Pope Benedict XVI devoted his catechesis Oct. 27 to St. Bridget of Sweden, a 14th-century saint.
The Holy Father noted two phases in her life. During the first phase, she was a happily married wife and mother of eight children. She and her husband dedicated themselves with great fervor to their own spiritual life and to their children’s Christian formation.
Following her husband’s death, Bridget renounced further marriage in order to deepen her union with the Lord through prayer, penance and works of charity. She was blessed with many intense mystical experiences from this time forward. Eventually she moved to Rome to obtain papal approval for a religious order she intended to found and never returned to her native Sweden. There, she lived a life of intense apostolic prayer and activity, becoming a powerful example of feminine sanctity. She died in 1373.
Dear brothers and sisters,
On the eve of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, the Servant of God John Paul II proclaimed St. Bridget of Sweden co-patroness of Europe. This morning I would like to speak to you about her life, her message, and the reasons why this holy woman has much — even today — to teach to the Church and to the world.
We are well acquainted with the events of St. Bridget’s life because her spiritual directors wrote a biography of her immediately after her death in the year 1373 in order to promote the cause for her canonization. Bridget was born 70 years before — in the year 1303 — in Finster, Sweden. This country in the northern part of Europe had welcomed the Christian faith three centuries earlier with the same enthusiasm with which St. Bridget received it from her parents, very devout people who belonged to one of the aristocratic families close to the royal household.
We can distinguish two periods in St. Bridget’s life. During the first period, she lived the life of a happily married woman. Her husband, Ulf, was governor of an important district in the kingdom of Sweden. Their marriage lasted some 28 years until Ulf’s death.
St. Bridget gave birth to eight children, the second of whom, Karin (Catherine) is venerated as a saint. This is an eloquent testimony to Bridget’s commitment to the education of her children.
Indeed, her wisdom as a teacher was so highly valued that Magnus, the king of Sweden, summoned her to the court for a certain period of time in order to introduce his young wife, Blanche of Namur, to Swedish culture.
The Domestic Church
Guided in her spiritual endeavors by a learned religious who introduced her to the study of Scripture, Bridget had a very positive influence upon her family, which, thanks to her, truly became a “domestic church.”
Bridget and her husband adopted the Rule of the Franciscan tertiaries. She generously carried out works of charity towards the poor, even founding a hospital.
With his wife by his side, Ulf was able to grow in virtue and advance in his own Christian life. Upon returning from a long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in 1341 with other members of the family, the couple felt led to take a vow of chastity. However, shortly thereafter, Ulf reached the end of his life here on earth in the peaceful atmosphere of the monastery to which he had retired.
This first period of Bridget’s life helps us to appreciate what we might describe today as an authentic “spirituality for couples.” Christian married couples can follow the path to holiness together, sustained by the grace of the sacrament of matrimony.
Frequently, as was the case in the marriage of Ulf and St. Bridget, the wife, because of her spiritual sensitivity, gentleness and kindness, is in a position to help her husband follow the path of faith. I am grateful to the many women who even today, day after day, enliven their families with their witness to the Christian life.
May the Lord’s Spirit enkindle such holiness amongst Christian couples today in order to show the world the beauty of marriage that is lived out according to the values of the Gospel: love, tenderness, mutual support, fruitfulness in bearing and bringing up children, an openness to and solidarity with the world, and participation in the life of the Church.
After Bridget was left a widow, the second period of her life began. She refused to remarry in order to grow deeper in her union with the Lord through prayer, penance and works of charity. Thus, Christian widows too can find in this saint a model they can follow.
Indeed, after her husband’s death, Bridget distributed all her belongings to the poor and, even though she never undertook any religious consecration, she moved to the Cistercian monastery in Alvastra. There, she began to receive revelations from God that would accompany her for the rest of her life.
She dictated them to her confessors, who translated them from Swedish into Latin, gathering them together into a collection of eight books entitled Revelationes (Revelations). There is a supplement to these books that is entitled Revelationes Extravagantes (Supplementary Revelations).
St. Bridget’s Revelations vary in content and style. At times her revelations are presented in the form of a dialogue between the divine Persons, the Blessed Virgin and the saints — and even with demons — dialogues in which Bridget herself intervenes.
