St. Bernardine of Siena: Promoter of Franciscan Theology

In his recent history of the Franciscan tradition, The Franciscan Story: St. Francis of Assisi and His Influence since the Thirteenth Century (Athena Press, 2008), the New Zealand historian Maurice Carmody offers readers yet another take on the Saint whose patronage serves Siena College, a Franciscan liberal arts college near Albany, NY, where I have taught this past year. Carmody’s introduction to Bernardine includes the observation that among his contemporaries in what was called the Observant Reform that produced the branch of the Franciscan family known as the OFMs to which I belong, Bernardine was rare in his advocation of theological and other studies for the friars. Some friars believed that higher education was a transgression against poverty, but some like Bernardine realized its necessity and importance especially for ministers in the Church who tasked with preaching and teaching the faith, as well as counseling those in need.

On Wednesday Holy Name Province published a short reflection I was invited to write on Bernardine of Siena. In that reflection (also available on this blog) I focused on both the complicated history of Bernardine stemming from his historical context and what a challenge that can pose to us nearly half of a millennium later and how Bernardine’s commitment to both academic and popular preaching can provide a model for Franciscans in our own age. Below I’d like to share a small portion of Carmody’s reflection on Bernardine, highlighting his promotion of education and its relationship to preaching.

Although small of stature, Bernardine of Siena was a giant among preachers of the early fifteenth century. Prior to joining the Franciscans in 1402, he had studied Canon Law at the University of Siena (1397-1400). He was self-educated in theology, thoroughly familiar with the Bible and the fathers of the church. Before and after his priestly ordination among the Observants, he also imbibed the Franciscan scholastic tradition. The works of Peter John Olivi, Ubertino of Casale, John Duns Scotus, Alexander of Hales and Bonaventure of Bagnoreggio all figured either as sources or quotations in his preaching. Years later he told a gathering of students in Siena that without study he could never have preached, that he would have had nothing to say.

Many of his Observant confreres rejected formal study. They said it led to division in the brotherhood and undermined the ideals of St. Francis. Bernardine did not agree. He argued that a Franciscan could observe the Rule, be a priest and preach without destroying his vocation. Both Jesus Christ and Francis of Assisi had told their followers to preach and that meant study.

Jesus Christ said to his disciples: “Go, preach the gospel to all peoples.” The apostolic life that we have undertaken under the seraphic Francis commands us, among other things, in the Rule to preach to the people about vices and virtues as well as punishment and glory. (Sermon XXVIII)

Preaching was so important, he said, that if there was a choice between listening to a sermon or attending  Sunday Mass, the sermon was the better choice. Without the preached word, he doubted whether anyone would believe in the Eucharist or realize what sin was: nor could they appreciate the importance of good works or know about heaven and hell. He told a congregation in Siena that without the mendicant brothers’ preaching, there would be no Christians left (Sermon XXXII).

Photo: Community of Hope, Inc.

One Response to “St. Bernardine of Siena: Promoter of Franciscan Theology”

  1. “Without…preaching there would be no christians left.” I believe my experience of the church speaks truth to this statement. I have been Catholic all 26 years of my life and I can honestly say I have only met a handful of priests who actually have something to say. Even now I am in a parish with a priest who simply cannot preach. How can we expect people to be inspired when we never have any inspiring words to share. I listen to our priest drag on about inconciquential paticularities concerning this or that irrelavent idea and want to simply stand up and ask if he listened to himself read the gospel! The book we base our faith on is THE most riviting, challenging and inspiring texts I have ever read. It is the foundational text of our faith but yet so many people struggle to say anything about it. I know not every priest is an excellent preacher, and not all of them have to be, but so many of the faithful will go years or even their entire life without hearing an inspiring homily and that is a sad fact.

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