Even if she hadn't lived in times that begged for reform, St. Bridget of Sweden
would have found opportunities to build a better Church and world. She was incapable
of flinching from difficult realities. She was a natural contemplative and a
woman of bold action who was guided by the Spirit throughout her life. She is
honored as patroness of Sweden and co-patroness of Europe (along with Saints
Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein).
The signs that great things were to come surfaced early. At age seven, Bridget
reported a vision of an altar with a lady sitting above it, holding a crown
and inviting Bridget to wear it. Throughout her life, she continued to speak
of divine revelations, which usually focused on the sufferings of Jesus. These
revelations made Bridget something of a celebrity to some and a controversial
figure to others.
Born north of Stockholm around 1303 into a wealthy, powerful family, Bridget
married young and bore eight children. She made it a priority to minister to
the sick in her neighborhood, often with some of her children in tow.
Missions With Mixed Success
When her husband died after 28 years of marriage, Bridget undertook a life
of penitence and celibacy. In 1347, guided by her ongoing revelations, she began
the establishment of a “double community” of women and men—nuns, priests and
brothers—that came to be known as the Order of the Most Holy Savior, or the
Members, including Bridget and her daughter Catherine (St. Catherine of Sweden),
lived austere lives. Any unneeded money went to the poor. Brigittines were
permitted, however, to own books, and the monastery became the literary center
Bridget's boldest mission still lay before her. Around 1350, she made a pilgrimage
to Rome just as the Black Plague was sweeping through Europe. Her purpose was
dual: to obtain papal approval for her new religious foundation and to gain
the Jubilee indulgence that would be granted during the Holy Year in 1350. Her
patience and perseverance were put to the test: She waited 20 years before
receiving official Church approval for her new order.
Virtue's Great Variety
Rome was hardly hospitable. Parts of the city lay in ruins while other parts
were divided into armed camps headed by rival factions. For decades, the papacy
had been headquartered in Avignon in southern France. Spurred by revelations,
Bridget confidently launched a campaign to return the papacy to Rome, writing
letters to several popes. If she'd had access to e-mails and faxes, she would
have used them as well!
Despite her pleading and cajoling, the change she sought didn't come until
1378, five years after her death. She was canonized in 1391.
If it's not indelicate to ask, when did she reach her heyday? Early, as a
devoted wife and mother? Later, as an ascetic widow and leader of a new religious
community? Still later, as a struggling pilgrim in Rome? Finally, as a voice
of Church reform? Or was it as a lifelong beneficiary of divine revelations?
In truth, Bridget displayed heroic holiness at every phase of her life. At
each point along the way, she experienced joy as well as sorrow, success as
well as failure, doubt as well as certainty. But she found God every time. Her
life invites us to do the same.
Next month: St. Monica (322?-387)