St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Born: 1090, at Fontaines, near Dijon, France
Died: August 21, 1153 at Clairvaux, France
Canonized: January 18, 1174
Declared Doctor of the Church: 1830
Feast Day: August 20
Patron: Chandlers (candle-makers), beekeepers, bees, Gibraltar, Queens College, Cambridge, wax-melters, wax refiners.
Whenever the words “Catholic Pastoral Centre” appear on my iPhone, a feeling of joy or dread often sets in. When I answered my phone this past April, it was none other than Bishop Frederick Henry on the line! He asked me how I was and, after I answered somewhat nervously that I was fine, he assured me I had nothing to fear and that he had good news for me.
As I sat in his office a few weeks later, he revealed what the good news entailed. He was making me a pastor for the very first time! I quickly thought what parish in the diocese my bishop might be assigning me to, and then he said that I would be going to the Parish of St. Bernard’s and Our Lady of the Assumption in Northwest Calgary.
I remember bits and pieces of what he said after that, already daydreaming about what it would be like to be a pastor. As I got into my car to continue on with the day, I thought what amazing patrons I would have to intercede for my parish! Having Our Lady of the Assumption watch over your parish is as good as it gets, but it was the prospect of having St. Bernard of Clairvaux as a patron that greatly excited me.
From my first year in the seminary, I had always had affection for St. Bernard of Clairvaux, mostly because of his intense love and devotion to Mary and because of the remarkable period of history in which he lived.
Born in 1090 to a noble French family, St. Bernard showed from an early age an aptitude for learning and demonstrated remarkable piety, most notably to the Virgin Mary.
In 1113, St. Bernard and thirty young men asked to join the newly formed Benedictine abbey of Citeaux. Founded by St. Robert of Molesmes, the abbey of Citeaux was dedicated to restoring the Benedictine Rule to its more primitive observance, demanding a stricter life of prayer, asceticism and poverty. Such practices were primarily in response to the growing decadence that was evident in many Benedictine monasteries, most notably those associated with the prestigious Abbey of Cluny.
After only three years as a monk, St. Bernard was sent to the Vallée d’Absinthe, or Valley of Bitterness, in Northeast France and founded a new abbey named Clairvaux. He was named the abbot in 1116 and despite the many difficulties he and his monks faced in establishing Clairvaux, the abbey attracted many vocations. In just a few years time, there was a need to establish further houses connected to Clairvaux to accommodate all of the monks who had been drawn to follow the now renowned abbot Bernard.
Though St. Bernard desired to remain in his abbey as a monk, he was soon summoned by bishops and the Pope to help address matters of the Universal Church, and like St. Paul, would have to learn to become “all things to all men, that he might save some” (1 Cor 9:22).
In 1128, St. Bernard was invited by Pope Honorius II to attend the Council of Troyes to help settles conflicts within the Church in France. St. Bernard was elected secretary of the Council and quickly became an annoyance to a number of Cardinals who did not take lightly to the challenges he made towards the Papal Court. Cardinal Harmeric rebuked St. Bernard by saying:
“It is not fitting,” he said, “that noisy and troublesome frogs should come out of their marshes to trouble the Holy See and the cardinals.” Bernard answered the letter by saying that, if he had assisted at the council, it was because he had been dragged to it, as it were, by force. “Now illustrious Harmeric,” he added, “if you so wished, who would have been more capable of freeing me from the necessity of assisting at the council than yourself? Forbid those noisy troublesome frogs to come out of their holes, to leave their marshes . . . Then your friend will no longer be exposed to the accusations of pride and presumption.”[i]
Impressed by the bold response of the young monk, both Cardinal Harmeric and the Papal Court began to think highly of the abbot of Clairvaux and from then on, a strong relationship was formed between St. Bernard and the Vicar of Christ.
In the years following the Council of Troyes, St. Bernard became involved in helping to correct abuses within the Church. Whether it was defending the rights of the Church against kings and princes who sought to control the Church’s resources and impose bishops of their own choosing on various dioceses or engaging in theological debate with the controversial theologians of the day such as the renowned Peter Abelard, St. Bernard was quickly becoming the most renowned churchman in Christendom.
