Bl. Bertrand

(C. 1172-c. 1230)

When the good guys get careless, the bad guys are always waiting to take over. And once the bad guys are in the saddle, they are hard to unhorse.

The bad guys in southern France in the 12th century were the heretical group called Cathari or Albigensians. They taught the error called Gnosticism–very dark and pagan in its origins, very old as a threat to Christians, but possessed of as many lives as a cat.

Its doctrine was that there were really two powers in contest: God, associated only with the spiritual; and the devil, the principle or darkness and evil, associated with everything material. Salvation, the Cathari leaders said, does not come through Christ’s death, but from His alleged teachings that salvation lies only in denying ourselves everything that is earthly: honors, powers, private property, war, etc., and even marriage, which was considered the greatest of evils.

The Cathari did not expect all their followers to throw off these “sinful” things readily. They should at least plan to do so just before their death, however, and receive at that time the “baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The leaders themselves followed this erroneous asceticism throughout their lives, and they were encouraged to commit suicide if tempted to become “ordinary Christians” again.

Why should such a wild error have won any following among French Catholics? In the first place, because the Catholics were not well instructed in their faith. In the second place, because so many prominent Catholics were living selfish, sensuous lives that the ordinary Catholics asked, “Is this Christianity?” But the Cathari leaders (“the Perfect Ones”) were living what seemed to be lives of self-denial and social service of the sort one would expect of good Christians.

Several methods were attempted to crush the heresy. One was the Inquisition. Another was a military crusade. The Inquisition eventually had some success, but the military crusade only further alienated many Catholics. What was going to help most, because it was most radical, was the efforts of the new religious orders of the Dominicans and Franciscans. They aimed first, to instruct Catholics better in their faith; and second, to set them all an example of Christian selflessness.

One of the earliest Dominicans to engage in this religious instruction and preaching was Bl. Bertrand of Garrigues. Clinging to orthodoxy and peace in the midst of Southern France’s heresy and civil war, he had seen King Raymond VI of Toulouse, a pro-Albigensian, attack the monasteries of Cistercian monks, the defenders of the faith. (The story is told that the Cistercian monks at Bouchet repelled Raymond by overturning their beehives in the face of the advancing soldiers!)

Bertrand, becoming a priest first, helped the Cistercians by his preaching. Then he met St. Dominic, joined the new Dominican order, and became one of the saint’s closest confidants. For several years he traveled with him and witnessed the many miracles he wrought, although at Dominic’s command he spoke nothing of them until after the saint’s death.

Having worked in Paris, Toulouse, Rome and Bologne, Friar Bertrand was named provincial of the Dominicans preaching against Catharism in southeastern France. There he spent the last nine years of his life. He countered the dark heresy of Albigensianism not only by his teaching but by his Christian good example.

There is a story told about him that shows how Bl. Bertrand was himself a constant learner. Once a fellow friar, Father Benedict, asked him why he celebrated Mass for the dead so infrequently. Bertrand replied that the poor souls were already on their way to heaven, hence they were less in need than the living. But Benedict rejoined: “If you saw two beggars, one strong and the other disabled, which would you pity the more?” Friar Bertrand admitted, “The one who can do least for himself.” Benedict said, “The souls in purgatory can do nothing to help themselves; the living can.” Bl. Bertrand pondered that explanation a lot, and then began to offer more Masses for the dead.

You see, this preacher against darkness is instructing us, even today.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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