice 1745). These editions, however, contain certain works now known to be spurious. A critical edition of St. Bernardine's works is published by the Franciscan Fathers of Quaracchi.
Bernardine's sermons taken down by others do not have the same authority as those the saint edited himself, because it is improbable that his words were always put down in shorthand with absolute fidelity. Nevertheless, they are of considerable interest, especially those preached in Siena in 1427 (whose word-for-word accuracy is better authenticated), because of the biographical and historical data they provide and because of the light they throw upon the real personality of Bernardine and upon his abilities as a popular preacher.
Feast: May 20.
Bibliography: S. Bernardini Sen. O.F.M., Opera omnia, studio et cura PP. Collegii S. Bonaventurae ad fidem codicum edita, 9 vols. (Quaracchi-Florence 1950–1965). Enciclopedia bernardiniana, 2 v., v. 1. ed. e. d'angelo; v. 2 ed. m. a. pavone and v. pacelli (Aquila 1980–1981). m. h. allies, Three Catholic Reformers of the Fifteenth Century (Freeport, N.Y. 1972). f. mormando, The Preacher's Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy (Chicago 1999). c. polecritti, Preaching Peace in Renaissance Italy: Bernardino of Siena and His Audience (Washington, D.C. 2000). r. de roover, San Bernardino of Siena and Sant'Antonino of Florence (Boston 1967). d. pacetti, L'Expositio super Apocalypsim di Mattia di Svezia, 1281–1350: Precipua fonte dottrinale di S. Bernardino da Siena, Archivum Frannciscanum historicum 54 (1961), 274–302; "Le postille autografe sopra l'Apocalisse di S. B. da S. recentemente scoperte nella Biblioteca Nazionale di Napoli," ibid. 56 (1963), 40–70; "Le fonti dottrinali di S. B. a servizio del suo fecondo apostolato," Studi Francescani 60 (1963), 3–19. m. bertagna, "Vita e apostolato senese di S. B.," ibid. 20–99.