Giovanni Martino Spanzotti, “San Bernardino da Siena”, ca 1486-91, fresco, scene from the large dividing wall of the convent church of San Bernardino, Ivrea, Italy

This month as I work on finishing the introduction to the book on St. Margaret of Cortona, I won’t be able to write a post on a Franciscan saint as usual. Instead I’d like to present this wonderful bit of Franciscan scholarship written by a future pope and now candidate for sainthood himself: John Paul I, the Pope of 33 days. He writes about St. Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444), whose feast day we have just celebrated on May 20.

While he was teaching in the seminary in Belluno in the 1940’s, Don Albino Luciani loved exploring the art and history of the northern town, a history that extended back to Roman times. One of the most outstanding events of the city’s medieval history was the visit in 1423 of the famous Franciscan preacher, whose compelling sermons put an end to the factional strife that was tearing the city apart.

It’s clear from some of the details in this article, which appeared in two installments in the diocesan newspaper L’Amico del Popolo in June 1943, that Luciani had ample access not only to the text of St. Bernardino’s sermons but also to the historical records of the event in the city archives. He brought it to life with his own lively, popular style of writing and keen sense of history.



On the Piazza del Duomo

September mornings in Belluno.

Before dawn, for fifteen days in a row, the door of the convent of San Pietro opened and let through a thin little Friar Minor, totally recollected, who together with his Father companion passed on in silence down the narrow street, still veiled in darkness.

The two, trying to soften the noise that their sandals made on the cobblestones and keeping close to the houses, headed for the Piazza de Duomo.

But they were not alone; other people were arriving from up the contrade [quarters] of Madeago (Via de’ Battuti) and S. Lucano from the nearby Piazza del Mercato, from the narrow lanes that, like streams in a dell, came out in front of the “major church” between the castle and the bishop’s palace and the houses of private individuals; peasants from Castion and Cusighe; artisans from the villages of Tiera (Garibaldi), S. Luciano (Pra) and San Nicolo di Piave, for whom the soldiers of the guard had opened the gates of Ruga and La Dojona ahead of time; citizens, nobles and plebeians, who had become at least for once early risers.  They come a few at a time: the men in silence or exchanging a few words, the women chatting among themselves.

When the preacher arrived at the piazza, a large number of people were already there. They wanted to assure themselves of a good place and they were located close to the pulpit brought from the Church of the Friars Minor and placed on the high point of the piazza.

The preacher, on the other hand, headed toward the temporary wooden altar, where he vested for the Holy Mass, while the larger bell of the cathedral, tolling slowly, opened the day.

When the holy sacrifice had been celebrated, Fra Bernardino immediately went up into the pulpit, and after he had turned his gaze on the people, who in the meantime had finished filling the spacious esplanade, with a clear, sweet and sonorous voice he began the sermon.

“Lowing, roaring”

That little friar! He was the incarnation of the talent and passion for preaching.

Several bishoprics had been offered to him insistently and he had refused them all so that he would not to have to renounce preaching.

“You will do good as a bishop,” they said to him.

“But the best and most excellent labor,” he had answered, “is preaching. Don’t you know what a preacher is? Learn it from the symbols of the four evangelists: like the ox the preacher must low with compassion for sinners; he must roar like a lion against sin; he must speak like the man, and like the eagle he must rise to the vision of God.”

So he remained a simple friar in order to do all these beautiful things: from town to town, through Italy, he went lowing, roaring, speaking and rising on the wings of ecstasy to stir up the multitudes and lead them back to God.

Rather than be a bishop and great prelate, he liked to remain the “manigoldo of God.” Manigoldi is what he called ambassadors and messengers; he felt that he was a messenger of peace sent by God to the Italian cities torn apart by factions and by internal struggles. Milan, Bergamo, Cremona, Piacenza, Treviglio, etc., they had seen him pass, one after another.

In 1423 it was the turn of the Veneto; in Lent he had been in Padua; in May and June in Vicenza; from there he had gone to Marostica; in July he was in Bassano.