He continued to stay true to his vocation as a monk and man of prayer, composing numerous hymns and homilies dedicated to the Mother of God. He also offered commentary on the Holy Scriptures and treatises on the life of prayer for the benefit of both his monastic brethren and the lay faithful.
In 1143, St. Bernard witnessed one of his pupils and fellow Cistercian monks[ii] Bernard of Pisa, elected as pope, taking the name of Eugenius III. At the new pope’s request, St. Bernard composed for him the “Book of Consideration”. The
overarching vision of the book was for the continued need for reform in the Church, which would come from the holiness of its head and leader, the Bishop of Rome.
Shortly after the election of Eugenius III, news came from the Holy Land that the crusader state of Edessa had fallen to the Turkish armies and both Antioch and Jerusalem looked as if they would be lost once again to Islam. St. Bernard had been instrumental in the founding of the Templar Knights during the Council of Troyes. He composed their monastic rule, closely resembling the life of prayer, poverty and chastity that was present in all Cistercian monasteries. But he also added guidelines on what it meant for a Templar to be both a monk and warrior whose duty was to pray by pondering the holy sites that they protected, and being willing to go to war to protect the Holy Land and keep safe pilgrims who made the long journey to walk in the footsteps of Christ.
Pope Eugenius asked that St. Bernard be in charge of preaching the Second Crusade. He was so successful in encouraging the knights of Christendom to take up the Cross to protect the Holy Land that he was required to cut off pieces of his own monastic habit to fashion crosses to lay on the shoulders of any man or woman who was willing to participate in the Crusade.[iii] Among the more renowned individuals to accept the cross from St. Bernard were King Louis le Jeune and Queen Eleanor of France, as well as the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa.
When the Second Crusade ended in failure in 1152, St. Bernard was devastated that his preaching had been in vain, attributing the defeat to be a sign that the crusaders no longer cared for the safety of the Holy Land. He feared rather that they looked to acquire greater wealth and power by making peace with the Turkish armies to assure that their land holdings in the Holy Land were kept secure. St. Bernard believed with all his heart that it was the sinfulness of the Crusaders that had caused the Second Crusade to fail. He wrote to Pope Eugenius to apologize personally for the failure of the Crusade and began to suspect that his own death was imminent.
St. Bernard died on August 21, 1156 at 63 years of age. At the time of his death, 343 Cistercian monasteries were said to have been established by him or his coworkers. He was canonized in 1174 by Pope Alexander III, and in 1830 was named a doctor of the Church by Pope Pius VIII.[iv]
Many have said that because of his profound love of Scripture and his brilliant theological contributions, St. Bernard was to be considered the last of the Church Fathers, his death signaling the end of the age of the Church Fathers and the beginnings of new theological movements under the guidance of some of the Church’s greatest minds (such as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Albert the Great, St.
Though St. Bernard is remembered as the most prolific churchman of the 12th century whose influence reached across Christendom, his enduring appeal will be found in the intense love he had for Jesus Christ, the Church and the Holy Mother of God.
I feel unbelievably blessed to have St. Bernard as the co-patron of our parish. I pray that he helps us become courageous witnesses of the Gospel, men and women deeply in love with Christ and the Church. I pray that just as St. Bernard entrusted his life to the perpetual intercession of the Mother of God, that our Lady of the Assumption will inspire us to always follow her Son in this life, in anticipation of knowing the glory of eternal life in heaven and to one day experience the resurrection that she already knows in heaven.
Fr. Nathan Siray
The Memorare (attributed to St. Bernard of Clairvaux)
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought thine intercession was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins, my mother; to thee do I come, before thee I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me.
[ii] The monks who belong to the Benedictine Order, as St. Bernard of Clairvaux reformed it, are known as Cistercians.
[iii] Anyone who accepted the call to participate in the Crusade would receive a cloth cross that was placed on their shoulder as a sign that they were willing to bear the Cross of Christ in fighting for the safety of the Holy Land.
[iv] All historical information for this article comes from the Catholic Encyclopedia entry for St. Bernard of Clairvaux. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02498d.htm