Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444)

Saint Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444)

Saint Bernardino was born in the Tuscan town of Massa Marittima, in which his father, a member of the noble Sienese family of Albizeschi, occupied the post of governor. The little boy lost both his parents before he was seven and was entrusted to the care of a maternal aunt and her daughter who gave him religious training and loved him as though he had been their own child. Upon reaching the age of eleven or twelve he was placed by his uncles at school in Siena, where he passed with great credit through the course of studies.


In 1400 Siena was visited by the plague. Twelve to twenty persons died daily in the famous hospital of Santa Maria della Scala, which found itself bereft of almost all who tended the sick. Bernardino offered to take charge of the establishment, with the help of some other young men whom he had fired with the determination to sacrifice their lives if necessary to aid the sufferers. For four months they worked tirelessly, day and night, under the direction of Bernardino, who, besides nursing the patients and preparing them for death, saw to everything and brought order as well as cleanliness into the hospital. Though several of his companions died, Bernardino escaped the contagion and returned home after the epidemic was over. He was, however, so exhausted by his labors that he fell an easy prey to a fever which laid him low for several months.


Upon his recovery he found that his immediate duty lay close at hand. An aunt named Bartolomea, to whom he was much attached, had become blind as well as bedridden, and to her he devoted himself as he had done to all the plague-stricken in the hospital. When, fourteen months later, God called the invalid to Himself, it was in the arms of her nephew that she breathed her last. Free now from all earthly ties, Bernardino set himself by prayer and fasting to learn God's will for his future. He was led to enter the Franciscan Order, the habit of which he received shortly afterwards in Siena. The house, however, proved too accessible to the novice's many friends and relations, and with the consent of his superiors he retired to the convent of Colombaio outside the city, where the rule of St Francis was strictly observed. Here in 1403 he was professed and here he was ordained priest-exactly a year later, on the feast of the Birthday of Our Lady which was his birthday.


During the next twelve years he preached occasionally, but his life was mainly spent in retirement. Gradually he was being prepared by God for the twofold mission of apostle and reformer. He opened his apostolic career at Milan to which he went as a complete stranger towards the end of 1417, but soon his eloquence and zeal began to attract enormous congregations. Before he was allowed to leave the city to preach elsewhere in Lombardy he was obliged to promise that he would return the following year.


It is impossible to follow him on his missionary journeys, for in them he covered nearly the whole of Italy with the exception of the kingdom of Naples. He traveled always on foot, preached sometimes for three or four consecutive hours and often delivered several sermons on the same day. All over Italy people spoke of the wonderful fruit of Saint Bernardino's missions. Nevertheless there were some who took exception to his teaching and accused him of encouraging superstitious practices. They went so far as to denounce him to Pope Martin V, who for a time commanded him to keep silence. However, an examination of his doctrine and conduct led to a complete vindication and he received permission to preach wherever he liked. The same pope, in 1427, urged him to accept the bishopric of Siena but he refused it, as he afterwards declined the sees of Ferrara and of Urbino.


In 1430, however, he was obliged to give up missionary work to become vicar general of the friars of the Strict Observance. He accomplished this task with so much wisdom and tact that many convents passed voluntarily and without friction from the Conventual to the Observant rule. The original Observants had shunned scholarship as they had shunned riches, but Saint Bernardino insisted upon instruction in theology and canon law as part of the regular curriculum.


The saint longed to return to his apostolic labors which he regarded as his only vocation, and in 1442 he obtained permission from the pope to resign his office as vicar general. He then resumed his missionary journeys, which led him through Romagna, Ferrara and Lombardy. He was by this time in failing health, yet at Massa Marittima in 1444 he preached on fifty consecutive days. Though obviously dying, he still continued his apostolic work and set out for Naples, preaching as he went. He succeeded in reaching Aquila, but there his strength gave out and he died on the eve of the Ascension, May 20, 1444, in the monastery of the Conventuals. He had almost reached the age of sixty-four, forty-two of which he had spent as a religious. His tomb at Aquila was honored by many miracles and he was canonized within six years of his death.


From Butler's LIVES OF THE SAINTS, HarperOne, 1956, pp. 149-151 (originally published in 1756-9)