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SAINT BERNARDO TOLOMEI (1272-1348) (Canonized April 26, 2009 by Benedict XVI)

Abbot Founder, Olivetan Benedictine Congregation


TolomeiBernardoBERNARDO TOLOMEI, son of Mino Tolomei, was born in Siena on May 10, 1272. At his Baptism he was given the name “Giovanni”. He was probably educated by the Dominicans at their College of San Domenico di Camporeggio in Siena. He was knighted by Rudolph I of Habsburg (1218-1291). While studying law in his home town, he was also a member of the Confraternity of the Disciplinati di Santa Maria della Notte dedicated to aiding the sick at the “della Scala” Hospital. Due to progressive and almost total blindness, he was forced to give up his public career. In 1313, in order to realize a more radical Christian and ascetic ideal, together with two companions (Patrizio di Francesco Patrizi, d. 1347 and Ambrogio di Nino Piccolomini, d. 1338), both noble Sienese merchants and members of the same confraternity, he retired to a family property in Accona, about 30 km south-east of the city. It was here that Giovanni, who in the meantime had taken the name “Bernardo” out of veneration for the holy Cistercian abbot, together with his two companions, lived a hermitic penitential life, characterized by prayer, manual work and silence.

Towards the end of 1318 or the beginning of 1319, while immersed in prayer, he saw a ladder on which monks in white habits were ascending, helped by angels and awaited by Jesus and Mary.

To legalize his group’s status, Bernardo, with Patrizio Patrizi, visited Bishop
Guido Tarlati di Pietramala of Arezzo, (1306-c.1327) since Accona came under his jurisdiction at that time. On 26 March 1319 Bernardo received a Decree authorizing him to build the future monastery of Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto and was instituted “sub regula Sancti Benedicti”, with certain privileges and exemptions. Through his legate, the Bishop received the monastic profession of the group. In choosing the Rule of St Benedict, Bernardo accepted Benedictine coenobitism and, wishing to honour Our Lady, the founders wore a white habit. In welcoming the small group of monks, the Bishop said: “Since your fellow citizens glory in placing themselves under the patronage of the Virgin and because of the virginal purity of the glorious Mother, it pleases you to wear a white monastic habit, therefore showing outwardly that purity which you harbour within” (Antonio di Barga, Cronaca 5). The white habit characterized various forms of mediaeval monasticism, including that of the Camaldolese, the Carthusians, the Cistercians and the monks of Montevergine.

The Monastery of Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto Maggiore was born when the foundation stone of the church was laid on 1 April 1319, The hermits became monks in accordance with the Rule of St Benedict to which they made some institutional changes. The most characteristic of these, recorded in an episcopal document of 28 March 1324, was the temporary nature of the abbatial office and the confirmation of the abbot-elect by the Bishop of Arezzo. When the time came to elect an abbot, Bernardo succeeded in withdrawing from those eligible for election because of his blindness. Thus Patrizio Patrizi was elected the first abbot (1 September 1319). Two other abbots followed: Ambrogio Piccolomini (1 September 1320) and Simone di Tura (1 September 1321).

On 1 September 1322, Bernardo could no longer oppose the wishes of his brethren and so became the fourth abbot of the monastery he founded in which office he remained until his death. An Act dated 24 September 1326 attests that Cardinal Giovanni Caetani Orsini (d. 1339), Apostolic Legate, dispensed Abbot Bernardo from the Canonical impediment of “Infirmity of Sight”, hence validating his election. From Avignon, with two Bulls dated 21 January 1344 (Vacantibus sub religionis: the canonical approval of the new community; Solicitudinis pastoralis officium: the faculty to erect new monasteries in Italy), Clement VI approved the Congregation that had 10 monasteries. Bernardo did not go to Avignon but sent two monks: Simone Tendi and Michele Tani.

The fact that despite having decided not to re-elect an abbot at the end of his annual mandate the monks chose to ignore their decision and re-elect Bernardo for 27 consecutive years until his death is significant evidence of Bernardo’s spiritual personality. Another act of trust in Bernardo’s fatherhood was seen at the General Chapter of the 4 May 1347 when the monks granted him the faculty to govern without recourse to the Chapter or the brethren, trusting that he would do all things in conformity with God’s will and for the salvation of all.

At least twice, in 1326 and 1342, Bernardo tried to give up his abbatial office, declaring to the Papal Legate and Jurists that he was not a priest but only in Minor Orders, and mentioning the existing dispensation from his function as abbot because of his persistent blindness. However, his leadership was declared fully legitimate, in accordance with the canonical norms. With the Papal Approval of a new Benedictine Congregation called: “Santa Maria di Monte Oliveto”, Bernardo became the initiator of a firmly-rooted Benedictine monastic movement.

Bernardo left his monks an example of holy life, the practice of the virtues to a heroic level, dedication to the service of others and to contemplation. During the plague in 1348 Bernardo left the solitude of Monte Oliveto for the monastery of San Benedetto a Porta Tufi in Siena. In the city the disease was particularly virulent. On the 20th August 1348, while helping his plague-stricken monks, he succumbed to the plague, together with 82 monks.

This hero of penance and martyr of charity did not pass unnoticed, as Pius XII noted in a letter sent to the Abbot General, Dom Romualdo M. Zilianti on II April 1948, to commemorate the imminent sixth centenary of Bl. Bernardo’s death. The venerable abbot was buried near the monastery’s church in Siena. All the plague-stricken bodies were placed in a common pit of quicklime outside the Church. Later excavation has not succeeded in identifying relics of Bernardo.