Saint Bernard has been called the apostle of the Crusades, the reconciler of kings, the counsellor of popes, Mary’s troubadour and the “honey-mouthed” doctor. He was born in 1090 at Fontaines les Dijon in Burgundy, France, the son Tescelin Sorrel and Aleth, the daughter of the Lord of Montbard. He was sent to Châtillon for studies and when he was 19, upon the death of his mother, he decided to enter religious life. In 1112, he persuaded thirty-one of his friends and relatives, including four of his brothers, to depart with him to Cîteaux Abbey.
This monastery had been founded in 1098 as the first Cistercian monastery, which observed a strict interpretation of the Rule of St. Benedict. The abbot, St. Stephen Harding (1060-1134) welcomed them and on June 25, 1115, St. Bernard was sent with twelve monks to establish a Cistercian abbey at Langres and named its abbot. His virtuous life soon attracted many followers. The name of the location was changed from Valle d’Absinthe to Clairvaux, which means the bright valley; it was to become the motherhouse of sixty-eight Cistercian monasteries.
Due to his reputation for holiness, learning and wisdom, St. Bernard soon became involved in matters beyond the walls of the monastery. In 1130, he supported the legitimacy of the election of Pope Innocent II against the claims of the antipope Anacletus II. In 1140, he began to preach in public and the eloquence of his words and miracles attributed to him led him to be considered as the greatest preacher of his time.
In 1145, St. Bernard saw the election of Peter Piganelli of Pisa as Pope Eugene III. He had been the abbot of Tre Fontane monastery in Rome, and had been a postulant in Clairvaux under the guidance of St. Bernard. At the request of this pope, St. Bernard was invited to preach a crusade against the Turks. He roused all of Europe to the second Crusade, headed by both Emperor Conrad III and Louis VII of France. Regrettably, the crusade ended in disaster due to the lack of dedication of the crusaders.
In 1153, he was invited to help effect a peace between the Duke of Lorraine and the citizens of Metz, which had been attacked by the duke. Upon his return to Clairvaux, he took ill and died on August 20. He is considered the second founder of the Cistercians and rom the time that he became abbot at the age of 25 until his passing, he was a dominant influence in both the religious and political atmosphere in Europe.
He is considered an outstanding medieval mystical writer as evidenced by over 300 of his sermons, his over five hundred letters, his reflections on sacred Scripture and deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although only four percent of his writings were on the Virgin Mary, they are very rich in their content. In his sermon “de Aquaeductu,” he referred to Mary as the Mediatrix, with Christ as the Head of the Mystical Body and Mary as the neck which helps to distribute the graces that emanate from the head to the members, using the analogy of aqueduct that brings water from the reservoir to the various locations. In the same homily, he wrote, “God has willed that we should have nothing which would not pass through the hands of Mary.”
In his sermon, “Missus Est,” he wrote, “Look to the star, call upon Mary! In difficulty or doubt or you fall upon the rocks of tribulation, call upon Mary! If you are tossed by the waves of pride or ambition, call upon Mary. In dangers, in anguish, in doubt, think of Mary, call upon Mary. Let her name be ever on your lips, ever in your heart, imitate the example of her life. Following her, you will not err, invoking her, you will not grow weary, guided by her, you will have no fear, under her protection, you will reach the goal.”
St. Bernard has had a deep influence on Catholic spirituality over the centuries. He was canonized on January 18, 1174 by Pope Alexander III and in 1830 was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius VIII. On May 24, 1953, on the occasion of the 800th anniversary of his death, Venerable Pope Pius XII (r.1939-1958) issued an encyclical on St. Bernard, in which he labeled him “The Last of the Fathers.” In religious art, he is depicted with three bishop’s miters at his feet since he was offered to be named a bishop on three occasions, but declined that honor.
By Rev. Matthew R. Mauriello
(Father Matthew Mauriello, a priest of the Diocese of Bridgeport, is chaplain of the St. Camillus Nursing home in Stamford and a writer whose work has appeared in national Catholic publications.)