The Preaching of St Bernardine of Siena

Apostle of the Holy Name

 Lomán MacAodha OFM

Over a period of several centuries medieval piety had become increasingly individualistic and subjective as it lost grasp of the sacramental-liturgical foundation of the Christian life.  For a long time before the era of Bernardine of Siena the corporate nature of the Church and of salvation had become fragmented into a congeries of practices and devotions, conceived in the main as an answer to man’s anxieties concerning his personal safety and salvation.  Bernardine was a man of his time, suffering its limitations and yet, precisely because he was so much at one with his milieu, he was able to make a profound impression on his hearers.  He also transcended the narrowness of his period in many ways and sought to re-establish among Christians a sense of corporate salvation in Christ.  He sought to overcome the unbelievable divisiveness of his age by means of a vigorous and profound presentation of salvation in Christ, the unique Saviour and Mediator for all men.  He pursued this eminently pastoral programme by means of a vivid and comprehensive theological promotion of the Name of Jesus.  We would like to preface our analysis of this central theme of his preaching by some introductory remarks on the nature of his apostolate in the social context of his time.

It can be said that Bernardine carried over into the 15th century the type of missionary preaching inaugurated by St. Vincent Ferrer at the end of the previous century, giving it, however the stamp of his own genius.  His apostolate was missionary in the basic sense that it aimed at the conversion of the mass of the baptised to the life of grace and the annual reception of the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist.  The style of preaching tended to stress moral truths more than doctrinal although, as we shall see in this article, the saving truth of the gospel message were repeatedly preached in order to strengthen Christian faith.

Bernardine understood the apostolate in terms of a renewal in the Church and this was natural for one who was so much inspired by St Francis and the Spiritual tradition in the Franciscan Order.  He travelled through Italy with a team of helpers who had special faculties to hear confessions.  At the same time like St Francis, he never set out to downgrade the secular clergy who he never castigated publicly as many of the popular preachers to the time were wont to do.   He addressed the clergy in a separate gathering because he knew that renewal in the Church must have its roots in each local Church.  His conviction was: “non is fe’ mai riformazione di chiesa generale, ma in particulare” – ‘It is not possible to reform the Church in general but in particular.’ Bernardine knew well that the witness of fervent religious life could have far-reaching influence on a local church and her integrated reform. He very definitely linked Franciscan observance with his missionary apostolate.  During the years of his activity more than two hundred convents were either founded by Bernardine or converted to the ideals of the Observance.  This movement gave a certain stability to Bernardine’s influence and it also provided renowned preachers of his own kind for the second half of the 15th century.

Bernadine and his companions, living in poverty and simplicity and travelling on foot usually stopped for a day or two in the smaller centres of population  but concentrated more on month –long periods in the towns and cities. His entry into a city was not only a religious event but a civic one for he was frequently invited by the civic authorities to establish or restore peace among the citizens by means of his preaching. The preaching of social peace and harmony was a constant feature of his apostolate in which he had remarkable success.

Under the standard or banner of the Name of Jesus, the sermons of Bernadine became the public event for a month or more as his pulpit was set up beside a specially built altar in the Piazza communale, the very heart of the city in those days. Early each morning he celebrated Mass in the open, a custom which he defended as a Papal privilege against those who thought he made too much of such a celebration.

Being a man of his time he did not perceive the intimate and essential relationship between Mass and sermon as is evidenced by his remarks to the Perugians encouraging them to come early ‘Et si veniretis bona hora, ut audiatis meam missam, facietis sanctum praeparationem’. ‘If you come at a good hour that you might hear my Mass, you would make a good preparation [for the sermon].’

The shops did not open nor did work start until Bernardine had finished his sermon. It has been calculated that the ordinary sermon averaged three to four hours; the vivacious  and dramatic presentation entertained as well as instructed while his mastery of the mimed gesture made his meaning clear to everyone of his listeners. The content of the sermons was varied and the sequence of themes frequently haphazard, dictated by extraneous circumstances. He might start a course with a sermon on the Blessed  Virgin, as at Siena in 1427, or  with a series of four sermons on a good  confession, as at Florence in 1424, or again, with a sermon on the hidden judgments of God on a sinful people, as at Florence in 1425. He would sometimes interrupt a number of sermons on a given theme with a sermon more in keeping with a particular feast-day. Bernadine invariably dealt with the following topics, devoting several sermons to a particular subject where circumstances demanded it: superstition and witchcraft, the sanctification of Sundays and Holy-days, reverence for holy places and consecrated persons, the sacraments of Penance  and Eucharist, the Passion of Christ and the devotion to his Holy Name, the holiness of marriage and the abuses of it, unnatural vice and immodest fashions, party-strife, gambling, usury and the obligation of restitution, the meaning and purpose of trials and tribulations.

The climax of Bernardine’s preaching and the theme which dominated all the others was the Holy Name of Jesus. Sometimes he would preach several sermons on it, as at Siena in 1425. After the first sermon on this occasion, he held his famous tablet aloft with the monogram of the Name, YHS, set in a twelve-rayed sun blazing on a field of blue; surrounding it was the text of St. Paul “In  Iesu genu flectatur coelestium terrestium et infernorum” (Phil.2.10). He then invited all to adore the Saviour, signified by the tablet of the Holy Name. The adoration of the Saviour followed by a procession through the town after a solemn High Mass. After the procession all those present, estimated at 30,000, made a general confession of their sins led by the preacher. They venerated the tablet once again and were invited to join the confraternity of St. Francis and the Holy Name at the Franciscan convent. After the second sermon, Bernardine organised the public burning of various “instruments of sin” to symbolise in a dramatic way the defeat of Satan after the victory of Jesus in his saving Name. At Siena in 1425, the sorcerers’ books and incantations were especially singled out for the burning as were party banners and ensigns, the paraphernalia for tourneys and game-cards, wigs and artificial tresses for women, statues and pictures considered erotic. The victory of Christ over the Evil One had to be seen by a people intent on making spiritual reality as visible as possible. The coloured monogram of Jesus’ Name was to replace the ensigns of the warring factions; for this reason Bernardine promoted the signing of City Hall, churches, houses, even articles for domestic use with the monogram so that the people might be continually reminded of the Source of their salvation and of their protection from the Evil One.

The General Communion was the final visible goal of the course of sermons: “nam due arche sanctificationis: corpus Christi et nomen Iesu”. Sacramental practice was notoriously lax during these years but Bernardine claimed that, because of his preaching, 500,000 people communicated who had not done so previously. The spiritual renewal, centred on Jesus present in the Eucharist and in the invocation of his Name, was to be annually renewed by means of a solemn procession in honour of the Holy Name after which all would receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Body.

The immediate, external effects of Bernardine’s preaching were spectacular and as great as those of any other Christian preacher in the history of Europe. He brought thousands to the sacraments after giving them a basic grounding in the truths of the faith. He had notable success in furthering peace and harmony, in eliminating strife between the factions in many cities. There was no conversion of whole provinces and cities as von Pastor thought, for the testimony of Papal visitation to Perugia some years after Bernardine’s mission there shows this city “la piu netta in Italia” according to Bernardine himself, to be still in many ways unconverted. He did, however, win respect for preachers from a sceptical generation of humanists while his gospel life won many followers who eventually continued his type of apostolate for a century or more. He was remembered mostly for his promotion of the Holy Name devotion and we now turn our attention to an examination of what was for Bernardine an eminently pastoral vivification of the central mystery of Christianity.