Pope Benedict XVI addressed almost 40,000 people on Wednesday about a figure known as “the last of the Fathers of the Church,” St. Bernard of Clairvaux. The Holy Father spoke to the gathered faithful about how St. Bernard's example should show them that true understanding of the Faith requires an “intimate relationship with the Lord” and profound faith.
Pope Benedict began his catechesis by describing the life of the celebrated French saint.
Born in 1090 in Fontaines, France to a "numerous and fairly well off” family, Bernard studied grammar, rhetoric and dialectic. At 20 years-old he entered the monastery of Citeaux, which the Pope described as a “more rigorous” monastic foundation than the existing ones of the time.
In 1115 he was sent by St. Stephen Harding, third abbot of Citeaux, to found a new monastery at Clairvaux, where Bernard himself became abbot. At Clairvaux the saint "insisted on the importance of a sober and restrained lifestyle, in food, in clothing and in the structures of the monastery, at the same time encouraging support and assistance for the poor."
Together with his theological writings and homilies, including the celebrated Sermons on the Song of Songs, Bernard maintained a vast correspondence, developed warm friendships with his contemporaries, defended sound doctrine, and combated heresy and outbreaks of anti-Semitism. Benedict XVI recalled Bernard’s writings against the heresy of the Cathars who despised the material and the body and thus despised the Creator. This monk defended the Jews, so much so that a rabbi, Ephraim, “addressed a stirring tribute” to him.
Pope Benedict also pointed out that St. Bernard wrote a very special book on how to be a good pope for a pupil of his, Bernardo Pignatelli, who became Pope Eugenius III.
Bernard of Clairvaux died in 1153.
Turning to the value of St. Bernard's teachings for modern Christians, the Holy Father The Pope highlighted "two central aspects” of Bernard's teaching which concern Jesus Christ and Mary his most holy mother. The Monk expressed "the Christian participation in the love of God.” "It is from this that he was given the title of Doctor Mellifluous,” the Holy Father expounded. “His praise of Christ, in fact, flows like honey."
Bernard of Clairvaux loved to repeat, "there is one name that matters, that of Jesus of Nazareth.”
For Bernard "true knowledge of God lies in a personal and profound experience of Jesus Christ. Faith is first of all an intimate personal encounter with Jesus, the experience of his closeness, of his friendship and his love. Only in this way can we learn to love him and know him even more. Let us hope that this can happen in all of us," Pope Benedict said.
Bernard also emphasized the "privileged place of the Virgin in the economy of salvation." "It is no coincidence," said Benedict XVI, “that Dante puts on the lips of the Doctor Mellifluous his sublime prayer to Mary: 'Virgin Mother, daughter of thy Son, humble and exalted more than any other creature, fixed term of eternal counsel.'"
St. Bernard's ideas, Pope Benedict concluded, "stimulate not only theologians but all believers.”
“At times we think we can resolve the fundamental questions about God, mankind and the world using only the power of reason. St. Bernard however, solidly rooted in the Bible and the Fathers of the Church, reminds us that without a deep faith in God, nourished by prayer and contemplation, an intimate relationship with the Lord, our reflections on the divine mysteries are in danger of becoming a futile intellectual exercise, and lose their credibility."