23 July, Saturday, Feast of St Bridget of Sweden
Gal 2:19-20. “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
Jn 15:1-8. Christ is the vine; we are the branches.
What Bridget of Sweden can teach us today
(from an address of pope Benedict XVI in St Peter’s Square, October 28, 2010.)
I would like to present the figure of St Bridget of Sweden, co-patroness of Europe, her message, and the reasons why this woman has much to teach — even today — to the Church and to the world. We know well the events of her life, because her spiritual fathers wrote her biography to promote her process of canonization immediately after her death, which took place in 1373.
Bridget was born seventy years earlier, in 1303, in Finster, Sweden, a nation of Northern Europe that had received the faith three centuries earlier with the same enthusiasm with which the saint received it from her parents, who were very pious individuals, belonging to noble families close to the reigning House.
We can distinguish two periods in the life of this saint. The first was characterized by her condition as a happily married woman. Her husband was called Ulf and he was governor of an important district of the Kingdom of Sweden. The marriage lasted 28 years, until Ulf’s death. Eight children were born to them, the second of whom, Karin (Catherine), is venerated as saint. This is an eloquent sign of Bridget’s educational commitment in regard to her children. Moreover, her pedagogic wisdom was appreciated to the point that Magnus, the king of Sweden, called her to the court for a certain time, in order to introduce his young wife, Blanche of Namur, to Swedish culture.
Bridget, spiritually guided by a learned religious who initiated her in the study of the Scriptures, exercised a very positive influence on her own family that, thanks to her presence, became a true “domestic church.” Together with her husband, she adopted the Rule of the Franciscan Tertiaries. She practiced works of charity towards the indigent with generosity; she also founded a hospital. Together with his wife, Ulf learned to improve his character and to advance in the Christian life. On returning from a long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, taken in 1341 with other members of the family, the spouses matured the plan to live in continence, but shortly after, in the peace of a monastery to which he had retired, Ulf concluded his earthly life.
The first period of Bridget’s life helps us to appreciate what today we could define an authentic “conjugal spirituality”: Together, Christian spouses can follow a path of sanctity, supported by the grace of the sacrament of Marriage. Not infrequently, as happened in the lives of St Bridget and Ulf, it is the wife who with her religious sensibility, with delicacy and gentleness, is able to make the husband follow a path of faith. I am thinking, with recognition, of so many women who, day in day out, still today illumine their families with their testimony of Christian life. May the Spirit of the Lord fuel the sanctity of Christian spouses, to show the world the beauty of marriage lived according to the values of the Gospel: love, tenderness, mutual help, fecundity in generating and educating children, openness and solidarity to the world, participation in the life of the Church.
The second period of Bridget’s life began when she became a widow. She renounced further marriage to deepen her union with the Lord through prayer, penance and works of charity. Hence, Christian widows can also find in this saint a model to follow. In fact, on the death of her husband, after distributing her goods to the poor, though without ever acceding to religious consecration, Bridget established herself in the Cistercian monastery of Alvastra. Here is where the divine revelations began, which were with her for the rest of her life. They were dictated by Bridget to her confessor-secretaries, who translated them from Swedish into Latin and gathered them in an edition of eight books entitled “Revelationes” (revelations.) Added to the books was a supplement, entitled “Revelationes Extravagantes” (Supplementary revelations).
St Bridget’s revelations present a very varied content and style. At times the revelation is presented in the form of dialogue between the Divine Persons, the Virgin, the saints and also the demons; dialogues in which Bridget also intervenes. At other times, instead, it is the narration of a particular vision; and at others she narrates what the Virgin Mary revealed to her on the life and mysteries of her Son. The value of St Bridget’s revelations, sometimes the object of doubt, was specified by the Venerable John Paul II in the letter “Spes Aedificandi”: “Yet there is no doubt that the Church,” wrote my beloved predecessor, “which recognized Bridget’s holiness without ever pronouncing on her individual revelations, has accepted the overall authenticity of her interior experience.” (No. 5).
In fact, reading these revelations we are faced with many important topics. For example, the description returns frequently, with very realistic details, of the Passion of Christ, to which Bridget always had a special devotion, contemplating in it the infinite love of God for men. On the mouth of the Lord who speaks to her, she puts these words: “O, my friends, I love my sheep so tenderly that, if it were possible, I would like to die many times again for each one of them, in the same way that I suffered for the redemption of all” (Revelations, Book I, c. 59). Also Mary’s sorrowful maternity, which made her Mediator and Mother of Mercy, is an argument that is repeated often in the revelations.
