The Catholic Defender: The St. Bernardine of Siena's Story, "The Apostle of Italy"


Saint of the Day for May 20

(September 8, 1380 – May 20, 1444)

Pope St. John Paul II would call for the "Springtime of Evangelization", he recognized the need for the Church to be that city on a hill that would draw all people to Jesus Christ. In the history of the Church there had been great preachers such as St. Anthony of Padua, St. Ignatius Loyola, and St. Bernardine of Siena. May 20th is a day the Universal Church tells the story of St. Bernardine.


The 15th Century, Europe during the time of St. Bernardine there had been 17 different wars such as the Hussite Wars, the Albanian-Venetian War, and the Wars in Lombardy. There was great suffering among the people and great persecution. St. Bernadine became one of the greatest voices for the common person preaching about "vice and virtue, punishment and glory".


St. Bernardine traveled far and wide across Italy standing up against the rise of Paganism that threatened the Church and civilization. St. Bernardine through his reputation of being a Christian leader calmed many. Matthew 5:13-16 states, '“You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father." St. Bernardine's reputation offered great hope among those suffering.

So popular was St. Bernardine when he came near towns and cities, he would attract large crowds as much as 30,000. He lived what he preached and the results helped transfigure many lives to a deeper love for Jesus and His Mother, the Virgin Mary. Of Mother Mary, St. Bernardine stated, "You must know that when you 'hail' Mary, she immediately greets you! Don't think that she is one of those rude women of whom there are so many-on the contrary, she is utterly courteous and pleasant. If you greet her, she will answer you right away and converse with you!"


His motivation and energy was contagious. Through his many travels, he wore himself down becoming weak with exhaustion and his voice became hoarse through all his testimony. It is said that St. Bernardine was miraculously healed through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Interestingly, he was born on the Virgin Mary's birthday.


When St Bernardine was three years old his mother died and when he was seven his father died. His Aunt Diana would raise him instilling the virtue and importance of prayer and to depend on God's providence. Diana overseen that St. Bernardine excelled in his studies. By the time he was 11-17 years of age, St. Bernardine was already becoming an effective evangelist.


When St. Bernardine was 20 years old (1400) the plague was consuming and ravaging Siena at the local hospital in Scala, it was common that as many as 20 people would die in a days time. St. Bernardine used his prayer and good works to help nurse patients (1397-1400). During this time Twelve young men volunteered to work with St. Bernardine to help the sick. Eventually, he contracted a terrible fever for his efforts that took months for him to heal. When his family died, he earnestly sought the Lord's will.

St. Bernardine at age 22 was accepted in the Franciscan order and became a priest after two years (1404) of following that rule. His gift was preaching but he preferred to live in solitude and prayer. Consider that St. Bernardine traveled everywhere by foot. He witness to more people that many today who can travel by cars, trains, and planes. From town to town he roamed and people came to see him.


While praying before a crucifix, St. Bernardine received a vision from Jesus who told him:


"My Son, behold me hanging upon a cross. If you love me, or desire to imitate me, be also fastened naked to your cross and follow me. Thus you will assuredly find me."


The Dominican evangelist St. Vincent Ferrer, preached a sermon in which he predicted that one of his listeners would continue his work among the Italians – he was referring to Bernardine who was personally present, and he went on to fulfill the prophesy.


Pope Pius II would call St. Bernardine a "second Paul" because of his missionary outreach. He would preach for hours at a time throughout the day. He certainly pushed himself and gave his all to serve Christ.

If you have seen the symbol "IHS", that was originated by St. Bernardine to honor the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. IHS in Greek (Gothic) are the first three letters of Jesus Name. He placed this symbol on a blazing sun to dispel popular pagan symbols at the time. There were those who attempted to challenge St. Bernardine but Pope Martin V defended him that ended any accusation.


Many priests would consult him for advice, Bernardine gave them a simple rule: “In all your actions, seek in the first place the kingdom of God and his glory. Direct all you do purely to his honor. Persevere in brotherly charity, and practice first all that you desire to teach others. By this means, the Holy Spirit will be your master, and will give you such wisdom and such a tongue that no adversary will be able to stand against you.”


Bernardine became widely admired throughout Italy, and in 1438 he was offered the office of a bishop on three occasions. Each time, however, he turned down the position, choosing to fulfill the prediction of St. Vincent Ferrer through his missionary work.


St. Bernardine once stated, "The last degree of love is when He gave Himself to us to be our Food; because He gave Himself to be united with us in every way." He truly loves Our Lord in the Eucharist.


Consider that in the beginning of St. Bernardine's vocation, there were 300 friars in this Franciscan community. When he died that number swelled to over 4,000. He died while traveling the last two years of his life.

Later in his life, Bernardine served for five years as the Vicar General for his Franciscan order, and revived the practice of its strict rule of life. Then in 1444, forty years after he first entered religious life, Bernardine became sick while traveling. He continued to preach, but soon lost his strength and his voice.


St. Bernardine of Siena died on May 20, 1444. Only six years later, in 1450, Pope Nicholas V canonized him as a saint. St. Bernardine’s body, preserved incorrupt to this very day, is kept in the Basilica di San Bernardino in L’Aquila.


Saint Bernardine of Siena, words were very important to you. You spent most of your life speaking the golden words of Jesus' mercy and his Holy Name. And you abhorred words that were shameful. Pray for us that we may always choose to speak Jesus' name with reverence and choose words of love over words of shame. Amen