Born: September 8th, 1390 in Siena, Italy
Died: May 20th, 1444 in Aquila, Italy
Canonized: May 24th, 1450.
Patronage: Advertisers, Aquila, Italy; chest problems, Italy, Diocese of San Bernardino, California; gambling addicts, public relations personnel, public relations work.
The initials IHS are a common sight inside a Catholic church. You will find IHS embossed on the front of altars, beneath statues of the Sacred Heart and placed on the back of a priest’s chasuble. But like many signs and symbols in the Catholic Church, many do not know what IHS stands for! The Catholic Encyclopaedia offers the following explanation for the monogram IHS:
“IHS is a monogram of the name of Jesus Christ. From the third century the names of our Saviour are sometimes shortened, particularly in Christian inscriptions (IH and XP, for Iesus and Christus). In the next century, the “sigla” (chi-rho) occurs not only as an abbreviation but also as a symbol. From the beginning, however, in Christian inscriptions the nomina sacra, or names of Jesus Christ, were shortened by contraction, thus IC and XC or IHS and XPS for Iesous Christos.”[i]
What seems to be a pious abbreviation for the Holy Name of Jesus Christ would eventually became a source of controversy and even an alleged object of idolatry during the High Middle Ages! It is here that we can introduce the story of St. Bernadine of Siena.
St. Bernadine was born in Siena, Italy on September 8th, 1380. Orphaned at the age of 6, he was raised by his aunts. When he was 17, he began to study Canon Law and joined a confraternity that cared for the sick, most notably those ravaged by a plague that hit Siena in the 1390’s. In 1402, he joined the Friars Minor (the Franciscans) and was ordained to the priesthood in 1404. Another saint of that century, the Dominican preacher St. Vincent Ferrer, foretold that St. Bernadine would go on to become a great missionary preacher and to this today is often referred to as the “Apostle of Italy.”
In 1417, St. Bernadine moved to Milan and was soon revered as a zealous preacher. Pope Pius II, at that time a teenager, said that he was spellbound by the preaching of St. Bernadine, while others sought him out as a confessor for his discernment and evident holiness. His influence even touched the hearts of Milan’s nobility, who accepted his harsh words of repentance as necessary for their own salvation, and put aside the practice of usury that had become commonplace. In addition, St. Bernadine also sought to promote the message of his founder, St. Francis of Assisi, of fostering peace among men of good will by calling rival noble families to end their blood feuds and the wars that disrupted the stability of the Italian city-states. St. Bernadine had become in both word and action, the Apostle of Italy, though like the Apostles of old, his prominence and calls to conversion and a deeper love of Christ and neighbour also brought him numerous enemies.
Whenever St. Bernadine succeeded in persuading city-states to end conflict, he would command them to take down the weapons that adorned their city walls and replace it with a plaque or board bearing the monogram IHS. He also had the monogram of the Holy Name of Jesus Christ placed on portable placards that he would bring with him on preaching missions as a tangible means to promote devotion to the Most Holy Name of Jesus Christ. His opponents accused St Bernadine of heresy, suggesting he had introduced a profane and new devotion that would expose ignorant people to the sin of idolatry. In 1427, these accusations made their way to Pope Martin V, who summoned St Bernadine to Rome. Having received him in a cold and stern audience, the pope forbade him from preaching on or exhibiting the tablets with the monogram IHS. St Bernadine humbly accepted the decision of the Holy Father, handing over his sermons and tablets for examination. His trial was set for June 8th, 1427.
On that day, St. John Capistrano came to St. Bernadine’s defence, showing that the accusations made against him were filled with malice and jealously. He was able to convince the Pope not only of St. Bernadine’s innocence but also of the importance of preaching on the Holy Name of Jesus Christ. This resulted in the Pope commissioning St. Bernadine to begin a preaching campaign in Rome to promote devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus Christ! St Bernadine’s devotion to the Holy Name would have dramatic results: This devotion of popular piety would gain prominence in Italy, and in time would allow for a feast day in honour of the Triumph of the Holy Name to be celebrated by the Friars Minor in 1530, and in the universal church in 1722 (January 3rd is now celebrated as the feast day of the Holy Name of Jesus Christ in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite and on January 2nd in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite).
