Philip was his baptismal name. He was third of the six children of Leonardo and Francesca Latini of Corleone, Sicily. Leonardo owned a small vineyard, but little more. Philip received no formal education. He did, however, learn the cobbler’s trade; and when his father died, he plied that trade to support his mother as well as himself.
When young Latini was growing up, his hometown was garrisoned by mercenary troops hired by Spain, which then ruled Sicily. From these swashbucklers, the young citizen learned a more dubious skill – immensely popular in the 17th century – swordsmanship. Indeed, he acquired the reputation of being the best blade in Sicily. This talent, however, he used only defensively: on behalf, for example, of the women and poor peasants often abused by the local soldiery. “Christian causes” he called them.
Swordplay was nevertheless not the safest nor most Christian of skills. One of the military in Corleone was always trying to provoke Philip to duel. On one occasion, when he did cross swords, he wounded this enemy badly. To escape prosecution, he invoked the right of sanctuary, fleeing to the local church for shelter until the coast was clear. He stayed inside the church for a week. During that period of forced inactivity, he had a chance to ask himself whither his combative lifestyle was leading him. Was he not risking his soul?
By the time he emerged and vindicated his innocence, Philip had decided to make amends by entering the religious life. At the age of 27, he entered the Capuchin Franciscan order at Caltanisetta, Sicily, as a lay brother, receiving the religious name of Bernard. This was in 1632.
The way in which Brother Bernard strove particularly to make amends for his violence towards others was in directing his violence against himself. For even slight faults of uncharity in the religious community, he treated his own flesh unmercifully. But along with this stern self-discipline, he advanced by giant steps in his prayer life. Many spiritual gifts were reported of him as time passed: prophecies, wonders, miracles.
Among the more genial graces bestowed on Fra Bemardo was the ability to heal animals. In a truly Franciscan spirit, he felt loving kinship with all lesser animals. He was sad to see them in pain, for, as he said, they could not speak in order to tell human beings of their illnesses, and there were (at that time) no doctors to prescribe for them or medicines to cure them.
Because of the reputation Bernard acquired of curing animals, owners of all sorts of lesser creatures brought them to this “supernatural veterinary”. He would usually say the Our Father over them, and then lead them three times around the cross that stood in front of the Capuchin church. “He cured them all,” says his biographer. Still more remarkably, he is reported, while on his deathbed, to have “bequeathed” this special grace of healing upon another Franciscan who had been his associate and admirer.
Bernard of Corleone was a “modern” saint. Yet every now and then, even in contemporary sophisticated times, God sometimes raises up people that seem to be “throw-backs” to the remarkable saints of earlier Christianity. Their savage means of self-discipline remind us of those practiced by the hermit saints of the fourth century. Their sense of kinship with lesser animals reminds us of the crystalline sense of communion with all creation that characterized St. Francis of Assisi. Now, Satan detests self-discipline and discourages any true love of creation, so people like Saint Bernard of Corleone are his most dangerous enemies, and those whom they inspire are already beyond his seductions.
Brother Bernard Latini of Corleone died at Palermo, Sicily, on January 12, 1667, at the age of 62. This uneducated cobbler and swordsman, who had gone on to triumph in the duel against himself, was declared “blessed” on April 29, 1768, by Pope Clement XIII, and was canonized by Pope John Paul II on June 10, 2001.
–Father Robert F. McNamara