St. Bernard of Clairvaux

(1090-1153)

It has been said of St. Bernard of Clairvaux that he “carried the 12th century on his shoulders.” That suggests the importance of this monk whose talents made him a natural leader in his generation.

Bernard (pronounced BERnard, not BerNARD) was one of the many children of the Burgundian nobleman Tescelin Sorrel and his wife Aleth. This was a remarkable family. They learned piety, particularly from their mother. Bernard was personally very attractive, witty, friendly and sweet-tempered, and charmed everybody. These traits could have been perilous, of course. Fortunately, they were counterbalanced by a strong spirituality. He felt an early call to the religious life. For a while he fought it; then he gave in. At the age of 22, he decided to become a monk in a new and strict community of Benedictine monks called the “Cistercians”. It was typical of the leadership qualities of Bernard that he should not have entered alone, but brought 31 other men whom he had talked into becoming monks with him! Among the 31 were four of his brothers and an uncle.

Bernard made such a contribution to the monastery of Citeaux that he is deservedly called that order’s “second founder”. After he had been a monk for only three years, St. Stephen Harding, the abbot of Citeaux, sent him forth to found a new monastery at a place they came to call Clairvaux. Among the candidates that St. Bernard welcomed at Clairvaux were his own father, Tescelin, and his youngest brother, Nivard. (Today three of Bernard’s brothers and his sister are venerated as “blessed”: Guy, Gerard, Nivard, and Humbeline.)

St. Bernard’s obvious talents, his notable spirituality and his gift of miracles, made it inevitable that he would be called on to help the wider church. Not only was his influence great in the reformation of the monastic life and of the secular clergy; he became “the oracle of Christendom”: a man to whom princes and prelates and popes looked for advice and aid.

In 1130, two factions elected different persons as pope. Bernard examined the claims of the candidates and decided in favor of Innocent II. He preached on Innocent’s behalf in Germany, France and Italy. Thanks to his eloquence, Innocent was accepted, thus thwarting a tragic schism in the Church.

Bernard was also a brilliant theologian. In his day, two theologians had begun to teach erroneous doctrines: Abelard and Gilbert de la Porree. As a result of Abbot Bernard’s efforts, their errors were condemned. He was also delegated to preach against the errors of the Aibigensians of southern France and northern Italy. They taught Manicheism, an ancient heresy that among other things condemned marriage. Bernard had some success in this battle, but the Albigensians would not be finally conquered for another century.

Then there was the second crusade. The first crusade, in the 11th century, had wrested the Holy Land from the control of antagonistic Muslims and once more given pilgrims access to the holy places: But the Muslims had begun to recover the territory by 1144. In 1146 Pope Eugenius III (once a monk of St. Bernard’s) asked the saint to preach a second crusade. Bernard threw all his energy into the cause. But the crusade failed to achieve its aims, and its preacher suffered not only disappointment but much undeserved blame.

Despite the many missions on which he had spent, Bernard continued to write and preach on theological and spiritual matters. He was not only a great writer (he has been called “the last of the Fathers of the Church.”), but his eloquent spiritual teachings influenced the spirituality of later generations. Several popular hymns have been incorrectly attributed to him: for instance, the “Hail, Holy Queen”, and “Jesus, the very thought of Thee”. But it is clear that they are based on some of his writings, which merited for him the title “Doctor Mellifluus”, “Honey-sweet Teacher”.

Bernard died on August 20, 1153. He had founded 68 monasteries of Cistercians in many countries. He has always meant much to the diocese of Rochester. Our first bishop was Bernard McQuaid. The saint was patron of our former St. Bernard’s Seminary, and of its present successor, St. Bernard’s Institute. And the Trappist Cistercians at Piffard also carry on in his tradition of loving and prayerful service of God. Both man of God and genius, Bernard of Clairvaux was one of our greatest saints.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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