During the 1430’s, St. Bernadine became the Vicar-General of the Observants of the Friars Minors. More than 4000 men joined the Observants during his tenure, until he petitioned Pope Eugene IV to be freed of this burden so that he could return to his preaching tours throughout Italy. The Pope agreed, asking him to also preach a Crusade against the Turkish Empire in 1443, though their is no certain record of him having ever done so.
In 1444, he set off to preach in the Kingdom of Naples, but a sudden fever and the toil of 40 years of tireless preaching required him to stop in the city of Aquila. There, of his own free choosing, he asked to lay on the cold ground and soon passed into the hands of the Heavenly Father on May 20th, 1444, the eve of the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord. Because of multiple miracles attributed to his intercession, he was canonized by Pope Nicholas V on May 24, 1450 and his relics were placed in the church of the Observants of the Friars Minor in the city of Aquila.[ii]
In addition to his preaching on the Holy Name of Jesus Christ, St. Bernadine is also remembered for promoting devotion to St. Joseph. Though St. Joseph is widely revered throughout the Catholic Church in our present day, in the Early Church, many were cautious. They were fearful that in promoting devotion to the adopted father of Jesus Christ, it could lead to St. Joseph being revered as the biological father of the Son of God! But St. Bernadine knew otherwise. He sought to promote devotion to the Holy Carpenter of Nazareth for his fidelity to the will of God in caring for Jesus and Mary and also for his virginal purity in entering into a chaste celibate marriage with the Holy Mother of God to assure that her immaculate virginity was kept inviolate. St. Bernadine was also one of the first saints to suggest that St. Joseph was among those saints who rose from the dead after the death of Christ on Good Friday and that his body was even assumed into heaven. Here is an excerpt from one of St. Bernadine’s sermons on the proposed assumption of St. Joseph:
“ Although it is not defined dogma, we are free to believe that Jesus honoured His adopted father in the same way as He has honoured His Blessed Mother. In the same way that Mary was to be assumed into Heaven, Jesus, it is thought, designed to glorify Joseph on the day of the Resurrection. In this way all of the Holy Family- Jesus, Mary and Joseph- who lived together on earth would reign together in heaven.”[iii]
Theologians have given reasons to support St. Bernadine’s teaching as to the fittingness of believing St. Joseph was assumed into heaven. In part, it was due to the special dignity of St. Joseph’s singular fidelity to the vocation of being the adopted father of Christ. The gift of his glorification would be a further confirmation of his loyalty to God. Others suggest that the great love of Jesus and Mary for St. Joseph would have moved The Lord to glorify him by bringing his body and soul into heaven before the final judgment and day of resurrection. Finally, because St. Joseph’s closeness to Jesus and Mary, they would desire to preserve him from bodily corruption and allow him to know the resurrection of the body that awaits all who will be glorified by Jesus Christ.[iv]
St. Bernadine of Siena remains for us as an outstanding example of apostolic zeal and a witness to the importance of sound doctrinal preaching in the life of the Church. His endeavours to promote devotion to both the Holy Name of Jesus Christ and St Joseph remain relevant and important in the contemporary life of Catholic piety. Let us seek St. Bernadine’s intercession in always honouring the name of Jesus Christ and drawing closer to St Joseph, so that the Holy Carpenter of Nazareth will guide us to the home of the Heavenly Father, where he reigns in spirit (and perhaps in his resurrected body) with the Most Holy Trinity.
Fr. Nathan Siray
[i] IHS <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07649a.htm>
[ii] All historical information found in this article concerning the life and ministry of St. Bernadine of Siena comes from the Catholic Encyclopaedia entry on the said saint: St. Bernadine of Siena <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02505b.htm>
[iii] St. Bernadine of Siena, Homily 3 on St. Joseph
[iv] B. Llamera, The Theology of St. Joseph, pgs. 305-306