Bridget (Birgitta) Birgersdotter was surely one of the greatest women of the Christian Middle Ages. Patron saint of her native country, she was also counselor to, and critic of, princes, prelates and popes.
Bridget’s father was a wealthy governor in Sweden. He gave her in marriage, at the age of 14, to Ulf Gudmarsson the 18-year-old son of a land-holding family. The young bride bore Ulf eight children, of whom one, Catherine, is also venerated as a saint. It was an ideal marriage which lasted until his holy death 28 years later. Not that the couple’s life was without family trials. Death robbed them early of their youngest son; their oldest daughter married a violent nobleman; and only an untimely death saved another son from adultery. But the couple faced all their problems with Christian fortitude.
Around 1335 Bridget was called to the court of Magnus II Eriksson, the young king of the Swedes, to serve as chief lady-in-waiting to his new French wife, Queen Blanche of Namur. Bridget earned the respect of the king and queen, but her long-term efforts to train them in wisdom were not very effective. Magnus did, however, assist her generously when, after the death of her husband in 1344, she established around 1365 a double monastery at Vadstena. The double monastery was an arrangement sometimes adopted in medieval congregations in which there was a convent for women and an affiliated convent for men. Both branches were ruled by the abbess in temporal matters, but in spiritual matters both priests and nuns were subject to the priests’ superior. This religious congregation she called the Order of the Most Holy Saviour. They came to be popularly known as “Bridgettines.” Bridget’s daughter St. Catherine (Karin) of Vadstena was later its abbess. Some houses of Bridgettine nuns still exist; the Bridgettine monks are no more.
In 1349, Bridget, now out of favor at court, though beloved by the Swedish for her charities, moved to Rome, never to return to her native country. At Rome she was busy with the affairs of her religious order, she took care of Swedish pilgrims, she worked among the Roman poor, she made many pilgrimages, and in a city that had become impoverished and disorderly because of the absence of the popes, she set a strong personal example of Christian life.
From childhood, Bridget had been the recipient of dreams, visions and revelations. The Swedish courtiers had joked, “What was the Lady Bridget dreaming about last night?” She herself was worried that Satan might be their agent. Then she received a special revelation which told her to submit these communications to the judgment of a learned priest. The priest assured her that the voices were supernatural, and had her dictate them thenceforth to her spiritual adviser. Thus their content has been largely preserved.
Revelations had guided her in Sweden when she advised King Magnus. While she lived at Rome, revelations and prophecies continued to prompt her to warn Christian churchmen and rulers who needed correction, even though her unwelcome messages at times brought mistreatment upon her. She was especially inspired to persuade the popes to return from their residence at Avignon, France. (The French-born Pope Clement V, elected in 1308, had decided not to go to Rome at the time because of the disorder there. His successors wanted to return over the next 70 years, but deferred the move for one or another reason, although Rome suffered much because of their absence.) Bridget, on divine instructions, kept up contact with Popes Urban V and Gregory XII at Avignon; and four years after her death, Pope Gregory finally heeded her admonitions and brought his court back to the Eternal City.
What was she like, this woman who could be called one of the “Mothers of the Church”? No remote mystic, but, as one of her associates put it, a woman who was “kind and meek to every creature, and had a laughing face.” Four years after her death, her body was brought back in triumph to Sweden and laid to rest in her abbey at Vadstena. She was canonized in 1391. During the Reformation Sweden forgot her. But we may be sure that Bridget has never forgotten Sweden.
–Father Robert F. McNamara