My, but things have been interesting lately, haven’t they? Not that interesting is good. The dust has not yet begun to settle from the Pope’s assault on the Traditional Latin Mass in his motu proprio Traditionis Custodes, which was published last week. A large number of the most committed Catholics (and not just those who prefer the TLM) have been left feeling not just unappreciated, but positively unloved by their Papa in Rome. This comes only a year after the episcopate around the world folded without a word of complaint and shut down churches during the holiest season of the year at the behest of grasping secular politicians who considered the Eucharist a “nonessential” service, even while they lauded rioters pillaging their cities. And speaking of grasping politicians, I need not go into how easily they exploited the Covid panic to indulge their authoritarian impulses (so much for checks and balances). I won’t even mention the disheartening circumstances surrounding last fall’s election in the United States and its aftermath.
The point is, in times like these we feel powerless. It seems like even when we do everything right, we don’t get anywhere. We fail like failures.
This isn’t a new situation. Let’s go back to the 14th century. Due to a combination of Roman violence and corruption, mixed with French finagling, the popes left the Eternal City in the first decade of the century for a stay of almost seventy years in the city of Avignon, in what is now southern France. There, 400 miles from their episcopal see, the Bishops of Rome and Pontiffs of the Universal Church lived like vassals of the French king in increasingly secular splendor. On top of the spiritual illness plaguing Europe, the continent was hit mid-century by the bubonic plague, the “Black Death” that would in short order kill fully one third of all Europeans.
Today’s saint, St. Bridget (or Birgitta) of Sweden, lived in the midst of that distressing century. Bridget was born to a prominent Swedish family in 1303, six years before Pope Clement V abandoned Rome to Avignon, and died in 1373, three years before Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to its proper home. The failure and futility of the age found echoes in the saint’s life.
Bridget’s life started happily enough. She was married in her early teens (as was common at the time) and had eight children, one of whom would go on to become St. Catherine of Sweden. She enjoyed a deeply committed and loving relationship with her husband, and at the same time acquired a reputation for personal piety and charity. Her virtuous conduct attracted favorable notice from many people, including learned clerics and even the King of Sweden. When Bridget was in her early forties, however, her life changed abruptly when her beloved husband died. In her changed circumstances she devoted herself completely to the practice of religion and Christian virtues. Also, as the Catholic Encyclopedia [link] puts it:
The visions which she believed herself to have had from her early childhood now became more frequent and definite. She believed that Christ Himself appeared to her, and she wrote down the revelations she then received, which were in great repute during the Middle Ages. They were translated into Latin by Matthias Magister and Peter Prior.
Influenced by these visions, she laid the foundations for a new religious order (the Brigittines), and set out for Rome, both to seek Papal approval for her order (which was finally granted twenty years later, in 1370), and also to urge the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon (a task later taken up by St. Catherine of Siena).
Having been first a mother of a large family and then a consecrated religious woman who founded an order of nuns, both in extremely trying times, St. Bridget of Sweden is truly a versatile saint. She is a patroness both of mothers and families and also for those in religious communities; she is also an exemplar of charity, piety, and determination for all of us.
One of the most interesting things about St. Bridget, the common thread that connects all of her other experiences, is summed up in this passage from the article about her [link] at Catholic Online:
Although she had longed to become a nun, she never even saw the monastery in Vadstena. In fact, nothing she set out to do was ever realized. She had never had the pope return to Rome permanently, she never managed to make peace between France and England, she never saw any nun in the habit that Christ had shown her, and she never returned to Sweden but died, [a] worn out old lady far from home in July 1373. She can be called the Patroness of Failures.
The article goes on to call her a “successful failure”, citing her canonization in 1391.
“The LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
St. Bridget from altarpiece in Salem Church, Södermanland, Sweden (restored digitally)
St. Bridget of Sweden might well have looked like a failure at the end of her life . . . in the eyes of the World. The eyes of the World, however, are not God’s eyes:
“the LORD sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)
St. Paul underscores this same truth when he tells the Corinthians that “the wisdom of this world is folly with God.” (1 Corinthians 3:19) St. Bridget is in fact an excellent example of the quote attributed to St. Theresa of Calcutta: “God hasn’t called me to be successful, he has called me to be faithful”.
Whether or not Mother Theresa actually said it, it’s a marvelous statement of what it is to be a Saint, and a perfect description of why we honor St. Bridget of Sweden today. As it happens, her efforts did in fact bear fruit, even though she didn’t live to see it: the pope did return to Rome, and the order she founded continues to this day . . . but that’s not why she’s a saint. Our “success” as Christians, and St. Bridget’s success, consists in fidelity to Christ, and in nothing else.
Featured image top of page: “Christ and St. Brigida” from Santa Maria Della Catena, Palermo