St. Bernardine – A St. Paul of the 15th Century
St. Bernardine was from Siena, Italy and was ordained a Franciscan priest at the age of 24 in the year 1402. He took upon himself the poverty of the Franciscan Order and expressed an acute awareness for the needs of people of his time. He was known for his personal holiness and his seemingly endless energy and joyful vitality. The pope at the time compared Bernardine to a modern day St. Paul.
Before being ordained, the plague hit his hometown of Siena very hard. In this time of great difficulty, St. Bernardine offered to run the local hospital at the age of 20. He spent four months nursing the people who came for care. He did not succumb to the plague, but he was so exhausted from his hard work that he had a fever for several months afterwards.
A Franciscan Heart
St. Francis had given the charge to his order to preach about vice and virtue, punishment and glory. The great preacher of the 15th Century, St. Bernardine, did just that. Paganism had taken hold in many places as the result of the Renaissance return to Greco-Roman culture. This stirred up within the heart of St. Bernardine a desire to care for the physical and spiritual needs of the people.
St. Bernardine eventually became the General of the Friars of Strict Observance of the Franciscan Order. He pushed scholarship and a deep study of the law of the Church and the doctrines of the Faith. There were 140 friars in the community when he joined. Upon his death, there were 4,000. He gave his life to preaching and teaching, literally dying while traveling.
Overcoming Paganism and Division
As a prolific traveler and preacher, St. Bernardine saw clearly the paganism that had taken root once more in Italy. These many false gods and false beliefs were leading people astray. But, St. Bernardine knew well that “…there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12)” than the name of Jesus.
St. Bernardine had a great devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. He devised a monogram for the Holy Name of Jesus: IHS, written in gothic script and emblazoned on a sun. These are the capital Greek letters: iota, eta, and sigma. They are the first three letters of the name of Jesus in Greek which is ΙΗΣΟΎΣ. Like other graphics that represent the name of Jesus or Christ, this is called a Christogram.
The Christogram was placed on a sun because there had been a resurgence in 15th Century Italy of sun worship. Byzantine Greeks had brought copies of the fourth-century Hymn to the Sun by Julian the Apostate, for example. The cult of Apollo needed to be replaced by the true and authentic worship of Jesus Christ, who alone is the sun that rises in the East and who is the only Son of the Father.
St. Bernardine would often exhibit this monogram devoutly at the end of his sermons to those listening. He also encouraged the faithful to place the monogram on their doorposts. At the time, there was deep political division between two groups: the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. St. Bernardine urged people to adopt the IHS rather than the banners of these two groups.
An Enduring Symbol for an Enduring Name
The IHS is therefore a symbol of peace, a symbol of orthodoxy, a symbol of fidelity to the Lord, and a powerful symbol to cling to Jesus and adore His Holy Name. The IHS would later be adopted by St. Ignatius of Loyola as the symbol for the Society of Jesus. Thus, the symbol has persisted from the time of the early Church to now.