On the day of the death of St Catherine of Siena, as though a kind Providence had wished not to leave that city without a spiritual beacon light, Bernardine was born to the noble family of the Albizeschi, in Massa, a small Sienese town.
Early an orphan, he was left to the care of three aunts, Diana, Pia, and Bartolomea, and a cousin, Tobia, who reared him in their own pious and beautiful way. He grew up pure as a girl, at the same time spirited, resolute, and as full of courage as a lad should be, and of a personal beauty and dignity, as well as of a jocund temper so marked that they might well, as he advanced in years, fill his female relatives with apprehension of the pitfalls that must inevitably lie in his path.
On this account one day, when he was grown a youth, Tobia cautioned him against the lure of Satan in woman's form.
"Fear not for me, little mother," he answered her, "for already I am betrothed to one so noble and so lovely that I worship her with all my soul, and cannot pass a single day without seeing her. I am even now on my way to visit my love."
Far from being reassured, Tobia asked in a trembling voice: "Where dwells this lady and what is her name?"
"She dwells outside of the Porta Camollia, but her name will I never divulge," answered Bernardine with a meaning smile as he departed.
Tobia, although ashamed to spy upon one whom she knew to be limpid of heart and white of soul, followed him secretly to the place he had mentioned, and there found him on his knees before a fresco representing the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, which was painted over the gate. His lifted face glowed with reverent adoration, and he was wrapped in a contemplation so profound that he failed to notice Tobia. Having finished his prayer he arose and made his way home all unsuspecting, but Tobia on her return clasped him to her heart with tears of relief and gratitude, calling him her own dearly beloved child.
When he was seventeen Bernardine entered the Hospital of La Scala in Siena, joining a confraternity of men who there led a life of discipline and contemplation. With them he remained, studying and practising penance, until three years later the plague broke out in the town, and raged with a greater violence than ever before in the city's history; the number of the stricken grew daily greater until scarcely anyone was left to take care of the sick. It was then that Bernardine, at the head of ten other youths, took charge of the hospital and laboured incessantly for four months, nursing and consoling the living, burying the dead, bringing order out of chaos and health out of disease. He did not desert his post until the plague had ceased. He then himself became ill as a result of the fatigue he had undergone. His life was for a time despaired of, but he slowly regained his health, and during his convalescence determined to spend his days in a life of religion. His choice fell upon the Franciscan Order as realizing his ideal of devotion. He divided his fortune between the Church and the poor and became a Minorite Brother. He, in fact, was the founder of the reformed Order of Franciscans, called the Fathers of the Observance, for they observed the original Rule of St Francis from which the Order had woefully lapsed, practised the severest abstinence, absolute poverty, and went bare-foot.
As an humble barefoot friar he began his mission, and as such he died at the end of the forty-two years of his religious life, though honours were offered him repeatedly: the bishoprics of Siena, of Ferrara, and of Urbino were pressed upon him in vain; he refused them, pleading that preaching was his mission. From end to end of Italy he travelled, carrying the gospel of peace and love and purity. Such was the concourse of people who everywhere gathered to hear him that no church could contain them, and he was obliged to hold his services in the public squares or the open fields.
Wherever he went he exhorted his hearers to the love of God and of their neighbours, and in response to his exhortations peace seemed almost miraculously to be restored between cities at war, factions and families at strife, and individuals at feud; life-long enemies fell weeping on each other's necks and forgave old offences; creditors pardoned their debtors; debtors hastened to pay ancient debts, and brothers were reconciled after long estrangements. In the same way those who had led lives of sinful pleasure or of crime, of gaming and of profligacy, were turned from their evil ways, and in proof of regenerate hearts made great pyres in the squares of all the tools and symbols of their occupations; all manner of men cast away their weapons; women threw into the flames their mirrors, jewels, false hair, perfumes, and high-heeled shoes; gamblers heaped up their cards, dice, and chessmen.
Once, upon Bernardine's return to Bologna, where in the blaze of such a pyre all gambling implements had been destroyed, a man came to him in great distress, complaining that whereas before Bernardine's coming he had been able to earn a modest living by making and selling playing cards and dice, he was now reduced to poverty, as no one would any longer buy his wares.
"Have you no other trade?" asked Bernardine.
"None," said the man.
Bernardine then showed him a little tablet which he always held in his hand while preaching, and not only looked at frequently himself, but at the end of the sermon exhibited to the kneeling populace. It was marked by the name of Jesus, or rather the initials I. H. S. surrounded by a halo of golden rays. He told the man to make copies of this tablet and sell them, with the result that the man made a fortune, for all people wished to possess them.