Receiving these charisms, Bridget was conscious of being the recipient of a gift of great predilection on the part of the Lord: “My daughter,” we read in the first book of the revelations, “I have chosen you for myself, love me with all your heart … more than everything that exists in the world” (c. 1). Moreover, Bridget knew well, and was firmly convinced that every charism is destined to build the Church. Precisely for this reason, not a few of her revelations were directed, in the form of warnings, including severe ones, to the believers of her time, including the religious and political authorities, so that they would live their Christian life coherently; but she did this with an attitude of respect and complete fidelity to the magisterium of the Church, in particular to the Successor of the Apostle Peter.
In 1349, Bridget left Sweden for the last time and went on pilgrimage to Rome. Not only did she wish to participate in the Jubilee of 1350, but she also wished to obtain from the Pope the approval of the rule of a religious order that she wanted to found, dedicated to the Holy Savior, and made up of monks and nuns under the authority of an abbess. This is an element that should not surprise us: In the Middle Ages there were monasteries founded with masculine and feminine branches, but with the practice of the same monastic rule, which provided for the direction of an abbess. In fact, the great Christian tradition recognizes the dignity proper to women, as well as — taking as an example Mary, Queen of the Apostles — her own place in the Church that, without coinciding with the ordained priesthood, is also important for the spiritual growth of the Community. Moreover, the collaboration of consecrated men and women, always with respect toward their specific vocation, is of great importance in today’s world.
In Rome, in the company of her daughter Karin, Bridget dedicated herself to a life of intense apostolate and prayer. And from Rome she went on pilgrimage to several Italian shrines, in particular to Assisi, homeland of St Francis, to whom Bridget always had great devotion. Finally, in 1371, she crowned her greatest desire: her trip to the Holy Land, where she went in the company of her spiritual children, a group that Bridget called “the friends of God.” During those years, the Pontiffs were in Avignon, far from Rome: Bridget addressed them earnestly, urging them to return to the See of Peter in the Eternal City.
She died in 1373, before Pope Gregory XI returned definitively to Rome. She was buried provisionally in the Roman church of St Lawrence in Panisperna, but in 1374 her children Birger and Karin, took her back to her homeland, to the monastery of Vadstena, headquarters of the religious order founded by St Bridget, which immediately enjoyed a notable expansion. In 1391, Pope Boniface IX canonized her solemnly.
Bridget’s sanctity, characterized by the multiplicity of gifts and experiences that I wished to recall in this brief biographic-spiritual profile, makes her an eminent figure in the history of Europe. Coming from Scandinavia, St Bridget attests how Christianity had permeated profoundly the life of all the peoples of this continent. Declaring her co-patroness of Europe, Pope John Paul II hoped that St Bridget — who lived in the 14th century, when Western Christianity had not yet been wounded by division — can intercede effectively before God, to obtain the much-awaited grace of the full unity of all Christians. We want to pray, dear brothers and sisters, for this same intention, which we consider so important, so that Europe will be able to be nourished from its own Christian roots, invoking the powerful intercession of St Bridget of Sweden, faithful disciple of God, co-patroness of Europe.
First Reading: Galatians 2:19-20.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
Gospel: John 15:1-8.
Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Alternatively: The Readings of the Day
Exod 24:3ff. During the sacrifice of the covenant on Mount Sinai, blood is sprinkled on the people and the altar to show their life united with God.
Matt 13:24ff. The parable about wheat and weeds growing together. At harvest the weeds will be burned and the wheat will be gathered in the barn.
Covenant and Justice
Today, in Exodus we see human life ritually dedicated to God by a covenant sacrifice. Then the gospel sounds a cautionary note to restrain us in our condemnation of others.
Exodus 24 solemnly concludes the “Book of the Covenant,” the heart of the Mosaic Torah. It was introduced by the magnificent and fearsome theophany in Exodus 19. and by the basic laws, the Ten Commandments (20:1-17), followed by a series of “casuistic laws” (21:1-23:9) on various practical cases. This whole account ends with the ratification of the covenant, in a ceremony symbolising the personal union between God and the people. A little later in the chapter, a sacred meal is added to signify the same result, the peace between God and the people. This symbolism is repeated, with some modification, in each Eucharistic service. Over the chalice the priest repeats Jesus’ words: “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant.”
Still, the prophets can correct any ritual excess in our celebrating the covenant. Church ceremony and daily life also ought to complement and reinforce each other. Social injustice, as Jesus repeats in another prophetic occasion, makes God’s house into a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13).
Yet today’s gospel advises patience and hope, in face of wrongdoing by others. If weeds are detected in a wheat field and the prophet-servants want to go out and pull them up, the master says, “No! If you pull up the weeds and you might take the wheat along with them.” It is not that God tolerates evil forever, but allows plenty of time for the harvest to be properly brought home.
First Reading: Exodus 24:3-8
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, “See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'”