|01-03-2010 - Traces, n. 3
The Mother Who Made Europe
Born to the Swedish nobility, her one desire was to become a contemplative nun, and yet she married and had eight children. After she was widowed, she left Sweden and crossed the entire continent to convince the Pope to return to Rome. A difficult undertaking, but ….This is the fourth in our series on sainthood that flowered in family life and changed the world.
by Paola Bergamini
“Lord, show me your path and dispose my heart to follow it,” Saint Bridget loved to pray. The Lord asked her to be a bride, mother, pilgrim, and founder, and charged her with a fundamental ecclesial and social mission, the re-awakening of the western Church in a dramatic moment in Christian history, the XIV century. Born in far away Sweden around 1302, she crossed Europe to communicate the messages Christ and the Virgin revealed to her. Her words shook kings, popes, and churchmen, men of power who had forgotten the Gospel.
Certainly, Bridget would never have imagined this when she was living in her beautiful family home in Finsta, 30 miles from Stockholm. Her desire was to consecrate herself to God and become a contemplative nun, but His plans were different. When she was 13, her father, Birger Personn, one of the most powerful figures in Sweden, decided to wed her to Ulf Gudmarsson, a lawyer five years her senior. In tears, she obeyed. The wedding was celebrated in 1318, and the newlyweds went to live in the castle of Ulvasa. Here her eight children were born, including Saint Catherine of Sweden, who would be her companion and collaborator until her death. In over 27 years of marriage, Bridget dedicated herself totally to her family, the education of her children, but also to all the people who lived on their estate. It was normal to find her in the evenings reading and explaining the Bible to her retainers. Ulf, an upright man, was fascinated by his sensitive and strong wife, and attracted by her religiosity. Bridget taught him to read the Office of the Virgin Mary. They prayed together in the chapel, but above all, he accompanied her in her pious works for the needy. They founded a small hospital in their area where they helped the sick and a kitchen for the poor, serving them personally. Bridget wanted her children to follow her in her visits to the suffering so they would learn to serve God in the sick and the poor.
In 1335, King Mangus married Blanka of Namur, daughter of a Flemish count, and Bridget was called to court to be lady in waiting and teacher for the very young queen. Her influence was soon felt. She persuaded the king to abolish unjust and inhumane usages against the very poor. Above all, she wanted Mangus to be a Christian king. But the worldly life of court was not for her, and in 1339 she asked to be able to return home to her family.
Pilgrimage to Santiago. Two years later, for their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, she and her husband undertook the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. For the couple, that long journey was fundamental. They decided to dedicate themselves totally to God. Upon their return in 1342, Ulf entered the Cistercian monastery of Alvastra, where their son Benedict was already living. After her husband’s death in 1344, Bridget distributed her goods to her heirs and the poor, and withdrew to a building annexed to the monastery to realize the contemplative ideal she had cherished. These were the years of her visions and revelations. Christ and the Virgin spoke to her, asking her to be a prophetess to the powerful and others, because the teaching of the Son of Man is the only chance of salvation. It is impressive to read the Celestial Revelations for its power and expressiveness. It is God speaking. Through one of these revelations, Bridget convinced King Mangus to send two messengers to the kings of France and England to tell them to end the Hundred Years’ War, and one to Pope Clement, to tell him to leave Avignon to return to Rome. But above all, Bridget was asked to found a new religious order. On May 1, 1346 the King and Queen granted Bridget the castle of Vadstena, on an inlet of Lake Vatter, for the convent. But papal approval was required from the Pope who had not listened to her message and did not want to return to the Holy City.
Bridget set out for Rome with a group of pilgrims in the autumn of 1349, to be there for the Jubilee of 1350. In Rome, the absence of the Pope confirmed for Bridget the decadence of the Church. In the house put at her disposal by the Pope’s brother, they lived a monastic life. And, as in Sweden, she dedicated herself to the poor in body and in spirit. She even came to the point of begging when she lacked money. In Rome, her impetuous preaching against the degradation of the men of the Church drew the ire of many. She was not intimidated. On October 16, 1367, Urban V solemnly entered Rome. Bridget was radiant. She presented the Pope with the rule of the Order. Approval came on August 5, 1370 , but the good news was soon followed by bad news: the Pope had decided to return to Avignon. Bridget was furious. During a private audience she told him what the Virgin had told her in this regard, but Urban V did not listen to her. He died on December 19 of that same year.
Final act. She was weary and worn out, but her Spouse had one more request for her: to go pray in the Holy places. With friends and relatives, including two of her children, she set out again. Her first stop was Naples, and here a great sorrow awaited her: her son Karl fell in love with Queen Giovanna. She sought in vain to dissuade him from this relationship of perdition. The young man died a few months later. Few understood why she was not broken by such mourning: the Lord had taken her son to Himself.
On May 11th, they arrived in Jerusalem, and stayed in the holy places for four months. In every place, Christ and the Virgin spoke to Bridget. She prayed incessantly for the reform of the Church and the re-establishment of the Chair of Peter in Rome. When she returned to Rome she gave Bishop Alfonso a letter for Gregory XI. It was her final act. She died on July 23, 1373. Such was the popular devotion to the saintly woman that it was impossible to transport her body from the Piazza Farnese house to the Poor Clares convent Bridget had chosen for her temporary rest in Rome. On January 17, 1377, Gregory XI re-entered Rome. The prophecy was fulfilled. Christianity was saved. On October 1, 1999, John Paul II proclaimed Bridget, Saint Catherine of Siena, and Edith Stein the patron saints of Europe.