Rediscovering Bernardino of Siena

Rediscovering Bernardino: Preacher, Teacher, Founder

Anthony M Carrozzo, OFM


Bernardino of Siena is perhaps the most enigmatic Saint on the Franciscan calendar. Certainty he is an embarrassment to contemporary Franciscans with his anti Semitic views and homophobia along with his sermons filled with earthy images, some too embarrassing to translate. On the other hand, in a dysfunctional church he stood out as trustworthy among teachers and preachers. People flocked to listen to him preach for hours at a time. He engaged them with stories and even bonfires to rid listeners of what he considered useless things like wigs and jewelry. He joined Catherine of Siena and others in Siena in reforming the relaxed atmosphere in internal religious observations. This movement came to be called the Observant Movement.

Yet, in our divided world we are afraid to honor him. Did he make mistakes? Not really. He simply thought like a man of his age, perhaps with a far firmer grasp of shortcomings around him and surely with less tolerance than Francis is Assisi had for shortcomings. But we have grown accustomed to condemning people according to today’s standards rather than the standards of their times. So statues fall, books are burned, reputations are ruined. People in our past are dishonored for not thinking like we think today. What we must consider is why Bernardino came to think the way he did. The answer is simple. He lived in Siena rather than Assisi. In Assisi, he would have mellowed. In Siena, he hardened by embracing the reformers’ role along with Catherine of Siena.

But the task before me is to point out an aspect of Bernardino’s life and work that is seldom attended to but it extremely important to the development of our thinking on the discernment of spirits. While not always original in his thinking, his De Inspiratione has had a profound influence on the development of thinking on discernment.

Bernardino’s work De Inspiratione consists of three sermons that were to be preached during the Octave of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was most evidently experienced in the Church. He did not start with a blank page, however. He was influenced by such Franciscan luminaries as Ugo Panziera, a poet in the style of the more famous Jacopone da Todi; the ever present Alexander of Hales and Peter John Olivi along with David of Augsburg.

In the first sermon in this series, he addresses the kinds of inspiration that affects us in our daily lives. These are inspirations from the Holy Spirit as well as inspirations from not so holy spirits that infiltrate our minds and hearts along with occasional flashes which we may or may not attend to or respond to. Here he clearly defines an inspiration: “an inspiration is a certain arousal of the mind which impels toward a worthy, unworthy or indifferent action.” So it is important to note that an inspiration can have moral consequences. Not all inspirations are valuable. One must first strive to discern this.

The second sermon is the crux of his discernment process, providing twelf rules to follow, ten are directly from Ugo Panziera and two are Bernardino’s additions. The last is perhaps the most significant: “In doubtful and difficult actions, one must find the certain will of God.” Rule 11, also original to Bernardino, is of interest not so much in itself but along with an example used. The rule simply states that the greater good must always be chosen. The example that Bernardino uses is himself. Quoting St. Paul’s “For Christ did not come to baptise but to preach the Gospel” (I Cor 1:17), Bernardino states that his choice of preaching was the superior choice. This comment had profound impact upon Franciscan thinking for years. It was not until Vatican II that friars were allowed to accept parishes which center around sacramental life in a diocese without a dispensation.

The other rules are not equally important and they must be carefully applied because often enough Bernardino, following Ugo, equates the worthy inspiration with pain, a typical medieval notion but not a modern one. For us, in fact, peace is a more profound measure of discernment than pain. The contemporary hermit poet Robert Lax, a lifetime friend of Thomas Merton and the Franciscans at St. Bonaventure University near Olean, NY where Lax was born and raised, puts it best in his work Peace Maker’s Handbook when he writes “I like to think we should always do what we want unless there’s a good reason not to.” Of course such a statement demands what Lax calls “an open-eyed contemplation.” If you feel uncomfortable with Lax’s liberality, perhaps it is because you feel more comfortable with his friend Merton’s early understanding of the world as a garbage can with the lid off. Lax was far more comfortable with the world as a circus, a playground for us to both nurture and enjoy. Just as we do not dismiss Merton for some of his early thoughts, neither should we dismiss Bernardino for some of his thoughts. We must discern what he writes to discover the times from the Good News of the Gospel.

The third sermon completes Bernardino’s comments on the discernment of spirit. It is what he calls the Illuminative moment in discernment when we are enlightened by the grace of the Holy Spirit to accept or to reject an inspiration. This is a Bonaventurean moment in Bernardino’s thinking which makes one hope that it also indicates his acceptance of the Incarnational view of Francis and Bonaventure which is often missing in his stark preaching.

There is a common fallacy that Franciscans and Jesuits are at odds today. There would certainly be grounds for an antipathy because it was the Franciscan Pope Clement XIV who suppressed the Jesuits in the eighteenth century, a suppression that lasted some 40 years.

The arrival of a Jesuit to the papacy who chose the name Francis has softened that the rivalry. Franco Mormando, a professor at Boston College, also helped to put that thinking to rest. In a lecture delivered at the Center for Ignatian Spirituality in November, 2019 entitled “Ignatius the Franciscan,” he pointed to Bernardino of Siena to prove his point. The issues that are important for us to reflect upon are the use of images , the commonality of the IHS and the significance of De Inspiratione.

There is a connection between the Franciscan and the Jesuit approaches to preaching in the use of imagination and images in both traditions. It is not enough to preach in a doctrinal or linear fashion. Jesus constantly appealed to the imagination, the senses, and storytelling to enliven His message and make it memorable. No doubt Bernardino did the same and at times overdid it. The same can be said of Gerard Manley Hopkins who often left listeners puzzled by his images. Ignatius encourages the use of imagination and images in reading the Scriptures and in praying. Bernardino did much the same following Francis as he moved from preaching to praying seamlessly.

One can hardly walk down a street or alley way in Siena without discovering the ever present IHS. It may be embedded in a wall or a flower pot but it is there.This is because of the influence of Bernardino who had huge banners with the IHS, Jesus’s name, flying high. Some friars disliked this so much that they accused the Saint of being a heretic. Not Ignatius, however. He took that same symbol as his coat of arms, perhaps because he was also influenced by Bernardino’s De Inspiratione reflecting upon it as he developed his Spiritual Exercises, which became a far more useful and lasting guide than De Inspiratione.

What is incontrovertible is the fact that De Inspiratione by Bernardino, of Siena with the help of Ugo Panziera was the first well developed though now time worn, study on discernment. Of course, he shall also be noted for founding the Observant Branch of the Franciscan Movement which has become the largest fraternity of brothers in existence today. But one suspects that Bernardino of Siena would simply prefer to be listed among the numerous Franciscan preachers he has inspired.


Bernardino of Siena, A Treatise on Inspiration. De Inspiratione, trans. C. Murray (Phoenix 1973).

F. Mormando, “An Early Renaissance Guide for the Perplexed,” in Through a Glass Darkly, ed. John Hawkeye (New York 1996), 24-49.

A. Sorrels, “Lecture discusses Franciscan Roots of Jesuit Spirituality”; The Torch, Nov. 27, 2019;


Anthony Carrozzo, a former minister provincial of Holy Name Province as well as former Director of The Franciscan Instiute, in now retired. He continues to write for a number of Franciscan publication throughout the world.