At other times, she recounts specific visions. On other occasions, she relates something that the Virgin Mary has revealed to her regarding the life and the mysteries of her Son.
In his apostolic letter, Spes Aedificandi, the Servant of God John Paul II points out the value of St. Bridget’s Revelations, which, at times, was called into doubt: “Yet there is no doubt that the Church, which recognized Bridget’s holiness without ever pronouncing on her individual revelations, has accepted the overall authenticity of her interior experience” (5).
Indeed, reading these Revelations, we are challenged by many important questions.
For example, Bridget frequently describes in very realistic detail the passion of Christ, to which she had a very special devotion, seeing therein God’s infinite love for mankind. She boldly attributes the following words to Our Lord as he speaks to her in a very poignant way: “O my friends, I love my sheep so tenderly that, if it were possible, I would like to die many times over for each one of them; in the same I suffered for the redemption of all” (Revelationes, Book I, c. 59).
The sorrowing motherhood of Mary, which made her mediator and mother of mercy, is another recurring theme in the Revelations.
Having received these charismatic gifts, Bridget was aware that she had been chosen in a special way by the Lord: “My daughter,” we read in the first book of her Revelations, “I have chosen you for me. Love me with all your heart … more than anything that exists in this world” (c. 1).
Bridget knew and was firmly convinced that all charisms are destined to build the Church. It is precisely for this reason that many of her revelations were addressed — in the form of sometimes rather severe admonitions — to the believers of her time, including political and religious authorities, that they should live a lifestyle consistent with their Christian life. But she always did so with an attitude of respect and complete faithfulness to the magisterium of the Church and especially to the successor of the apostle Peter.
Intense Apostolic Activity
In 1349, Bridget left Sweden never to return, traveling to Rome to participate in the Jubilee Year 1350 and with plans to ask Pope Clement VI to approve the rule for a religious order that she intended to establish that would be made up of monks and nuns under the authority of an abbess and dedicated to the blessed Savior.
This should not surprise us. During the Middle Ages, there were religious orders in which a branch for men and a branch for women practiced the same monastic rule under the direction of an abbess.
Indeed, our great Christian tradition has always recognized the special dignity that is proper to a woman and — following the example of Mary, Queen of the Apostles — her own place in the Church, which, without being the same as the ordained priesthood, is also important for the spiritual growth of the community.
Moreover, collaboration between consecrated men and consecrated women, always keeping in mind their unique specific vocation, is of great importance in today’s world.
Together with her daughter Karin in Rome, Bridget dedicated herself to a life of intense apostolic activity and prayer. From Rome, she went on pilgrimage to several shrines in Italy, particularly to Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, for whom Bridget always fostered a great devotion.
Finally, in 1371, her greatest desire was fulfilled: a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she traveled in the company of her spiritual sons and daughters, a group Bridget referred to as “God’s friends.”
During this period, the popes were residing in Avignon, far from Rome. Bridget earnestly pleaded with them to return to the See of Peter in the Eternal City.
Bridget died in 1373, before Pope Gregory XI eventually returned to Rome for good. She was buried at first in the Church of San Lorenzo in Panisperna in Rome, but, in 1374, her children, Birger and Karin, took her body back to her homeland, to the monastery of Vadstena, the motherhouse of the religious order that St. Bridget founded, which enjoyed a period of rapid growth right away.
Pope Boniface IX solemnly canonized her in 1391.
Model for Today
St. Bridget’s sanctity, characterized by the multiplicity of her gifts and experiences that I have attempted to summarize in this brief spiritual and biographical profile, makes her an eminent figure in the history of Europe.
Coming from Scandinavia, St. Bridget attests to how deeply Christianity permeated the life of all the peoples of this continent.
By proclaiming her co-patroness of Europe, Pope John Paul II was hoping that St. Bridget — who lived in the 14th century when Western Christianity had still not been wounded by division — might intercede fruitfully before God to obtain the much-awaited grace of full unity among all Christians.
Dear brothers and sisters, let us pray together for this intention, which is so dear to our hearts, and let us pray that Europe may find nourishment in its Christian roots by invoking the powerful intercession of St. Bridget of Sweden, a faithful disciple of God and co-patroness of Europe. Thank you for your attention.