The Complicated History and the Popular Preaching of St. Bernardine of Siena

Daniel Horan, OFM Features

As we near May 20, the feast of St. Bernardine of Siena, Daniel Horan, OFM, describes the life of the patron saint of advertising and communications and the preaching for which he is best remembered and “which stands as a model for Franciscans today.” The following reflection is a joint publication of HNP Today and and is available to be read and shared at both websites.

Saints, like all people, are complex figures. Their personal histories, transmitted as they are by popular and traditional hagiography, are oftentimes presented in simplistic or formulaic ways. This is perfectly understandable because in presenting a canonized saint to the Christian faithful the Church wishes to highlight those aspects of Gospel life that this or that person exemplified. Yet, there usually remains more to the picture than initially meets the eye, much of which is good and some of it understandably left behind.

Such is the case with St. Bernardine of Siena (Bernardino degli Albizzeschi), the 15th-century Franciscan saint and namesake of our own Siena College near Albany, N.Y. Bernardine’s life (1380-1444) is one of exemplary sanctity and commitment to the Christian faith and Order of Friars Minor, but it is also a life very much shaped by its historical context. Perhaps best known in Holy Name Province for his strong devotion to the “Holy Name of Jesus,” his popular preaching is what made him famous during his own lifetime.

Cynthia Polecritti, in her doctoral dissertation Preaching Peace in Renaissance Italy: San Bernardino of Siena and His Audience (UC Berkeley, 1988), notes that the texts of Bernardine’s sermons “are acknowledged masterpieces of colloquial Italian.” He was an elegant and captivating preacher. His use of popular imagery and creative language drew large crowds to hear his reflections. And, as Polecritti also notes, the subject matter of his sermons reveals much about the contemporary context of 15th-century Italy.

A Complicated History
We get a glimpse into the historical context of Bernardine’s world when we look at three of the most popular, albeit seemingly scandalous, subjects of his sermons: witchcraft, sodomy and Judaism. Franco Mormando, author of The Preacher’s Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy (University of Chicago Press, 1999), has dedicated a book-length study to these themes in the Franciscan saint’s preaching. I think it’s important to name these topics because they represent two aspects of the history of pastoral ministry worth considering.

The first aspect to recall is that we are products of our time. Today, the things that Bernardine said about Jews or “sodomites” (as Mormando explains well in his book — see chapter three — the concept of sexual orientation did not exist in Bernardine’s time. He spoke only in terms of “acts,” (both in the case of males and females) that would likely strike the contemporary hearer as abhorrent. His sermons were riddled with ostensible anti-Semitism and homophobia. Yet, the second aspect to keep in mind is that he was responding to the issues of his age based on the pastoral and theological knowledge available to him. Though we, several centuries later, look back and see the concerns of his audiences, the subjects of his sermons and the tenor of the text to be terribly regrettable, Bernardine was motivated by a love for God’s people and a desire to address the needs of the Body of Christ in the 1400s.

Mormando sets Bernardine’s ministerial stage well: “The world of 1427 was a confusing, frightening place: as Bernardino and his audience firmly believed, the Devil was omnipresent and frequently had the upper hand; humankind was still largely at the mercy of the mysterious and capricious forces of Mother Nature, and, to add insult to injury, death by famine, plague, war marauders, unjust lords, or absurd accident threatened to carry one off at any given moment.” Bernardine’s preaching, amid the darkness and fear of the age, brought forth hope and light in the form of Gospel life in an explicitly Franciscan tenor.

Bernardine was well-versed in his own Franciscan heritage. One might say that he was a true son of St. Francis, committed as he was to the Observant branch of the Franciscan Order (today known as the Order of Friars Minor). It is said that as he died on the night of May 20, 1444, outside the city of Aquila, he requested to be placed on the bare earth as Francis had at his own death.

He had a complicated relationship with the Church’s leadership. In 1426, Bernardine was summoned to Rome to defend himself against charges of heresy for his promotion of the devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus, something of a novel devotion. He was eventually acquitted, but Bernardine’s innovative efforts in the realm of pastoral ministry reflect the ongoing struggle that members of religious orders often face, while balancing the needs of the people and what is often viewed as immutable tradition.

Popular Preaching: Inspiration for Franciscans Today
That for which Bernardine is best remembered stands as a model for Franciscans today. Popular preaching is perhaps one of the greatest needs the Church has in our own age. How often do you hear a terrible homily? Sure, preaching within the context of the Mass is one area that Bernardine’s example could be followed in responding to the concerns of the day in light of Christian faith. But what also set Bernardine apart was the way in which he lived what he preached and spoke about faith in a variety of settings.

Preaching in the 15th century wasn’t quite the same as it is today, both in its style and in its relationship with the celebration of the Eucharist. There was oftentimes a distinction between the two. Preaching was at times more of a public civil event than a liturgical one. Nevertheless, responding to the concerns of the day in a way that connects to people in an intelligent and faithful way continues to be something that Franciscans are known for today (I think of Holy Name Province’s own Ministry of the Word, for example) and remains our challenge to carry on. I have heard from many women and men around our Province that they travel many miles, past many other churches to worship at our urban ministry centers, parishes and college chapels, in part because of the preaching and welcome.

On a more personal note, I find Bernardine’s example in balancing academic study and popular preaching to be a model for those friars in education ministry. Mormando writes, “Bernardino’s speech is at once both learned and colloquial, constantly oscillating in its syntax and idiom between the language of the marketplace and that of the medieval classroom.” In my own ministry as a Friar Minor, I strive to strike this balance, too. Through my writing, I try to reach both popular and academic audiences, albeit in different ways. On one hand, my first book, scheduled to come out next spring, is published by a popular press and is aimed at providing a contemporary look at Franciscan spirituality for a broad audience in a manner not unlike some of my articles that have appeared in magazines like America or St. Anthony Messenger. On the other hand, I have published several peer-reviewed and very technical scholarly papers in top theological journals like The Heythrop Journal and Worship. While I work hard on research that is presented at academic conferences, I have also given retreats and public lectures to general audiences.

Bernardine was in a sense an innovator who, while well-versed in the even then slightly antiquated form of medieval preaching, drew on contemporary images, metaphors and examples to make his sermons relevant and understandable. I believe that Franciscans, following in Bernardine’s footprints, need to look for and embrace new forms of communicating the Gospel message to all people.

As the Pope and the United States bishops have in recent months cautiously encouraged, the new social media are becoming increasingly more vital in communicating in today’s world. In order for the next generation to hear the Franciscan voice, Franciscans must meet people where they are — which is the very definition of popular preaching. I have experienced this firsthand in the increasingly popularity of my blog, DatingGod, which started with several hundred readers a day and has increased to, at times, several thousand a day.

I am firmly committed to the belief that Franciscan preaching — in its varied forms, both liturgical and otherwise — must be done in both the academy of professional theologians and in the public squares of everyday life. Franciscan theology and spirituality, that particular take on the Gospel life as first modeled by St. Francis and St. Clare, offers the Church and world an always timely renewal of Christian living. We, like St. Bernardine of Siena, must rise to the vocational challenge to preach the Gospel in all manner of life, ministry and word.

— Br. Dan is currently completing a year of teaching at Siena College near Albany, N.Y., and will profess his solemn vows in August. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Dating God: Franciscan Spirituality for the Next Generation (Cincinnati, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2012), and is currently working on his third book, an edition and scholarly study of the correspondence between Thomas Merton and Naomi Burton Stone. He writes daily