Bernard was born on the island of Sicily in the year 1605. His father was a shoemaker and taught his son the ways of the trade. But it was difficult for the lively youth to interest himself in this work. Upon the death of his father, he immediately left the shop and, led by the love of adventure, he took up fencing. It was not long before he became quite adept at wielding the sword. His unusual corporal vigor qualified him to challenge any comer to a contest.
From then on he spent the greater part of his time in training and eagerly seized every opportunity to match swords with his hot tempered countrymen.
Although this manner of life led him far away from God, nevertheless many noble characteristics were perceptible in Bernard. In taking up any quarrel he liked to defend old people and other helpless and defenseless persons against violence. He frequently made devout visits to a crucifix that was highly honored by the people, and provided that a lamp be kept burning before it. Moreover, he cherished great devotion towards St. Francis. God and St. Francis soon led him to realize what a disorderly course he was pursuing.
Bernard had been challenged to a sinful duel, in the course of which he wounded his opponent mortally. In order to escape from his avengers, he sought refuge in flight. In this extremity, as so frequently happens, grace knocked at his heart. Bernard heeded the call. He acknowledged his godless and dangerous conduct for what it was, bewailed it bitterly, and resolved upon a complete change of sentiments.
In order to atone for his sins, he begged for admission among the Capuchins as a lay brother, and on December 13, 1632, he was invested with the holy habit. If in the past Bernard had yielded his bodily members to wayward purposes, he now used them as an atoning sacrifice unto salvation. Seven times a day he scourged himself to the blood. His sleep was limited to three hours on a narrow board, with a block of wood under his head. He fasted for the most part on bread and water. If anything delicious was placed before him, he would carry the food to his mouth so as to whet his appetite, and then lay it down without having tasted it. In spite of his austere life, he still undertook the most unpleasant and annoying tasks as being his due.
Almighty God showed how agreeable to Him was the penitential life Bernard was leading; he favored him with extraordinary graces, particularly with ardent devotion at prayer. Bernard cherished special love for our Blessed Lady, and encouraged others to do the same. Often our Lady appeared to him and placed the Divine Child in his arms. Moreover, she gave him knowledge of the day of his death four months in advance. He died at Palermo on January 12, 1667.
Attracted by the fame of his sanctity, there gathered for his burial so many people who raised their voices in praise of the deceased, that it was less a funeral cortege than a triumphal procession. Numerous miracles occurring at his grave promoted the cause of his beatification by Pope Clement XIII in the year 1767.
ON THE NECESSITY OF PENANCE
1. Consider the severe penance that Blessed Bernard practiced after his conversion. He understood what the holy Fathers say and the Catholic Church teaches, that for such as have not preserved their baptismal innocence, there is no other way to salvation but the way of penance. Perhaps we have sinned more grievously than Bernard did. In that event it behooves us to practice more rigorous penance, for according to the measure of our guilt should be the measure of our penance. Or do you perhaps believe that you have no reason to perform any penance? That would indeed be a sad delusion, for St. John writes: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 Jn 1:8). This is the first requisite of penance, that we sincerely acknowledge our sinfulness before God and repent of our failures with our whole heart. Do you have at least this kind of contrition?
2. Consider the words of our Lord: “Except you do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:5). In what way? By sudden death. Our Lord spoke these words after it had been reported to Him that a number of persons had died a violent death. There is a limit to God’s forbearance. Has Bernard not heeded the call of grace, might he not have perished in his sins? Hence, heed the admonition: “Today, if you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Heb 3:8). Should you not long ago have followed the call to do penance?
3. Consider that penance requires more than the acknowledgment of our sins and sorrow for the same. The sinner must also produce the fruits of penance. The precursor of Christ admonishes us: “Bring forth, therefore, fruits worthy of penance (Luke 3:8). An offense against God requires satisfaction to be made. If you cannot perform the rigorous penance Blessed Bernard performed, you can surely impose small sacrifices upon sensuality and the weakness of the flesh. The time of Lent admonishes us of these practices. Practice works of charity and piety in the spirit of penance in order to appease the divine justice, and cheerfully accept in the spirit of penance every cross and suffering that God allows to come your way.
PRAYER OF THE CHURCH
O God, who didst permit Blessed Bernard, Thy confessor, to distinguish himself by heroic charity and admirable penance, grant us, through his intercession, that we may love Thee with our whole heart and bring forth fruits worthy of penance. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.