The torment of a small town

It was in Bassano that one day it was announced to him that messengers had come from Cividale di Belluno. Two gentlemen entered to see him; Andrea Persicini and Antonio de Bizerij.

“We come on behalf of the most illustrious podestà [mayor] of Cividale, Dolfino Venier,” said one; “He begs you urgently in the name of our noble city to give us the benefit of your word as well.”

“I’m sorry; I have already received requests from so many sides,” Bernardino answered.

“Oh! Father, but no one has more need than we do! We are divided, torn apart by factions and every day there are wicked deeds and banishments and killings.

“What? You too? So the cursed plague of factions has arrived down there too? But how many are there in your Cividale, that you feel the need to eat each other?”

“The city with the countryside around it numbers four thousand souls.”

“And you find time to divide yourselves into Guelphs and Ghibellines?”

“If only it stopped there: from ancient times in our town, the offices have been the privilege of four families and of those that they inscribe in their own rotuli or registers. All the others are excluded from them; hence, envy, rivalry and beatings. And that’s not all: if one of the four families breaks off with another and goes to war against it, all those inscribed in his rotulo have to enter the fray with him. Calls to arms, alarms, the sieges, fires and banishments are all the order of the day. There is no peace, there is no security. We are constantly in turmoil. Father, you must come to Cividale.”
“Where and when? I will come of course.”

“And you will bring us peace.”

“If God helps me. But you too must help me. Is there fear of God in Cividale?”

“Father it is the factions that are ruining Cividale, but religion there is anything but extinguished. We have 20 churches, three hospitals, two convents; there are few citizens, nobles or artisans, who are not enrolled in one of the ten confraternities.

“On the first Sunday of every month, the Flagellants go in procession from church to church beating and flogging themselves. Our painter Simon da Cusighe has just died, but il Cesa is still working; you will see their paintings, their Madonnas; you will see that there is a religious soul among us. It is in the brawls that we become animals, but afterwards, we repent and do penance and compete to offer gifts to the churches. We have dubbed one of our men, Grassia di ser Vittore Doglioni, “the wicked one,” so incapable is he of avoiding giving offense and fighting; he is always present where blows with a club are given and received; he has been wounded and mutilated several times, and he is still ready to attack again! And well, when there was the subscription for the altarpiece of San Martino, he was among those who distinguished themselves most in giving; I am certain that the ‘bailiff’ of the chapter has made note of his offering with special satisfaction.”

“I understand. Don’t despair of the salvation of your city. And let it now be settled: in the middle of September, after my preaching in Treviso, I will come to you.”

A shrewd preacher.

And he had come.

The first few days he had been concerned with re-awakening religious feeling in the souls of the people of Belluno, by expounding religious truths.

At the same time, as he was accustomed to doing everywhere, he assured himself that he would have a large audience, insisting through the widest advertising.

“O lady, you know, in the morning, when you come to the sermon, don’t leave your husband in bed.”

And you, O man, “dispute with” your lazy wife.

Everyone, everyone would have to come to the friar’s sermon.

And to those who were not able to come, those present are to recount what they have heard; and everywhere: at home, in the shop, under the balcony in the marketplace, in the field:

“O ladies, I want to make you all preachers!”

“And similarly again the farmer, who while working can say to that other: — O, the friar said such and such.”

September 25

But who could have repeated what he said on the morning of September 25?

They had heard his voice tremble, in the beginning. Not with fear; the flashing of his eyes and the resolution in his gestures indicated the audacious fighter who confronts the final, decisive struggle, determined to win a victory at any cost. The audience had said to themselves: the father is about to tell us something serious, and the piazza was as silent as a tomb.
And behold: he said that discords are destruction; destruction of the city and of souls; torture of the charity that Christ has so inculcated.

As he spoke, he became more and more fervent, the words came out of him in a fiery torrent; he reasoned, he threatened, he exclaimed: now they knew what the roar of a preacher was like:

“Here are there none of you, ladies, who have a husband who belongs to a faction? Are there here none of you, men, who is the head of one side? If he is one who acts as head of only one person, he has a devil who rides him if he is the head of fifty, fifty devils ride him; if he is head of a thousand, he has a thousand devils on him. . .”

