In the Grotto at Lourdes in Southern France there is a statue of Saint Bernadette Soubirous, that great incorrupt Saint who saw our Lady. In her hand is a Rosary, but if one were to look closely it is not the traditional Dominican Rosary we are all familiar with, but rather it is another Rosary given to another Saint by our Lord 100 years after Dominic received his Rosary from our Lady. Who was this Saint that still was still inspiring devotion in other Saints hundreds of years after her death?
Sadly, few today know of this great Saint who preceded that great Doctor of the Church: Saint Catherine of Siena, in struggling to bring the Papacy back to its rightful place in Rome. Before those two great lights of the Dominican Order, Saint Catherine and Saint Vincent Ferrer, would come to rescue the Church there was but one lone voice speaking for the justice of God and that was Saint Bridget.
Now Bridget is not to be confused with that great Irish Saint and Mystic: Brigid of Kildare, Saint Bridget hailed from that cold northern land of Sweden. Now considering our own day and how the hearts of the people of this world have grown so cold, and even few Catholics today display that fiery charity inspired by the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Thus in light of the situation the Church and the world are in at this moment it seems that we ought to renew our devotion to Saint Bridget and beg her to intercede for us that we may be delivered from this evil days, which are days even more evil than her own.
The Liturgical Year
Dom Prosper Gueranger, O.S.B.
Saint Bridget of Sweden
“Who, O Lord, has treated thee thus?” “They that despise me and forget my love.” This was the first revelation of the Son of God to Bridget of Sweden. Francis of Assisi, raising before the world the standard of the Cross, had announced that Christ was about to recommence the Dolorous Way; not now in his own Person, but in the Church, who is flesh of his flesh. The truth of this declaration Bridget experienced from the very opening of that fatal fourteenth century, during which such innumerable disasters, the results of crime, fell at once upon the West.
Born in the year when Sciarra Colonna, a new Pilate’s servant, dared to strike the Vicar of Christ, Bridget’s childhood was contemporaneous with those sad falls, which caused the Church to be despised by her enemies. There were no Saints in Christendom comparable to the great ones of old ; in the preceding age the Latin races had exhausted their vitality in producing flowers; but where were the promised fruits? Ancient Europe had nought but affronts for the Word of God; this feast, this apparition of Jesus in cold Scandinavia, seems to point to his flight from the habitual centre of his predilection. Bridget was ten years old, when the Man of Sorrows sought a resting-place in her heart: and at that very time, the death of Clement V and the election of John XXII in a foreign land, fixed the Papacy in its seventy years’ exile.
Rome meanwhile, widowed of her Pontiff, appeared the most miserable of cities: The ways of Sion mourn, because there are none that come to the solemn feast. (Thren. i. 4.) Sacked by her own sons, she was daily losing some remnant of her ancient glory; her public roads were scenes of blood-shed; solitude reigned amid the ruins of her crumbling basilicas; sheep grazed in St. Peter’s and the Lateran. From the seven hills anarchy had spread throughout Italy, transforming the towns into haunts of brigands, and the country parts into deserts. France was doomed to expiate, in the horrors of a hundred years’ war, the captivity of the Sovereign Pontiff.
Unfortunately, the captivity was loved; the Court of Avignon did not mourn like the Hebrews by the rivers of Babylon; richer in gold than in virtues, it were well, had they not, for a long time, shaken the influence of the Holy See over the nations. The German Empire and Louis of Bavaria could easily refuse obedience to the ward of the Valois; the Fratricelli accused the Pope of heresy; while, countenanced by the doctors of the law, Marsillus of Padua attacked the very principle of the Papacy. Benedict XII discouraged by the troubles in Italy, abandoned his design of returning to Rome; and built upon the rock of Doms the famous castle, at once fortress and palace, which seemed to fix the residence of the Popes for ever on the banks of the Rhone. The misery of Rome, and the splendour of Avignon, reached their height under Clement VI who entered into a contract with Jane of Naples, Countess of Provence, securing to the Church the definitive possession of Avignon. At that time the Papal court surpassed all others in luxury and worldliness. God in his justice visited the nations with the scourge of the Black Death; while in his mercy he sent warnings from heaven to Pope Clement:
“Arise; make peace between the kings of France and England; and go into Italy to preach the year of salvation, and to visit the places watered by the blood of Saints. Consider how, in the past, thou hast provoked my anger, doing thy own will and not thy duty; and I have held my peace. But now my time is at hand. If thou wilt not obey, I shall require of thee an account of the unworthiness wherewith thou hast passed through all the degrees by which I permitted thee to be exalted in glory. Thou wilt be answerable for all the avarice and ambition that have been rife in the Church in thy days. Thou couldst have done much towards a reformation, but being carnal-minded thou wouldst not. Repair the past by zeal during the rest of thy life. Had not my patience preserved thee, thou wouldst have fallen lower than any of thy predecessors. Question thy conscience, and thou wilt see that I speak the truth.” (Birgett. Revelat. Lib. vi. cap. lxiii.)
