He calls us to make a stand and to fight, even to death if need be, for our Holy Mother, the Church. Here are the weapons he recommends …
We sons of the Church cannot on any account overlook the injuries done to our mother, and the way in which she is despised and trodden under foot. . . We will certainly make a stand and fight even to death, if need be, for our mother, with the weapons allowed us; not with shield and sword, but with prayers and lamentations to God.
~ St. Bernard of Clairvaux
By the year 1100, the state of the Church in medieval Europe was far from encouraging. Popes and emperors struggled over Church appointments. Antipopes arose with alarming frequency. Church offices were sold for money. And many Church leaders could hardly be said to be living in accord with Gospel poverty. The Church was in need of reform.
Perhaps nowhere was ecclesiastical opulence more apparent than France’s Cluny Abbey. Until St. Peter’s Basilica, it was Europe’s largest church building, and had branches noted less for asceticism than elaborate architecture. Thomas Merton called it a “monastic empire” replete with serfs and the trappings of a medieval fiefdom.
Into this situation stepped one of the Church’s greatest reformers, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), one of those giants God raises up now and then. The Benedictine scholar David Knowles writes:
It is hard to name any other, not occupying the chair of St. Peter–St. Athanasius is the only possible rival–who so determined the policy and the fortunes of the Church as he. He confirmed one pope and instructed another; he confounded anti-popes and revolutionaries; he put down dynasts from their seats in Church and state; he determined the agenda at Councils; he sent Christendom on a crusade.
Called “the Last of the Fathers,” Bernard was termed by Basil Pennington “an awesome man.”
Born to a noble family in Burgundy, Bernard was a born leader. Educated in the classics, he opted for monastic life in his early 20s. Charismatic and persuasive, he convinced more than 30 relatives and friends to join him at Citeaux (Cistercium in Latin). Founded in 1098, Citeaux was intended as a monastic reform, but by Bernard’s time, it had fallen into disarray. The new order, known as Cistercians, expanded under Bernard, who would found 70 monasteries. When he preached at the University of Paris, it was estimated half of his listeners joined the monastery.
Named abbot of Clairvaux at 25, Bernard made it a model of monastic reform. Unlike at Cluny, Bernard’s monks supported themselves through their labor, a return to the Benedictine principle: Ora et Labora (“pray and work”). Bernard told one monk he would “find much more laboring among the woods than you ever will among books.” The strict lifestyle attracted many. To a Cluniac monk, he wrote:
If warm and comfortable furs, if fine and precious cloth, if long sleeves and ample hoods, if dainty coverlets and soft woolen shirts make a saint, why do I delay and not follow you at once? But these things are comforts for the weak, not the arms of fighting men.
Initially, Bernard was a harsh leader, but became less severe and more compassionate. He was harshest with himself, but “for others he was full of tenderness and care.” The monks weren‘t motivated by fear, but love for Christ. Formed in the monastic “School of Love,” they had one text: the Scriptures.
In The Last of the Fathers, Merton wrote of the revival Bernard generated:
One of the signs of a spiritual revival that is really spiritual is that it affects every kind of life and activity around it, inspires new kinds of art, awakens a new poetry and a new music …
Through his preaching, writing and labors, Bernard inspired and influenced poetry, Church architecture, Gregorian chant, clerical life and schools of spirituality. Many hymns and prayers he composed, especially those to the Blessed Mother, are still popular.
Bernard spent a third of his monastic life outside the monastery for the Church’s good. In 1130, he helped heal a papal schism, cementing Pope Innocent II’s rule in the face of powerful Roman families who wanted their own candidate. As one scholar writes: “His was certainly the decisive voice in the healing of the papal schism of the 1130s, decisive in discerning who was the true heir of Peter.”
At the same time, he had no problem rebuking popes. Bernard could be, as Merton writes, “splendidly angry,” when he rebuked Innocent II.
On other issues and occasions as well. He wrote: “The church is resplendent in her walls and wanting in her poor. She dresses her stones in gold and lets her sons go naked.” In fact, Merton wrote, Bernard “cast fire on the earth wherever he went.”
Bernard wasn’t perfect. He wasn’t a plaster statue, but a flesh and blood human being with faults all his own. For example, he preached the unsuccessful Second Crusade; its failure turned public opinion against him. Regarding this crusade, Franciscan scholar Dennis Tamburello writes: “Although Bernard did not believe that the ‘infidels’ should be forced to convert, he did believe it was necessary to contain them by force and so restore safety and order to the holy places.”
As low as things sank during the Middle Ages, with Church-state conflicts, with churchmen competing unashamedly for power, reform came through saints like Bernard of Clairvaux. Today Catholics are facing difficult times as well. But Bernard’s story is important for us, because we can see that even in the Church’s darkest hours, God raises up saints to lead her back to the right path. We see that the Church has gotten through hard times before, and with God’s help, we will again.