St Bernardine of Siena is a figure well worth getting to know (his optional memorial is celebrated on 20 May). Let’s do this!
He was born near Siena (no surprise) in the end of the 14th century and lived through the middle of the 15th century. His life spanned the last days of the “Babylonian Captivity” of the papacy (in Avignon), the Great Western Schism (3 popes at one time, all claiming to be legitimate), and the subsequent reform of the Church, which for a time taught that an ecumenical council was superior in authority to the pope. With 3 separate men all claiming to be pope, you could hardly blame a council for thinking it had no choice but to take charge.
After finishing university studies in Siena he became a Franciscan, and he ultimately became a renowned preacher. He was utterly devoted to the “Holy Name of Jesus” (parishioners on Snow Rd, take note!). He is credited with popularizing the logo HIS, which he took to be an acronym for I(J)esus Hominum Salvator (Jesus humanity’s savior). It was a nice idea, and the Jesuits would ultimately also adopt this logo. But it is in fact an abbreviation of the Greek letters iota (=I/J), eta (= long E), and sigma (S)—based on the Greek form of the name of Jesus—IESUS. [Footnote: when you look at the image of Christ in glory over the altar in our church, you’ll notice two sets of letters in His halo on either side of His head: IC and XC. The “C” is a special form of the Greek letter “S,” the “X” is the Greek letter “CH,” and you already know the “I.” So the abbreviations stand for “Iesous” or “Jesus,” and “Christos” or “Christ.”]
In Bernardine’s lifetime not only was there division in the Church but also in his Franciscan Order. There were two major groups in this clash: Conventuals who believed there needed to be certain accommodations in St Francis’ rule to make community life possible, and Spirituals who believed that anything less than absolute poverty was a betrayal of St Francis’ vision. Spirituals viewed Conventuals as soft and sellouts; Conventuals saw Spirituals as detached from reality and worshiping poverty instead of Christ. Attempts at reconciliation of these two parties was one of the major works of St Bernardine, and toward the end of his life he made great progress. He was 64 when he died.
There is a statue of St Bernardine in the Bargello, an important museum in Florence. He was regarded as extremely handsome as a young man, but this figure shows a severity of character that (let me be honest) would not have made him my #1 choice to go to, for confession! Still, I like to think of the comment that Graham Greene made about the Church and novelists like himself: “When you preachers preach from the pulpit,” he said, “it’s all fire and brimstone; but when we get into the confessional it’s all mercy and forgiveness. The trouble is that we writers write in the confessional, while you judge us from the pulpit.” Perhaps St Bernardine of Siena was, in spite of the appearance of that statue, all mercy and forgiveness, after all.