The severe message, dictated by the Son of God to the prophetess Bridget of Sweden, came from that Northern land where sanctity seemed to have taken refuge during the past half century. Though incurring such reproaches, the Pope still had great faith, and he accordingly received with generous courtesy the messengers from the Princess of Nericia. But, though he promulgated the celebrated Jubilee of the half-century, Clement VI allowed the holy year to pass away without going himself to prostrate at the tombs of the Apostles, to which he convoked the entire world. The patience of God was at an end. The judgment of that soul was revealed to Bridget; she saw its terrible chastisement, which however was not eternal and was tempered by hope. (Birgett. Revelat. Lib. vi. cap. cxliv.)
Hitherto wholly engaged with the supernatural interests of her own country, Bridget suddenly found her mission embrace the whole world. In vain, by her prayers to God, by her warnings to princes, had the Saint striven to avert from Sweden the trials that were to end in the union of Calmar. Neither Magnus II nor his consort Blanche of Dampierre, took to heart the menaces of their noble relative: “I saw the sun and the moon shining together in the heavens, until both having giving their power to the dragon, the sky grew pale, reptiles filled the earth, the sun sank into the abyss, and the moon disappeared, leaving no trace behind.” (Birgett. Revelat. Lib. viii. cap. xxxi.)
The criminal coldness of the South had been the occasion of grace for the North; but the latter in its turn did not profit by the time of its visitation: and Bridget quitted it forever. She herself was a city of refuge to our Lord. Taking up her abode in Rome, she there, by her holiness, prepared the way for the return of Christ’s Vicar. There for twenty years she, as it were, personified the eternal city, enduring all its bitter sufferings, knowing all its moral miseries, presenting its tears and prayers to our Lord; continually visiting the tombs of Apostles and martyrs throughout the peninsular; and at the same time never ceasing to transmit to Pontiffs and Kings the messages dictated to her by God.
At length the horizon appeared to be brightening: while the just and inflexible Innocent VI reformed the Papal court, Albornoz was restoring peace in Italy. In 1367 Bridget had the great joy of receiving in the Vatican the blessing of Urban V. Unhappily, in three short years Urban quitted the threshold of the Apostles to return to his native land; but, as Bridget foretold, he re-entered Avignon only to die. He was succeeded by the nephew of Clement VI, Roger de Beaufort, under the name of Gregory XI, who was destined to put an end to the exile and break the chains of the Roman Pontiffs.
But Bridget’s hour had come. Another was to reap in joy what she had sown in tears; Catharine of Sienna was to bring back to the holy City the Vicar of our Lord. As to the valiant Scandinavian, who had never lost courage nor faltered in faith through the failure of her missions, she was inspired by her divine Spouse to visit the holy places, the scenes of his Passion. It was on her return from this last pilgrimage, that, far from her native land, in that desolate Rome whose widowhood she had striven in vain to terminate, she was called to her heavenly reward. Her body was carried back to Scandinavia by her daughter St. Catherine of Sweden. It was laid in the yet unfinished monastery of Vadstena, mother-house of that projected Order of Our Saviour, the foundation of which, like all the undertakings imposed by God upon Bridget, was not to be completed until after her death. Twenty-five years before, she had received almost simultaneously the command to found, and the command to quit, this holy retreat; as though our Lord would give her a glimpse of its blessed peace, only to crucify her, the more in the very different path into which he immediately led her. Such is God’s severity towards his dear ones, and such his sovereign independence with regard to his gifts. In the same manner, he had allowed the Saint, in her early years, to be attracted by the beautiful lily of virginity, and had then signified his Will that the flower should not be here, When I cry, said the Prophet, in a captivity figurative of that whereof Bridget felt all the bitterness, when I cry and entreat, he hath shut out my prayer. Me hath shut up my ways with square stones, he hath turned my paths upside down. (Thren. iii. 8, 9.)
