Religious Life Review

HOLYNAME.IE would like to thank the editor of Religious Life Review for permission to use the published version of the article below. Copies of Religious Life Review are available at Dominican Publications, 42 Parnell Square, Dublin 1. The series of articles on the Holy Name of Jesus will continue throughout the year

A Year Dedicated to the Holy Name


2014 marks the centenary of the beginning of a movement in Ireland to spread devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. Sister Faustina Francis Grealy of the Galway Poor Clare Community explains the background, looks at the life of a saint who inspired the movement, and considers the relevance of the devotion in the light of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel’. The Vatican has granted the Bishop of Galway the faculty of imparting a Papal Blessing, on a date this year to be decided locally.

In 2009, a manuscript was found behind a picture of the Holy Name of Jesus in our monastery when some clearing out was being undertaken in preparation for renovations. At the bottom of the page there was a short, barely legible, postscript which read: It was in this Convent of St Clare the devotion began in Ireland, Jan ’14.

Naturally, we were curious about this and the reliability of the claim, since, from the time of St Francis, devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus was prominent in Franciscan spirituality. Among Franciscans, Francis set an example of a tender devotion to the Holy Name. St Bonaventure recounts, in his biography of Francis, that ‘when he pronounced or heard the name Jesus, he was filled with joy interiorly and seemed to be altered exteriorly as if some honey-sweet flavour had transformed his taste, or some harmonious sound had transformed his hearing’.1

It was certainly not a new element in the devotional life of the Franciscan movement: it was without doubt more than a hundred years old. What did become apparent to us was that a new wave of devotion began in 1914 based on the Holy Name apostolate of the fifteenth century Franciscan, St Bernardine of Siena. The upshot of all of this is that 2014 has been designated by the Irish Franciscan Province in conjunction with the Poor Clare Federation a ‘Year of the Holy Name of Jesus’.

At the end of a retreat given by Franciscan Francis Donnelly to the Galway Poor Clare community at the end of 1913, an image of the Holy Name of Jesus was erected in the chapel on the third of January, feast of the Holy Name. Devotion to this Holy Name has always been strong among Poor Clares, and remains strong today. Every cell door of our house has a YHS2 tablet attached to it. They can also be seen over all the entrances to the monastery as well as on the outer walls of the chapel.

According to the obituary of Fr Francis Donnelly, which appeared in the popular Franciscan publication ‘Assisi’ after his death in November 1929, he had insisted on the power of the Holy Name of Jesus during the retreat he gave to the sisters, and had modelled his preaching on that of St Bernardine of Siena. The postscript cited above, coupled with these facts, pointed to a spiritual collaboration between the sisters and Father Donnelly for the promotion of the Holy Name of Jesus a hundred years ago. In that same spirit, 2014 marks a revitalisation of that Franciscan collaboration in the whole Franciscan family, in the hope that there will be a renewed awareness of the power and blessings flowing from devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, not only in the Franciscan family, but in other religious congregations too and in the wider Church.

Fr Donnelly’s Holy Name apostolate, born out of this spiritual partnership, progressed rapidly, and he found willing helpers in the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, who were at that time based in Loughlynn, County Roscommon, and among lay Franciscans, in the Third Order3. The apostolate consisted in three major elements  – aside from preaching: the dissemination of literature and devotional badges/emblems among the faithful; the setting up of a total abstinence association under the patronage of the Holy Name4 and the distribution of the distinctive blue Bernardinian tablets depicting the Holy Name, which were placed over the doors of houses and other dwellings. These tablets survive still in the friary towns where Fr Donnelly ministered – Cork, Limerick and Galway – and in other places too, such as Ennis and Tuam. The placing of the Holy Name Tablets over the doors of houses proved to be very popular among the faithful in general.

It is fitting at this point to look at the saint who inspired Fr Francis Donnelly. St Bernardine was born in 1380 near Siena and died in 1444. He was orphaned at a young age and given into the care of a maternal aunt. He studied humanities and philosophy and completed three years of Canon Law before joining the Friars Minor at the age of 22. Ordained in 1404, he was commissioned to preach the following year. Between 1417 and 1429 he preached throughout central and northern Italy.

