At age twenty-three, St. Bernardino had completed a classical education and capped it with a degree in canon law. In 1403 he joined the Friars of the Strict Observance, a new branch of the Franciscans. For more than a dozen years he lived quietly and unremarkably in Fiesole, Italy. But in 1417, a novice prophesied three times to Bernardino. “Brother Bernardino,” he exclaimed, “stop hiding your gifts. Go to Lombardy where all await you!” The saint went obediently to Milan, not knowing what to do.
But he soon discovered that his vocation was preaching when his eloquence began to draw huge congregations. For nearly a quarter of a century he crisscrossed Italy on foot, calling people to repentance in exhortations like this:
A sinner who repents learns to be prudent. He is like a donkey that, once he has fallen in a spot, afterwards looks more carefully where he sets his foot. For fear of punishment he takes care not to fall into those sins again, or into any others. Now, I want to ask older people about this. Old man and old woman, are you there?
Tell me, have you fallen into sin over and over again?
Well, have you returned to God?
They have fallen often, and so they walk more gingerly. They think about how they had better set their feet. As they see death approaching, they thank God that they have had time to turn to him. And they do not trust themselves not to fall, but always ask God to help them not to fall again.
Bernardino popularized devotion to the name of Jesus. At the end of every sermon he blessed the crowd, holding a placard marked “IHS,” an acronym for the name “Jesus.”
In 1437 the Observants elected Bernardino as their general. Overcoming the traditional Franciscan fear of learning, he required his men to study theology and canon law. During his period of leadership, he attracted so many new recruits that membership increased tenfold. He resigned in 1443 to return to preaching. But he died in 1444 shortly after delivering at his hometown a series of fifty sermons in as many days.