This same tablet, the emblem of the Cult of the Holy Name, played a great part in the life of Bernardine. It became a symbol so generally worshipped that it was carved or painted over doors, on walls, on personal property, wherever Bernardine had preached, and might almost have been taken as a mark of his passage, for never in his sermons did he weary of extolling the beauty and the spiritual power of the Name of our Lord, and of using it as a means for kindling popular fervour. So great became the veneration of these tablets that in some quarters the objection was raised that they were becoming objects of idolatry, and Bernardine was called to Rome by Pope Martin V to answer the charge of heresy. He, however, by his replies to his accusers, acquitted himself of the charge, and the Pope, convinced of Bernardine's integrity, not only let him go free, but bade him preach in Rome itself.
In his defence he was aided by the eloquent pleading of his pupil and disciple, John of Capistrano, afterward also canonized a Saint.
Strange to say, this event repeated itself during the period of the pontificate of Pope Eugenius IV, who followed Martin. Again Bernardine, accused of heresy, was summoned to appear in Rome. Again he was acquitted and sent honourably on his way to continue his pious mission. Whereas upon his arrival he had been hooted at in the streets, insulted, and threatened with death, he departed in triumph, concerning which he said, with his customary humorous turn:
"On my arrival (in Rome) some wanted to see me fried, others roasted, but once they had heard me preach, not a man was suffered to say a word against me. When I come to consider such treatment I marvel and say to myself: Hold fast to God, for fleeting indeed are the things of this world, since they now wish me well whose death they desired but a short time previously."
"His face," as one of his biographers states, "was never sad unless he were sorrowing over some public crime, and he always loved a joke." Another biographer says: "He was very cheerful, always joyous and gay." It was, furthermore, a part of his creed, as well as of his nature, to "be ever joyful in the Lord, amiable, gracious, and gay at all times," for he considered it "unbecoming that one in the service of God should wear a gloomy and sullen mien."
But this merry disposition accorded perfectly with the utmost severity toward evil doing, tender sympathy with the sufferings of the afflicted, and utter abnegation of self. All three of these qualities are shown in the story told of him and the wicked and powerful Duke of Milan, Philip Maria Visconti.
When once the Saint protested to the Duke against the viciousness of his life and that of his court, his excesses in luxury, his cruelty, and finally his exactions of almost divine homage from his subjects, the Duke threatened to take from Bernardine the license to preach, and even told him that imprisonment and torture awaited him if he continued in his accusations. The undaunted preacher, nevertheless, persevered in proclaiming from the pulpit, or wherever he might be, the impiety and immorality of the Duke's mode of life.
Finding threats of violence of no avail, the Duke attempted the bribery of the poor friar, sending him by his servants the gift of a hundred ducats carried on a silver dish, money intended for his personal use. His purpose was, as soon as Bernardine should have accepted it, to denounce him before all as one who could be bought and silenced with gold. But Bernardine refused the bribe. Immediately the messengers were sent back to him by the Duke, begging that if he would not accept the money for himself he would take it for the poor, or build a monastery with it. Again Bernardine refused the gift. When the servants asked him what they should do with the money, which they had been forbidden to return with to their master, the Saint said quite simply: "Follow me," and led them to the debtors' prison. There he paid the debts of all the inmates but two, and not having sufficient money to liberate these last, he said to them:
"Fear not, for I promise to buy your release, and should I be unable to procure the money, I will myself come to prison in your stead."
The populace, hearing of this, immediately gathered money enough to set free the two remaining prisoners.
The delay of his messengers deceived the Duke so far that he jumped at the conclusion that Bernardine had accepted his bribe. He announced it as an accomplished fact to his courtiers, adding with a sneer that although the friar appeared to scorn money his practice did not accord with his preaching.
In time the messengers returned bringing news of what had actually happened, and then, won by the uprightness of the Saint's action, his fearlessness and sincerity, the Duke admitted the falsity of his own accusation, and thereafter unresentfully and generously ranked himself as his admirer and friend.
In the course of his long mission Bernardine founded more than three hundred monasteries, and performed many miracles, healing the sick and taming the elements. He himself, emaciated and worn by constant toil and travel, grew day by day weaker and wearier, and finally died on his sixty-fourth year, at Aquila in the Abruzzi. The Sienese would have wished him brought back to be buried in their city, but the inhabitants of Aquila would on no account consent to surrender their precious relics, and Bernardine was interred amid inconceivable pomp and ceremony in a silver shrine in the Church of San Francesco.
Miracles worked by his effigy abounded after his death, until the reputation of his power caused even his one-time enemy, Duke Philip Visconti, himself far from devout, to send for the Saint's spectacles to cure himself of a malady of the eyes.
The ancient accusation of heresy followed Bernardine even after death. His enemies again assailed his use of the symbol of the Holy Name as unorthodox. And again John of Capistrano flew to defend Bernardine dead, as he had defended him living. He even urged the trial by fire, proposing to cast himself into the flames of a pyre upon which Bernardine's remains should be placed. Most touching was his request that, if both should be destroyed, his death should be ascribed to his own sins, and not to any shortcoming in his dear dead master.
The Pope, Nicholas V, refused to permit the ordeal, but on May 24, 1450, less than six years after his death, announced the canonization of St Bernardine of Siena.