Mary never departs from our hearts
At the General Audience on Wednesday, 21 October 
in St Peter's Square, the Holy Father commented on St Bernard of
Clairvaux, one of the most important theologians of the Middle Ages. The
following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, which was given in
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I would like to talk about St Bernard of Clairvaux,
called "the last of the Fathers" of the Church because
once again in the 12th century
he renewed and brought to the fore the important theology of the
Fathers. We do not know in any detail about the years of his childhood;
however, we know that he was born in 1090 in Fontaines, France, into a
large and fairly well-to-do family.
As a very young man he devoted himself to the study of
the so-called liberal arts
especially grammar, rhetoric and dialectics
at the school of the canons of the Church of Saint-Vorles at Châtillon-sur-Seine;
and the decision to enter religious life slowly matured within him.
At the age of about 20, he entered Cîteaux,
a new monastic foundation that was more flexible in comparison with the
ancient and venerable monasteries of the period while at the same time
stricter in the practice of the evangelical counsels.
A few years later, in 1115, Bernard was sent by Stephen
Harding, the third Abbot of Cîteaux, to found the monastery of Clairvaux.
Here the young Abbot
he was only 25 years old
was able to define his conception of monastic life and set about putting
it into practice.
In looking at the discipline of other monasteries,
Bernard firmly recalled the need for a sober and measured life, at table
as in clothing and monastic buildings, and recommended the support and
care of the poor.
In the meantime the community of Clairvaux became ever
more numerous and its foundations multiplied.
In those same years before 1130 Bernard started a
prolific correspondence with many people of both important and modest
social status. To the many Epistolae of this period must be added
numerous Sermones, as well as Sententiae and Tractatus.
Bernard's great friendship with William, Abbot of
Saint-Thierry, and with William of Champeaux, among the most important
figures of the 12th century, also date to this period.
As from 1130, Bernard began to concern himself with many
serious matters of the Holy See and of the Church.
For this reason he was obliged to leave his monastery
ever more frequently and he sometimes also travelled outside France. He
founded several women's monasteries and was the protagonist of a lively
correspondence with Peter the Venerable, Abbot of Cluny, of whom I spoke
In his polemical writings he targeted in particular
Abelard, a great thinker who had conceived of a new approach to
theology, introducing above all the dialectic and philosophical method
in the construction of theological thought.
On another front Bernard combated the heresy of the
Cathars, who despised matter and the human body and consequently
despised the Creator.
On the other hand, he felt it was his duty to defend the
Jews, and condemned the ever more widespread outbursts of anti-Semitism.
With regard to this aspect of his apostolic action,
several decades later Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn addressed a vibrant tribute
In the same period the holy Abbot wrote his most famous
works such as the celebrated Sermons on the Song of Songs [In
Canticum Sermones]. In the last years of his life
he died in 1153
Bernard was obliged to curtail his journeys but did not entirely stop
He made the most of this time to review definitively the
whole collection of his Letters, Sermons and Treatises.
Worthy of mention is a quite unusual book that he completed in this same
period, in 1145, when Bernardo Pignatelli, a pupil of his, was elected
Pope with the name of Eugene III.
On this occasion, Bernard as his spiritual father,
dedicated to his spiritual son the text De Consideratione [Five
Books on Consideration] which contains teachings on how to be a good
Pope. In this book, which is still appropriate reading for the Popes of
all times, Bernard did not only suggest how to be a good Pope, but also
expressed a profound vision of the Mystery of the Church and of the
Mystery of Christ which is ultimately resolved in contemplation of the
mystery of the Triune God.
"The search for this God who is not yet sufficiently
sought must be continued", the holy Abbot wrote, "yet it may be easier
to search for him and find him in prayer rather than in discussion. So
let us end the book here, but not the search" (XIV, 32: PL 182,
808) and in journeying on towards God.
I would now like to reflect on only two of the main
aspects of Bernard's rich doctrine: they concern Jesus Christ and Mary
Most Holy, his Mother.
