Benedictines Celebrate Brother's Canonization

Pope Recognizes 13th-Century Founder

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By Carmen Elena Villa

ROME, APRIL 27, 2009 ( The Benedictines are celebrating the canonization of another member of their spiritual family. Benedict XVI on Sunday canonized Bernardo Tolomei, a 13th-century monk described as a «sincere follower of the Rule of St. Benedict.»

Born to a noble family in Siena in 1272, Giovanni Tolomei had built a successful life when at age 41, he and two friends, Patricio Patrizi and Ambrosio Piccolomini, decided that God alone was worth serving. They left behind their life as businessmen in Siena and retreated to Accona, to a property owned by Tolomei’s family.

Tolomei chose the name Bernardo when he took up a monastic life that year, 1313. There in Accona, the three friends dedicated themselves to prayer and work, penance and the solitude of the eremitic life.

«He had taught in the university, he had a public life; he gave up everything because he wanted to serve God alone,» Father Reginaldo Grégorie, the postulator of his cause, explained to ZENIT.

Six years later, Tolomei had a vision of monks dressed in white, climbing a ladder assisted by the hands of Jesus and Mary. Inspired by the vision, the monk went to Bishop Guido Tarlati of Arezzo to obtain canonical authorization to begin a new community.

It was thus that he founded the monastery of Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto in 1319. The monks of the community were to follow the Rule of St. Benedict, with some variations, and they adopted a white habit like the monks of the vision, in honor of the purity of Mary.

«Our monasteries are places of absolute silence,» the postulator of Tolomei’s cause, one of the monks living today at Santa Maria, explained. «They are places of prayer, study, solitude and renunciation, which impresses young people.»

This branch of the Benedictines today has communities in nine countries, including the United States, Ireland and Great Britain.

Ready to serve

Despite being the founder of the monastery, Tolomei did not want to be the abbot. His friend Patrizi was the first selected for that role. However, three years and three abbots later (their rule dictated an annual change of leadership), Tolomei could not avoid being selected. Despite the stipulation in the rule, the monks chose their founder as abbot for 27 successive years.

«He had a great instinct for governing,» Father Grégorie explained. «He knew how to guide souls; he had a tremendous moral authority.»

On Jan. 21, 1344, Bernardo obtained pontifical approval from Pope Clement VI, residing then in Avignon. The new congregation already had at that time 10 monasteries.

Just four years later, a plague hit Italy and Bernardo left the solitude of Monte Oliveto for the monastery of San Benedetto a Porta Tufi in Siena, where the plague had hit particularly hard. In helping the sickened monks of that monastery, Tolomei himself contracted the plague and died that same year.

He was buried in a common grave together with 82 other monks who died victims of the plague. The remains of the future saint thus disappeared.

Bernardo Tolomei was never beatified, properly speaking. In 1644, Pope Urban VIII promulgated a recognition equivalent to today’s beatification. In 1768 a pontifical decree recognized Tolomei’s heroic virtues.

The suspension of some religious orders during the Italian unification movement resulted in a delay of his process of canonization, which was not taken up again until 1968.

Four miracles are attributed to his intercession, but his postulator explained that the evidence of these was lost at the end of the 18th century, during the French Revolution. The miracle that finally led to his canonization happened in 1946, when 18-year-old Giuseppe Rigolin was healed of peritonitis. Rigolin would later join Tolomei’s order, taking the name Plácido.

Forty-eight letters and a homily are the writings that remain of the new saint. Some fragments of these were published Sunday on the occasion of his canonization.

«These writings give testimony of his spiritual wisdom and of a notable administrative and juridical competency,» Father Grégorie noted. «They reveal his temperament and they implicitly define him as a monk who was a sincere follower of the Rule of St. Benedict.

«They allow one to perceive his humility, his sensitivity, his ecclesial and communitarian spirit, and his knowledge of sacred Scripture.»

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