Bernardine was a Friar Minor, missionary and reformer, often called the “Apostle of Italy,” of the noble family of Albizeschi of Massa, near Siena of which his father was then governor. Left an orphan at the age of 6, Bernardine was brought up by his pious aunts.
In 1397, after a course of civil and canon law, he joined the Confraternity of Our Lady attached to the great hospital of Santa Maria della Scala. Three years later, when the plague came upon Siena, he came out of a life of seclusion and prayer to minister to the plague-stricken and, assisted by 10 companions, took upon himself for four months entire charge of this hospital. Despite his youth, Bernardine proved fully equal to this task, but the heroic and unremitting labor it involved so far shattered his health that he never completely recovered.
Bernardine distributed his patrimony in charity and received the habit of the Friars Minor at San Francesco in Siena in 1402, but soon withdrew to the Observantine convent of Columbaio outside the city. He was professed in 1403 and ordained in 1404.
About 1406, S. Vincent Ferrer, while preaching at Alexandria in Piedmont, foretold that his mantle should descend upon one who was then listening to him, and said that he would return to France and Spain leaving to Bernardine the task of evangelizing the remaining peoples of Italy. It took 12 years. however, for that prophesy to come true.
In 1417, Bernardine’s missionary life really began at Milan. Thereafter, various cities contended for the honor of hearing him, and he was often compelled to preach in the marketplaces. His listeners sometimes numbered as many as thirty thousand. Bernardine gradually gained an immense influence over the turbulent, luxurious Italian cities.
Pius II, who as a youth had been spellbound by Bernardine’s oratory, records that the saint was listened to as another Paul, and Vespasiano da Bisticci, a well-known Florentine biographer, says that by his sermons Bernardine “cleansed all Italy from sins of every kind in which she abounded.” In each city he denounced the reigning vice so effectively that bonfires were kindled, and “vanities” were cast upon them by the cartload. Usury was one of the principal objects of the saint’s attacks, and he did much to prepare the way for the establishment of the beneficial loan societies, known as Monti di Pietà. But Bernardine’s watchword, like that of St. Francis, was “peace.”
In spite of his popularity — perhaps rather on account of it — Bernardine had to suffer opposition and persecution. He was accused of heresy, the tablets he had used to promote devotion to the Holy Name being made the basis of a clever attack by the adherents of the Dominican, Manfred of Vercelli, whose false preaching about Antichrist Bernardine had combated. The saint was charged with having introduced a profane, new devotion which exposed the people to the danger of idolatry, and he was cited to appear before the pope.
In 1427, Martin V received Bernardine and forbade him to preach or exhibit his tablets until his conduct had been examined. The saint humbly submitted, his sermons and writings being handed over to a commission and a day set for his trial. The latter took place at St. Peter’s in the presence of the pope.
St. John Capistrano was in charge of the saint’s defense. The malice and futility of the charges against Bernardine were so completely demonstrated that the pope not only justified and commended the saint’s teaching, but urged him to preach in Rome. Martin V subsequently approved Bernardine’s election as bishop of Siena. The saint, however, declined this honor as well as the Sees of Ferrara and Urbino, offered to him in 1431 and 1435, respectively, saying playfully that all Italy already was his diocese.
In 1433, Bernardine accompanied the Emperor Sigismund to Rome for the latter’s coronation. Soon after he withdrew to Capriola to compose a series of sermons. He resumed his missionary labors in 1436, but was forced to abandon them in 1438 on his election as vicar general of the Observants throughout Italy.
The 130 Friars constituting the Observance in Italy at Bernardine’s reception into the order, it counted more than 4,000 before his death. In addition to the number, he received into the order, Bernardine himself founded, or reformed, at least 300 convents of Friars. Not content with extending his religious family at home, Bernardine sent missionaries to different parts of the Orient and it was largely through his efforts that so many ambassadors from different schismatic nations attended the Council of Florence in which we find the saint addressing the assembled Fathers in Greek. Having in 1442 persuaded the pope to accept his resignation as vicar-general so that he might give himself more undividedly to preaching, Bernardine resumed his missionary work.
In 1444, notwithstanding his increasing infirmities, Bernardine, desirous that there should be no part of Italy that had not heard his voice, set out to evangelize the Kingdom of Naples. Being too weak to walk, he was compelled to ride an ass. But worn out by his laborious apostolate of 40 years the saint was taken down with fever and reached Aquila in a dying state. There lying on the bare ground he passed away on Ascension eve, the 20th of May, just as the Friars in choir were chanting the anthem “pater manifestavi nomen Tuum hominibus … ad Te venio.”
Bernardine was canonized by Nicholas V on May 14, 1450. On May 17, 1472, Bernardine’s body was solemnly translated to the new church of the Observants at Aquila, especially erected to receive it, and enclosed in a costly shrine presented by Louis XI of France. This church having been destroyed by earthquake in 1703, was replaced by another edifice where the precious relics of St. Bernardine are venerated.
Adapted by A.J. Valentini from: Robinson, P. (1907). St. Bernardine of Siena. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 9, 2021 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02505b.htm