His concern for the Christian's intimate and vital
participation in God's love in Jesus Christ brings no new guidelines to
the scientific status of theology. However, in a more decisive manner
than ever, the Abbot of Clairvaux embodies the theologian, the
contemplative and the mystic.
Bernard insists in the face of the complex dialectical reasoning of his
Jesus alone is "honey in the mouth, song to the ear, jubilation in the
heart (mel in ore, in aure melos, in corde iubilum)".
The title Doctor Mellifluus, attributed to
Bernard by tradition, stems precisely from this; indeed, his praise of
Jesus Christ "flowed like honey".
In the extenuating battles between Nominalists and
two philosophical currents of the time
the Abbot of Clairvaux never tired of repeating that only one name
counts, that of Jesus of Nazareth.
"All food of the soul is dry", he professed, "unless it
is moistened with this oil; insipid, unless it is seasoned with this
salt. What you write has no savour for me unless I have read Jesus
in it" (In Canticum Sermones XV, 6: PL 183, 847).
For Bernard, in fact, true knowledge of God consisted in
a personal, profound experience of Jesus Christ and of his love. And,
dear brothers and sisters, this is true for every Christian: faith is
first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus, it is
having an experience of his closeness, his friendship and his love. It
is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love him and to
follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!
In another famous Sermon
on the Sunday in the Octave of the Assumption the Holy Abbot
described with passionate words Mary's intimate participation in the
redeeming sacrifice of her Son.
"O Blessed Mother", he
exclaimed, "a sword has truly pierced your soul!... So deeply has the
violence of pain pierced your soul, that we may rightly call you more
than a martyr for in you participation in the passion of the Son by far
surpasses in intensity the physical sufferings of martyrdom" (14:
Bernard had no doubts:
"per Mariam ad Iesum", through Mary we are led to Jesus. He
testifies clearly to Mary's subordination to Jesus, in accordance with
the foundation of traditional Mariology. Yet the text of the Sermon
also documents the Virgin's privileged place in the economy of
salvation, subsequent to the Mother's most particular participation (compassio)
in the sacrifice of the Son.
It is not for nothing that
a century and a half after Bernard's death, Dante Alighieri, in the last
canticle of the Divine Comedy, was to put on the lips of
the Doctor Mellifluus the sublime prayer to Mary: "Virgin Mother,
daughter of your own Son, / humble and exalted more than any creature, /
fixed term of the eternal counsel" (Paradise XXXIII, VV. 1 ff.).
characteristic of a person in love with Jesus and Mary as was Bernard,
are still a salutary stimulus not only to theologians but to all
Some claim to have solved
the fundamental questions on God, on man and on the world with the power
of reason alone.
St Bernard, on the other
hand, solidly founded on the Bible and on the Fathers of the Church,
reminds us that without a profound faith in God, nourished by prayer and
contemplation, by an intimate relationship with the Lord, our
reflections on the divine mysteries risk becoming an empty intellectual
exercise and losing their credibility.
Theology refers us back to
the "knowledge of the Saints", to their intuition of the mysteries of
the living God and to their wisdom, a gift of the Holy Spirit, which
become a reference point for theological thought.
Together with Bernard of
Clairvaux, we too must recognize that man seeks God better and finds him
more easily "in prayer than in discussion". In the end, the truest
figure of a theologian and of every evangelizer remains the Apostle John
who laid his head on the Teacher's breast.
I would like to conclude
these reflections on St Bernard with the invocations to Mary that we
read in one of his beautiful homilies.
"In danger, in distress, in
uncertainty", he says, "think of Mary, call upon Mary. She never leaves
your lips, she never departs from your heart; and so that you may obtain
the help of her prayers, never forget the example of her life. If you
follow her, you cannot falter; if you pray to her, you cannot despair;
if you think of her, you cannot err. If she sustains you, you will not
stumble; if she protects you, you have nothing to fear; if she guides
you, you will never flag; if she is favourable to you, you will attain
your goal..." (Hom. II super Missus est, 17: PL