His preaching moved many who sensed from his holiness of life the power of God working through him. This grace also built on the natural gifts with which he was endowed: his intelligence, simplicity of style, vivacity of expression, and an ability to intuit the needs of his time and his perception of the spiritual state of his hearers.

In his preaching he tended to stick to topics of general interest As Fr Lomán Mac Aodha OFM has pointed out in his in-depth study of St Bernardine’s apostolate, St Bernardine aimed at converting those who were already baptised but had become indifferent or lukewarm5. He painted a Holy Name monogram himself and he would bring it on his preaching tours through the towns and cities of Italy. The monogram was set in a twelve-rayed sun blazing on a blue background, and surrounding it was a text of St Paul to the Philippians (2:10): At the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven, on earth and under the earth.

During an era when literacy was uncommon, his depiction of the Holy Name of Jesus was highly instructive. It was based very much on scripture. The Name of Jesus, depicted as it was in the centre of a blazing sun with twelve rays, suggested the biblical theme of Jesus as the true Light who enlightens everyone (Jn 1:9), the Light of the World who invites us to move away from the darkness of sin into the way of light and life (Jn 8:12) and who bids us live as children of the light (Eph 5:8). The twelve rays surrounded by seventy-two smaller ones represented the virtues and the missionary nature of faith in the Name of Jesus and the ‘going out ’of the disciples to spread the Good News to the ends of the earth. The blue background represented the divinity of Christ. As St Bernardine so often pointed out, the Name of Jesus meant salvation (Mt 1:21) and it was on the Cross, above all, that salvation was brought about for the whole human race. For this reason St Bernardine formed a cross with the vertical bar of the ‘H’ of the monogram. Some of his depictions also show nails at the appropriate points on the cross. In our own day, great sums of money are spent on a suitable logo and its design. Organisations, companies and marketing experts recognise the potential in these logos for ‘selling the message’. With his Holy Name tablet, St Bernardine wasn’t so much ‘selling the message’ as trying to convince his hearers of the free gift that is salvation in Christ.

His arrival at a city or town in Italy was not only a religious event. His preaching was recognised by civic leaders as an effective means to restore peace and social harmony, so he often received invitations to preach from them. He would propose that the monogram of the Holy Name of Jesus should replace the banners and coats of arms of warring factions in these places. After preaching he would invite the congregation to adore the Lord Jesus, as He was depicted in the Holy Name tablet6. This would be followed by a procession through the town after solemn High Mass. His sermons could last up to four hours7. On some occasions he would organise bonfires for the destruction of what were considered ‘instruments of sin’ such as books of sorcery and magic, banners of various factions that were causing division, and statues and pictures that were considered erotic. In one place it is recounted that a man who made his living by making gaming cards started to go out of business. He complained to St Bernardine about the loss of his livelihood. St Bernardine suggested that he take up making monograms of the Holy Name of Jesus. He followed the saint’s advice and was soon back in business!

In the fifteenth century, many believed the end of the world was near. Europe was recovering from the effects of the Black Death of 1348 in which a third of the population had died. Apocalyptic literature, such as the writings of the Cistercian Joachim of Fiore, was very popular; superstition and fear of the devil were reaching feverish proportions. In this context Bernardine, in preaching the saving power of the Holy Name of Jesus, helped his hearers to rise above their anxieties and fears about the future and to place all their hope in the One who saves and sets people free from sin and death. As Mac Aodha points out: ‘Because he conceived of the Name of Jesus in terms of the primacy of Christ and his victory over Satan and the rebellious spirits, Bernardine was able to offer to a society distraught by a “superstitious Satanism” the true perspective of salvation which is founded on the victory [of Christ]… and which is always active and actual for those who believe’.8

Devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus is different from other popular devotions. In pronouncing the name of Jesus we make Him present in a certain sense, and His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies9. For those who perhaps feel squeamish about popular piety, Pope Francis has some interesting things to say. In his recent apostolic exhortation on the proclamation of the Gospel in today’s world, ‘The Joy of the Gospel’, he noted that though popular piety had come into disfavour for a time, in recent decades its value has become appreciated once more. Against those who would say that popular piety is devoid of content, he insists that its content is discovered and expressed more by way of symbols than by discursive reasoning10. This is certainly particularly true of St Bernardine’s Holy Name tablet. Pope Francis notes that the active evangelising power underlying expressions of popular piety should not be underestimated: to do so would be to fail to recognise the work of the Holy Spirit11.

