Italy in the fifteenth century was torn apart by rivalries, and the many petty states into which it was divided were almost constantly at war. The result was a widespread decay of morals and morale. If some sense of moral responsibility was restored, it was due largely to the preaching of home missions by Franciscan missionaries. One of the most notable of this band of Franciscan preachers was Blessed Bernardino of Feltre. Born Martin Tomitani, a brilliant youth of noble background, he encountered the “dog-eat-dog” contemporary world when he attended the university. Disgusted with the vanity, ambition, and money-grabbing he encountered, he decided in 1456 to enter the “Observantine” Franciscans, an austere branch of the Franciscan friars.
Bernardino was not enthusiastic when his superiors assigned him to the preaching of home missions. He found that his shortness of stature was against him (he was very small), and he was by nature timid and inclined to stammer. But when he asked his spiritual director about these failings, the director assured him that God would overcome his defects.
God did. Bernardino devoted the rest of his life to preaching missions up and down the Italian peninsula. In all, he preached 3,600 times. He was tremendously popular because he spoke simply and called a spade a spade. The crowds that flocked to hear him were too large for the local churches, so he addressed them in the city squares and the fields. On one occasion the people of Crema were so enthralled by his words that 3,000 of them marched to nearby Lodi so that they could hear him again the next day. In addition to winning souls, he was able to reconcile quarreling groups. He was even invited to make peace between warring communities.
Often, however, Bernardino saw that there could be no lasting reform so long as certain social abuses remained. At times, therefore, he urged the passing of legislation to correct public injustices.
Of all the reforms that became connected with his name, the “Monti di Pieta” were the most famous. In the Italy of his day, usury – that is, the charging of excessive interest for loans – was rampant. A poor borrower was doomed to greater poverty every time he took out a loan. In 1484, Bernardino set up the first of many “Monti di Pieta,” or “Pious pawnshops.” At these banks, run by a joint committee of clergy and laymen, those in need of cash could borrow at a very low rate of interest. Naturally, the professional usurers disliked the Friar’s foundations, and used every means to prevent them and to discredit their founder. But some of these “Funds of Piety” have continued in operation to our own day. An interesting proof that the Church can be practical as well as theoretical.
At the end of each popular mission, Friar Bernardino, like many other missioners of his century, had a vast outdoor bonfire called “burning the Devil’s stronghold”. Those who had been bettered by the retreat were asked to throw into the fire all objects of vanity, occasions of sin, and the like. So they did, enthusiastically: playing cards, dice, pornographic books and pictures, jewelry, wigs, superstitious charms, cosmetics, and so forth.
Maybe we could profit today by one of these rousing parish missions. They would not be likely to end in a bonfire of “vanities”, for times have changed. But if there was a bonfire for empty, worldly objects and for things that are occasions of sin, what would we toss into the flames?
–Father Robert F. McNamara