Feast Day: May 20
Bernardine was perhaps the most famous preacher in Italy in the first half of the 15th century. At age twenty-three, Bernardine had completed a classical education and capped it with a degree in canon law. In 1403 he joined the Friars of the Strict Observance (Observants), a new branch of the Franciscan Religious Order.
For more than a dozen years he lived quietly and unremarkable in Fiesole, Italy. But in 1417, a Franciscan novice prophesied three times to Bernardine. “Brother Bernardine,” he exclaimed, “stop hiding your gifts. Go to Lombardy where all await you!” The saint went obediently to Milan, not knowing what to do. But he soon discovered that his vocation was preaching when his eloquence began to draw huge congregations. Thousands came to hear this entertaining friar who used his personable humor and wisdom to penetrate their souls with Christian truth. Bernardine preached at great length, sometimes for as much as four hours. For nearly a quarter of a century he crisscrossed Italy on foot, calling people to repentance.
The letters “IHS” are the abbreviation of the Greek name for Jesus, and they appeared occasionally on Byzantine icons beginning in the fourth or fifth centuries. The monogram was virtually unknown in Western Europe until the fifteenth century, when it became an important part of the impassioned sermons of Bernardine, the wandering Franciscan friar, a fierce advocate of Christianity and spokesman for peace.
Bernardine tailored his preaching to appeal to a congregation’s faith, reason, and emotions; between his arguments he told stories that made listeners laugh or weep. He popularized the Holy Name of Jesus. At each sermon’s climax, when Bernardine held his audience’s attention, he would suddenly raise a wooden tablet on which the letters IHS were painted in gold. This dramatic gesture never failed to draw an outpouring of religious fervor. And everyone wanted a copy of the sign. A maker of playing cards whose business Bernardine had ruined by denouncing gambling made more money than ever by manufacturing a placard with the IHS image.
In 1437, the Observants elected Bernardine as their general. In six years he reformed the order, sending friars from their enclosures to service in the world. Overcoming the traditional Franciscan fear of learning, he required his men to study theology and canon law. During his period of leadership, he attracted so many new recruits that membership increased tenfold. He resigned in 1443 to return to preaching. But he died in 1444 shortly after delivering at his hometown a series of fifty sermons in as many days.
“God has two arms—an arm of love and an arm of fear. With both arms he embraces the sinner who desires to return to him. If you want to be loved by him, love him and he will prosper you. And if you fear him, he will protect you from every danger.” —St. Bernardine of Siena
Craughwell, Thomas J. “This Saint Will Change Your Life.” Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2007.
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.
Heritage, Andrew, ed. “The Book of Saints: A Day-By Illustrated Encyclopedia.” San Francisco: Weldonowen, 2012.