Before reading the liturgical Legend, let us call to mind that St. Bridget died on the 23rd July 1373; the 8th October is the anniversary of the first Mass celebrated in her honour by Pope Boniface IX, on the day following her canonization. (7th & 8th October 1391) Martin V confirmed the Acts of Boniface IX in her honour; and approved her Revelations, which had been violently attacked in the Councils of Constance and Basle, only to come forth with a higher recommendation to the piety of the faithful. Many indulgences are attached to the Rosary which bears the Saint’s name. These are now, by the favour of the Apostolic See, frequently applied to ordinary Rosaries; but it must be remembered that the true Rosary of Saint Bridget is composed of the Ave Maria recited sixty-three times, the Pater noster seven times, and the Credo seven times, in honour of the supposed number of our Lady’s years on earth, and of her joys and sorrows. It was also from a desire of honouring our Lady, that the Saint vested in the Abbess the superiority over the double monasteries in the Order of our Saviour.
Bridget was born in Sweden of noble and pious parents, and led a most holy life. While she was yet unborn, her mother was saved from shipwreck for her sake. At ten years of age, Bridget heard a sermon on the Passion of our Lord; and the next night she saw Jesus on the cross, covered with fresh blood, and speaking to her about his Passion. Thenceforward meditation on that subject affected her to such a degree, that she could never think of our Lord’s sufferings without tears.
She was given in marriage to Ulfo, Prince of Nericia; and won him, by example and persuasion, to a life of piety. She devoted herself with maternal love to the education of her children. She was most zealous in serving the poor, especially the sick; and set apart a house for their reception, where she would often wash and kiss their feet. Together with her husband, she went on pilgrimage to Compostella, to visit the tomb of the Apostle St. James. On their return journey, Ulfo fell dangerously ill at Arras; but St. Dionysius, appearing to Bridget at night, foretold the restoration of her husband’s health, and other future events.
Ulfo became a Cistercian monk, but died soon afterwards. Whereupon Bridget, having heard the voice of Christ calling her in a dream, embraced a more austere manner of life. Many secrets were then revealed to her by God. She founded the monastery of Vadstena under the Rule of our Saviour, which was given her by our Lord himself. At his command, she went to Rome, where she kindled the love of God in very many hearts. She made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; but on her return to Rome, she was attacked by fever, and suffered severely from sickness during a whole year. On the day she had foretold, she passed heaven, laden with merits. Her body was translated to her monastery of Vadstena; and becoming illustrious for miracles, she was enrolled among the Saints by Boniface IX.
O valiant woman! support of the Church in most unhappy times, mayest thou now be blessed by all nations! When the earth, grown poor in virtue, no longer paid its debts to the Lord, thou wast the treasure discovered and brought from the uttermost coasts to supply for the indigence of many. Thou didst earn the good-will of heaven for the hitherto despised North. Then the Holy Spirit was moved by the prayers of Apostles and Martyrs to lead thee to the land which their blood had not sufficed to render fruitful for the Spouse; thou didst appear as the merchant’s ship bringing bread from afar to countries wasted and barren. At thy voice, Rome took heart again; after thy example, she expiated the faults which had wrought her ruin; thy prayers and hers won back to her the heart of her Spouse and of his Vicar.
Thine own portion was one of suffering and labour. When, to the joy of all, thy work was consummated, thou hadst already quitted this world, Thou didst resemble the heroes of the Old Testament, saluting from afar the promises that others were to see fulfilled, and acknowledging themselves to be strangers and pilgrims on the earth. like them thou didst seek, not the fatherland thou hadst abandoned and whither thou couldst have returned, but the only true home which is heaven. Moreover God made it a glory to be called thy God.
From the eternal city where thine exile is at an end, preserve in us the fruit of thy example and teachings. Thy Order of our Saviour perpetuates them in the countries where it still exists though so much diminished; may it revive at Vadstena in its primitive splendour! By it and its rivals in holiness, bring back Scandinavia to the faith, now so unhappily lost, of its apostle Anscharius, and of Eric and Olaf its martyr kings. Lastly, protect Rome, whose interests were so specially confided to thee by our Lord; may she never again experience the terrible trial which cost thee a life-time of labour and suffering!