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Catholic Heroes… St. Bridget

July 11, 2017 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

One of St. Teresa of Calcutta’s most quoted sayings would fit with this column’s saint, “God hasn’t called me to be successful. He has called me to be faithful.” What encouraging words for anyone seeking to do God’s will, knowing that the cross, the setbacks, and the obstacles are all part of working for the Kingdom of God. St. Bridget of Sweden experienced all of these in her lifetime.
St. Bridget, a descendant of Swedish royalty, was born on June 13, 1303, in the province of Uppland, north of Stockholm on the Baltic Sea. Her father, Birger Persson, came from the Finsta family, which possessed great wealth and influence. Birger acted as governor and judge while being one of the wealthiest landowners in Sweden. Her mother, Ingeborg Bengtsdotter, was descended from royalty. She was also related to St. Ingrid.
Both parents were pious Catholics, ensuring that their children were brought up strong in the faith. At the age of seven, Bridget experienced her first vision: The Blessed Virgin Mary placed a crown on her head. When she was ten she received another vision as if in a dream, this one of the suffering Jesus or one she called the Man of Sorrows. When she asked our Lord who did that to Him, He responded, “All those who despise my love.” These two experiences left a lasting impression on the young girl.
When Bridget’s parents made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, her mother fell ill and died. Bridget at only ten years old, her younger sister Katherine at nine years old, and a newborn baby boy named Israel were left without a mother. A loving aunt took the children into her home and raised them with a similar strong Catholic upbringing.
Several years later at the age of 14, Bridget was married to a nobleman, Ulf Gudmarsson, lord of Narke, from Ulvasa. He was 18. During their 28 years of marriage they had eight children, two of whom died in infancy. Four sons died at young ages, some of them in the Crusades. One daughter grew up and became St. Karin or St. Katherine of Sweden.
As Ulf’s wife, and having suffered the loss of some children, Bridget well understood the difficulties of bearing and raising children. She felt called by God to serve the unfortunate unwed mothers and to help them, dedicating both her wealth and her time to this endeavor. However, she was soon called away from this work.
Around 1336, Magnus II, the king of Sweden, called Bridget to court to serve his new wife, teaching the queen the language and customs of Sweden. While at court, Bridget had great influence over the king because of her intelligence, compassion, and holiness.
A few years later, she received permission to make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain — a pilgrimage popular to this day. She and her husband made the long journey to the holy site, but as they made their way back to Sweden, Ulf fell dangerously ill in Arras, France. For long hours, Bridget sat by his bedside begging our Lord to spare his life. St. Denis, the patron of France, appeared to her and assured that Ulf would recover.
He did recover, and they continued the journey back to Alvastra, Sweden, where he continued his work as chief of the district court in Narke. However, shortly after their return, he fell ill again. Despite her long vigil of prayer and nursing, he died at Alvastra monastery where he was buried. Bridget mourned his loss deeply, spending many hours by his graveside, praying for the repose of his soul. “I loved him like my own body,” she wrote.
After his death, she returned home to organize her various charitable endeavors and attend to the care of her children who were older by that time. For many hours she prayed for enlightenment and courage to know and do God’s will. At the end of 1344, at the age of 41 while staying in the Alvastra abbey, she heard God’s call to “be my bride and my canal.”
Under the guidance of four men, Nicolaus Hermanni, bishop of Linköping; Matthias, his canon; Peter, the prior of Alvastra; and Peter Magister, she discerned that she should found a new order. In another vision she received instructions on how to build the church, the design of the clothing the members would wear, as well as the rules for living, and the prayers to be recited.
With her husband gone, Bridget joined the Third Order of Franciscans and dedicated her time to both prayer and caring for the poor as did her father in Christ, St. Francis of Assisi. Her spiritual poverty and love for Christ opened her heart and soul to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The seeds of the new order began to grow.
In time she established the new order known as the Order of the Most Holy Savior, more commonly called the Bridgettines. In 1346, King Magnus IV of Sweden and his queen provided funds for the building of the motherhouse and monastery in Vadstena.
A unique feature of the grounds included both men and women living in separate monasteries but in the same community. Another rule observed was the care of the poor and marginalized citizens. All funds except those used for basic necessities were to be given to the poor. The only extra possessions allowed were books.
In 1349, seeking a larger sphere for the Lord’s work, Bridget went to Rome. The mission she sought was to bring a moral uplifting badly needed in the period, as well as approval for her order. Except for pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Bridget spent the rest of her life in Rome.
While there, like St. Catherine of Siena, she urged the Pope to return to Rome rather than reside in Avignon. She also sought approval of her order, but only received confirmation of the rule of her congregation in August 1370, from Pope Urban V.
Her greatest influence remained in the work she did. With a spiritual foundation in prayer, she admonished the sinners with gentleness but firmness. Her lifestyle also set a precedent eagerly followed by both men and women in Sweden.
She died in Rome on July 23, 1373, a worn-out woman far from her Swedish home. Her feast day is July 23. Although she yearned to become a nun, she remained a Third Order Franciscan. Even though she struggled to bring peace between France and England, that goal was never realized. Despite the fact that she did persuade the Pope to return to Rome from Avignon, he later returned to Avignon. Nor did she ever see the completed monastery in Vadstena.
Her crowning glory was that she did what she believed was the will of God, recording her prayers and visions as instructed. Although her prayers were approved for general recitation, none of the promises associated with them were ever approved by Rome.
Dear St. Bridget, led by your example, may we always find time for prayer. Like you, may we say, “Thy will be done,” not counting the cost. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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