Then the roaring subsided in exhortations:

“O people of Cividale, open your eyes and see what you have come to . . . open your ears and hear your salvation, and then put it into practice. . .”

There followed the description of the evils brought by the divisions:

“Alas! How many evils have come from these factions, how many women have been killed in the cities themselves, how many women have been disemboweled! Similarly, how many children are dead because of vendettas. How many have been thrown down from the towers. . . What do you think, ladies?”

To the women it seemed that it was madness, foolishness to continue fratricidal struggles, which cost so much blood for nothing, and showed it with their tears.

The men too were convinced and moved, but they continued to look dry-eyed at the friar as he brought home to them the prospect of divine punishment.

But in an instant Bernardino’s eloquence made a leap; he spoke of the love of Christ, of his sweetest name. The lion and the man had disappeared, the eagle was speaking, his ardent gaze communicating his feelings and his intense passion. No one resisted him any longer; many, even the men, had tears in their eyes, many lowered their heads; sobs were heard; a wave of emotion passed through the crowd.

Then he made his last move: he took the little tablet where the monogram of the name of Jesus was painted, which he always carried with him; he showed it to the people. “Behold,” he said, “the name in which hates must finish here forever; if you have good will, come, come, venerate it and then give the kiss of peace to your enemy, and run home, burn the rotuli” and the banners and the coats of arms that have been the cause of so many ills: give peace back to your city!”

It was at that moment that Belluno saw one of the most beautiful scenes of its history: obedient to the voice of the friar, all those who were mutual enemies reconcile in the public square, except for a single wicked man, vir sordidus [despicable man] who refused to yield to the exhortations what came not only from the friar, but from every side, in such universal enthusiasm. Two days later, in an extraordinary meeting with 33 votes to 7, the major council of the city decided to burn the “rotuli”, according to Bernardino’s desire and entrusted to sixteen competent men the reform of the laws according to a more Christian and democratic criterion.

When in April of the following year, the new laws entered into force, with the approval of Venice, a new period of peace and well-being began for Belluno; a period of intense spiritual and artistic life.

Fra Bernardino could be content!

His shadow. . .

And here the long article was finished. But it happened that that after I had written it, there came again into my hands the novel by Willa Cather: Shadows on the Rock, where “the rock” was none other than the city of Quebec in Canada and the shadows are the Frenchmen (missionaries, bishops, captains) who founded it; all people who have been under the earth for almost 300 years, but who nevertheless – according to the author – seem to project their shadows on the city, imprinting it with their spirit, influencing its history, inspiring the inhabitants.

It is exactly what St. Bernardino does here in Belluno, I thought.  His imprint, his spirit, his “shadow” can be seen and felt.
Not just in the cathedral with his statue and his altar with the painting by Lo Schiavone and the stone with the name of Jesus in the middle of the sun rays that was once on the door of the Palazzo del Consiglio; or in [the church of] San Pietro, where there a portrait painted of him; or in the chapel of the seminary, where the sign of Bernardino can be seen in the keystone of the vault; on in the houses of private citizens where the stone is still imprinted with the memory of that great peace.

Not just in the manuscripts of the Museo Civico that report the decisions take under the influence of that discourse of September 25, and the later ordinances with which the council sent representatives to the feasts and processions in honor of the saint.
And not only in the annual fair that takes its name from him and in the diocesan calendar or missal, which recall Bernardino as the minor patron of the diocese.

St. Bernardino projects his shadow above all on the history and civilization of Belluno; he has facilitated the wise and enlightened work that the Republic of San Marco has carried on among us for four unforgettable centuries, and to which we are indebted, in a special way for the meek character of our people.


(1)  Albino Luciani /Giovanni Paolo I, Opera Omnia (Padua:  Edizioni Messaggero, 1989), 9:386-91; translated by Lori Pieper, OFS.