Saint Bernard was born to a noble family in Burgundy, France. He was the third oldest of seven children. His parents were holy and pious individuals; they raised Bernard and his siblings to be as pious and holy. At a young age with his siblings, he learned Latin, however, as his brothers were sent to military school, Bernard was sent to college at Chatillon, where he studied theology and Sacred Scriptures. He was known for amazing piety and zeal for perfection.
After the death of his mother, worried that the temptations of the world were too much to bear, even though his friends encouraged him not to fear them, young Bernard decided to enter the Cistercians, an order very much in its infancy. St. Bernard would become the primary public relations director of this order as it expanded throughout Christendom. Even though he was uncertain of his call only weeks before entering, he persuaded some of his brothers, an uncle, and thirty other men to join the Cistercians with him. He was twenty-two years old.
After three years in the order and witnessing the great progress Bernard was making, the Abbot commanded he take a party of 12 men to establish a house in the Diocese of Langres in Champagne. With the help of the local Bishop and townspeople, they established a small house. However, the conditions were rough and Bernard was strict with his men, even to the point that he discouraged them. Realizing what he was doing, he made amends for his actions by silencing himself, only speaking to preach.
His preaching and knowledge of theology and Sacred Scriptures was immense. Bernard’s reputation continued to grow during his time as Abbot. Princes and Kings would come seeking his wisdom for their political issues. Bishops would ask him for ecclesiastical guidance when dealing with Church affairs. Even the Popes took his advice and went to him for support. During the Papal Election of 1130, St. Bernard played a role in helping to discern the issues that arose that saw Pope Innocent II become Supreme Pontiff.
Throughout this time, the house that he first established had grown to 130 men. His own father and another young friend followed him into the Cistercian order in 1117. The region where the house had been established was in a valley; the valley was renamed and the house became known as the Abbey of Clairvaux. His holiness continued to grow and he became known for his great piety, theological knowledge, and wisdom, while traveling throughout Europe.
When time allowed, St. Bernard continued to preach to his monks. In 1140, he preached publicly for the first time to the students of Paris. One of the famous discourses of St. Bernard to his monks is on the Old Testament book, Song of Songs (Canticle of Canticles). In Chapter 22 on Humility, St. Bernard says,
“If you do not know yourself, O fairest among women, go forth and follow after the steps of the flocks and feed the kids next to the tents of the shepherds” (Sg 1:7)…And so the bride asks for greatness but is given an austere rebuke. Without humility the greater gifts cannot be attained. Humility prepares us for them. Humility, I say, not humiliation. How many are humbled who are not humble!”
He also established Cistercian houses throughout Europe. The first that developed from Clairvaux was in Ireland. After ten years of the Cistercians in Ireland, six other houses were also established. By the time of his death, there would be a total of sixty-eight monasteries that came out of Clairvaux. It was he who brought an infant order to greatness in a very short period of time.
Like many during this time, he fought against the Albigensian Heresy that arose in France. First encountering them in Cologne, he was then sent to Languedoc, where the supporters were hardheaded and violent. Through his preaching, he was able to bring many souls back to the Church. However, many years later the heresy would rise again with even more fervor and determination. This is where the Hound of the Hounds entered the picture.
In 1144 on Christmas Day, the Seljuk Turks invaded and captured Edessa. Blessed Pope Eugene III instructed St. Bernard to preach a crusade. With words of fire and zeal, Bernard passionately engaged many who then joined the second of the crusades led by Emperor Conrad III, and followed by King Louis of France. The Second Crusade was a complete and total disaster, since neither army made it past Damascus.
On August 20, 1153, at the age of sixty-three years old and Abbot for nearly thirty-eight years, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux died and entered into Heavenly glory. In 1174, Pope Alexander III canonized him. Pope Pius VIII declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1830.
St. Bernard is known as Mary’s Troubadour for his writings were incarnational and profound. The Marian prayer, the Memorare, is said to have been written by St. Bernard. His writings truly display the admiration and devotion he has towards the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the first of the Missu Est Homilies, he says,
“There is something even more to admire in Mary. It is the prerogative by which she unites integrity with fruitfulness. From the beginning of the world there was never a woman who united at the same time that fact of being both virgin and mother. Then, if you remember whose Mother she was, what bounds will you set to your admiration for her incomparable grandeur?”
On May 24, 1953, Blessed Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical on St. Bernard titled, Doctor Mellifluus (The Honey-Sweet Doctor). In the document, Pius XII says,
“The “Doctor Mellifluus,” “the last of the Fathers, but certainly not inferior to the earlier ones,” was remarkable for such qualities of nature and of mind, and so enriched by God with heavenly gifts, that in the changing and often stormy times in which he lived, he seemed to dominate by his holiness, wisdom, and most prudent counsel.”
Let us pray: O God, you blessed your Church with the passion and zeal of St. Bernard, who preached courageously, even during times of great danger. Through the intercession of the Blessed Mother, whom he loved dearly, help us stand and preach the Gospel message, even in times of great distress. Amen.