St. Bernardo Tolomei: A Late Vocation

 The case of Bernardo Tolomei (1272-1348)  is a good example of how slowly the Church’s wheels can sometimes move.  He died 660 years ago, and was beatified (one step before canonization) 375 years ago!

Bernardo grew up in Siena, Italy, before the time of that city’s most famous resident.  (In fact, at tbernard_tolomei-2850fhe time Bernardo died, the future St. Catherine was one year old.)   He wanted to be a monk early in his life, but his father prevented it.  So he went to school and became a lawyer, spent time serving in the army of feudal Germany (he was knighted by King Rudolph I), and also was involved in government.  At some point he was afflicted by blindness.  At age 41, he decided he was finally going to devote the rest of his life to God in prayer.  With two companions, he picked a secluded spot about ten miles outside of Siena and lived a life of silence, manual labor, and prayer.

He and the original two companions founded a monastery and a new order, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and following the rule of St. Benedict.  It was called the Congregation of the Blessed Virgin of Mount Oliveto (or, the Olivetans).  Bernardo served as its abbot for 27 years. The Olivetans still maintain a beautiful monastery on the same site (website, with exterior photo here, photo of the monastery church here, more photos here).  They support the life of the community by producing wine, liquor, and olive oil, which they sell along with books and religious products in a monastery store.  (Want to support the monastery founded by St. Bernardo Tolomei?  Information on their products, along with an email address and phone number are here.)

In 1348, a plague ravaged Siena, and Bernardo, along with many other monks,  left their monastery to help the victims.  He caught the plague himself while tending to the sick and died of it on August 20 that year.  His body was included in a mass grave of plague victims, which has never been found.

In the United States, the Olivetans are at Holy Trinity Monastery, in St. David, Arizona.  (Looking for a good place to go on retreat?)  The order also has monasteries in Italy, France, England, Brazil, Guatamala, Israel, and South Korea.

St. Bernardo might be a good companion for people who found their “true calling” late in life, after other diversions along the way.

His feast day is August 20.


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