In a recent article entitled ‘The academy and the pew-a strained relationship’12, Fr Ron Rolheiser speaks about the tension that can exist between imparting the basics of the faith through catechesis on the one hand and formulating and presenting a more deeply theological understanding of it on the other. For St Bernardine this tension was not so problematic. He pursued his ‘eminently pastoral programme by means of a vivid and comprehensive theological promotion of the Name of Jesus’.13 Again, to quote Pope Francis: ‘Expressions of popular piety have much to teach us; for those who are capable of reading them they are a locus theologicus’.14 He continues by summing up the raison d’étre of popular piety which equally sums up devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus: to demonstrate ‘the personal love of God who became man, who gave himself up for us, who is living and who offers us his salvation and his friendship’.15 St Bernardine was what we might call today a ‘pastoral man’, and it was in this mode that he approached the preaching and promotion of the Holy Name of Jesus. In one collection of sermons he advises pastors to feed their flocks with three kind of words: a word to enlighten them, a word to console them and a word to correct them’.16 It was in this vein too that Fr Francis Donnelly carried out his Holy Name apostolate in Ireland one hundred years ago.

To quote the soon-to-be-canonised Blessed John Paul II, ‘In the human history of Jesus of Nazareth, the Transcendent entered into history, the Eternal into time, the Absolute into the precariousness of the human condition… Christ is man’s future: for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved’.17

Let us pray that once again, in the new context of a vastly changed world, devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus may make real, for so many people who feel far away and alienated from God, the love, power and saving presence of the Lord Jesus. 

[For more information see]


1.    St Bonaventure The Life of St Francis in Bonaventure (Classics of Western Spirituality series, New York, Paulist Press, 1978) p. 278
2.    Fr Francis Donnelly followed the example of St Bernardine of Siena in promoting the YHS form of the abbreviation of the Name of Jesus rather than the IHS form that would be popularised by the Jesuits a century later and adopted as their emblem.
3.    ‘Third Order’: now known officially as the Order of Secular Franciscans.
4.    This association was set up by Fr Francis with the help of some Third Order Franciscans and it was based in Sheares Street in Cork City.
5.    The writer wishes to acknowledge her reliance on Fr Lomán Mac Aodha OFM’s doctoral thesis on St Bernardine of Siena. See Franciscan Studies 27 (1967) p 221-247 and 28 (1968) pp 37-65 for extracts from this study.
6.    He was accused of heresy for encouraging people to worship –as his opponents saw it –three letters, but was later vindicated to such a degree that Pope Martin V, before whom he had had to defend himself, requested that he carry out a mission of the Holy Name in Rome.
7.    He intuited the mood of his congregation and tailored the length of his sermons accordingly. In this sense these long sermons were ‘pastoral’!
8.    Franciscan Studies 28 (1968)
9.    Catechism of the Catholic Church no. 2666
10.    Evangelii Gaudium No 124   
11.    ibid No. 126
12.    Irish Catholic 24 October 2013 p 22
13.    Lomán Mac Aodha, Franciscan Studies no. 28
14.    Evangelii Gaudium No. 126
15.    ibid.
16.    Umberto Meattini ‘Bernardine of Siena’ in Franciscan Mystics, Fifteenth Century: Vol III, (privately) translated by Celsus O’Brien, OFM, 2000.
17.    Address during the closing Mass for the Second Special Synodal Assembly for Europe, reported in L’Osservatore Romano 43 (1614), 27 October 1999.