St. Bernardine of Siena, Pray for Us!

St. Bernadine did not preach some “magic formula.” He preached traditional Catholicism — lived, and not just talked about.

El Greco, “St. Bernardine of Siena,” 1603
El Greco, “St. Bernardine of Siena,” 1603 (photo: Public Domain)

St. Bernadine of Siena came into this world in 1380 and left it in 1444. He spent most of his life in central Italy, associated with his namesake town, Siena, near Florence. When he lost his parents, his aunts raised him, giving him an education in civil and canon law. He joined the Confraternity of Our Lady and ministered at a hospital. In 1400, the Plague struck Siena and Bernadine, along with 10 companions, emerged from their contemplative lives to minister to its victims. In 1402 he took the habit of the Friars Minor.

St. Vincent Ferrer, the Dominican whom we met in April, had preached a religious revival throughout Spain, Italy and France. Having met Bernadine, he was convinced the missionary effort in Italy could be confided to him and so Vincent went off to the other countries. 

It took Bernadine a while to get started but, when he did in 1417, his efforts at evangelization spread like wildfire. His preaching attracted tens of thousands, and he was known as an effective confessor to whom penitents flocked. He railed against the sins of his day, with special attention to usury and to conflict, effecting many reconciliations between warring groups. In lieu of partisan affiliations, Bernadine urged opponents to adopt the monogram IHS, in honor of the Holy Name. His opponents slandered him, accusing him of spreading false teachings but, upon papal examination, Bernadine’s efforts received the Pope’s recommendation. He was offered — and turned down — the bishoprics of three dioceses. He died on the eve of the Ascension at Aquila, on the way to Naples, to preach.

Bernadine has been among Italy’s most popular saints. Why is he relevant for us today?

  • He also dealt with a pandemic situation and, instead of retiring from the world, extended himself in full charity (even though it affected his health) to those who needed his caring hands.
  • He recognized that conversion is the constant call of the Christian life, and he tailored that message to the Italy of his day, opposing sin in general while specifically focusing on the moral faults and failings that most plagued 15th-century Italian life across classes, groups, and regions.
  • He saw the need for reform of the Church and, through his efforts, both his own Friars Minor and the larger Church undertook reform efforts to clean out the moral stench and complacency that sapped ecclesiastical vitality in his day.

Looking at what Bernadine faced, is it really so different from our times? Bernadine did not preach some “magic formula.” He preached traditional Catholicism, lived and not just talked about.

Bernadine is frequently depicted in religious art, but his representation today comes from the great Greek painter of Spain, El Greco. As one can see from a first glance, the style is uniquely El Greco’s: the elongated form (including faces), the color combinations, the background all point to the master. The oil painting dates from 1603 and is on display in Toledo, Spain.

St. Bernadine appears in the habit of the Friars Minor. In his right hand is a book, presumably the Gospels for his preaching, although Bernadine was a prolific author of sermons. His right hand bears a staff with radiating streams around IHS, pointing to the Holy Name, a constant theme of Bernadine’s preaching and an iconographic motif almost always associated with depictions of the saint. Next to his bare foot (to which the Franciscan cord with its knots of chastity, poverty and obedience lead) lie three miters, symbolic of the bishoprics Bernadine turned down. The background depicts Toledo, where the painting was destined, as well as allowing El Greco to insert Spain into the picture. As the commentary of the Prado Museum observes, Bernadine is represented as young and virile, full of energy and ready for the task, not old and ascetic: “See, I make all things new” (Revelation 21:5).