Bernardine, Usury and the Holy Name

An early painting of St Bernardino, c. 1444, the year of his death, by Pietro di Giovanni d'Ambrogio. (cf.,

Saint Bernardine of Siena (+1444) lived through a tumultuous time in the Church’s history. The Great Western Schism had begun in 1378, two years before the birth of Bernardine, with, eventually three rival claimants to the papacy, all with their various supporters.

Left orphaned at six years old, Bernardine was raised by a pious aunt, and grew in devotion to God, Our Lady and the Church. Caring for the plague stricken in 1401 taught him the brevity and    of human life, and that our thoughts should primarily be for eternity. He joined the Observant branch of the Orders of Friars Minor (the strict Franciscans), and spent his life preaching across Italy – not just within churches and convents and at liturgies, but in the open air before thousands, like his near-contemporary Dominican, Vincent Ferrer, who prophesied Bernardine’s vocation.

Despite his apparently raspy voice, Frater Bernardine was one of the most successful preachers of his day, converting untold numbers as he crisscrossed the countryside, inveighing against vices, with his exhortations sometimes ending with a ‘bonfire of the vanities’, the townspeople casting into the flames all those occasions of sin, such things as small mirrors, high-heeled shoes, perfumes, decks of cards (gambling was an inveterate vice ruining many). We might demur with our more modern and tolerant views, but still, I wonder what he would say today of smartphones, yoga pants and, say, condoms?

On that note, Bernardine is described on his Wikipedia page as being ‘homophobic’ for his insistent condemnation of ‘sodomy’. We should be aware that sodomy for the scholastic mind means any sexual act that is deliberately dissociated from its procreative signification and purpose, that is, one sought only for illicit pleasure or domination: Thus, sodomy included not only homosexual liasons, so to speak, but any misuse of the sacredness of sex, including contraception, masturbation and other such things, of varying degrees of moral gravity. Hence, Bernardine’s warning to the people could be applied today with even greater relevance: You don’t understand that [sodomy] is the reason you have lost half your population over the last twenty-five years.

We’ve lost a lot more than half of our own population over the past fifty or so years, due to various widespread practices of ‘sodomy’. Ponder the precipitously low birthrate of the United States (which had been holding its own until recently), now joining the demographic death spiral across the globe, with a few exceptions (almost all in Africa, where religion is also not surprisingly booming).

Bernardine also helped found the Church’s social doctrine, expounding the scholastic principles of economics, not least the evil of usury, which, in its essence, is an attempt to make money from nothing and for doing not much of anything at all. Reflect upon the causes of the Great Depression, the stock market, speculative investing and borrowing to invest, sub-prime mortgages, reckless loans, and, well, we all get some idea of the economic ruin he was predicting – and we still haven’t learned much.

Both sex and money must, in a deep sense, be productive of their purposes. For enclosed in upon themselves for our own solipsistic pleasure, they will lead to our ruin.

In all, Bernardine lived a holy, ascetical life given completely to God, and, besides the ferverino of his sermons, or perhaps because of them, was known for his kindness and charity. He is most famed nowadays for propagating devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus which, as Scripture reminds us more than once, is a name of great power and reverence, to which ‘every knee must bend, in heaven, on earth and under the earth’. To remind his listeners, he also spread devotion to the monogram IHS, which are the first three letters in Greek of the Holy Name, as well as evoking the acronym revealed to Emperor Constantine before that fateful battle on the Milvian bridge, ‘in hoc signo’, – in this sign, you will conquer.

And what was true then, is true now, for only in the name of the Holy One will we overcome the evil one, who still, perhaps more than ever, prowls the world seeking the ruin of souls.

Sancte Bernardinus, ora pro nobis.