St. Louis Bertrand

(1526-1581)

Luis Bertrand was a Spaniard, born in Valencia. On his father’s side he was related to the famous saint, Vincent Ferrer. Docile and devout, he early chose to enter the same religious order, and he was ordained a priest in 1547. Five years after his solemn profession as a Dominican friar, he was appointed master of novices for his community. Though he belonged to an order famous for its educational standards, Friar Luis was more a hardworking than a brilliant student. But of his holiness there was no doubt. He showed it in his sweet, gentle attitude towards all; in the courage with which he took care of the sick when the plague struck Valencia in 1557; in his skill as a preacher, which enabled him to hold vast crowds spell-bound; in his gift of miracles and prophecy.

These were the days when Spaniards were conquering and settling Latin America. Fra Luis had long dreamed of going on the American mission. His dream was fulfilled in 1562, when his superiors sent him across the Atlantic to Cartagena, in the present Colombia, South America.

During the next seven years, this dedicated Dominican missionary had great success as a preacher among the Indians. Although he spoke only Spanish and normally had to use an interpreter, the bull of his canonization tells us that he also had, at least on occasion, the gift of tongues. After converting literally thousands of aborigines around Cartagena and the Isthmus of Panama, he went on to Tubera on the coast. His own entries in the baptismal records there show that he brought all the local natives into the Church. While the people of a place called Paluato were less tractable, he converted thousands at Cipacoa and Santa Marta. Nevertheless, while he was at Santa Marta, 1500 Indians from Paluato, who had changed their minds since his departure, came to petition baptism. Many of the natives baptized in those pioneer days were given only basic instruction. In this case, however, it is said that those whom he received were adequately instructed, and continued steadfast in the Catholic faith.

After laboring on the mainland, Father Louis sailed through the Caribbean Islands, approaching even the Carib Indians of the Lesser Antilles. The Caribs had a reputation for fierceness; indeed, one of their medicine men gave him a poisoned drink. Miraculously, it seems, he was not harmed by the poison. Among the Caribbean islands he visited were St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, now an American possession. At some period of this missionary career he also ministered at Teneriffe in the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa.

Wherever he went, St. Luis was recognized by all as a most admirable man. While on the Latin American mission, he was appalled by the avarice and greed manifested by the Spanish conquistadors. Unfortunately he could find no way of combating it.

Called back to Spain in 1569, Fra Luis was never again to return to the New World. But he held positions of importance in his order, and was even consulted on affairs of state. He was also able to train many of his younger confreres in skills of preaching so that they might carry on the task of spreading the Word of God. The first lesson he always gave them was that the preacher must pray ardently before he preaches. He told them that it is not our words but our prayers and good works that change human hearts. This he himself exemplified to the last. In 1580, though ill, he ascended the pulpit in the cathedral of Valencia, but had to be carried away to a sickbed. He never again rose, but passed his last months in patient suffering. Valencia rejoiced when Saint Louis was canonized in 1671. The Republic of Colombia adopted him as its principal patron.

We are told that Luis Bertrand had almost no sense of humor. Sometimes intense people are inclined that way. But if he was not gifted with the wit of a St. Thomas More or a St. Teresa of Avila, he still possessed what is the essence of a sense of humor: an awareness of one’s own absurd inadequacy without the grace of God.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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