Bernardino's fire-and-brimstone sermons inspired penitents in the crowd to cry out their sins, Fr. Mormando says, and throw impious baubles and books on roaring "bonfires of the vanities." So renowned was his zeal as a religious orator that the Catholic Church made him a saint in 1450, only six years after his death.
But there was a dark side to Bernardino's eloquence, Fr. Mormando maintains in a new book, The Preacher's Demons: Bernardino of Siena and the Social Underworld of Early Renaissance Italy .
Bernardino regularly assailed sodomites, witches and Jews in sermons that fed fear, hatred and intolerance of those on society's margins, says Fr. Mormando, whose book is the first on Bernardino in 35 years and the first to consider the preacher's inflammatory role in Renaissance social issues.
"Sinners had no rights and had to be removed from society, which in the case of witches and sodomites meant burning at the stake," Fr. Mormando said. "With respect to sodomites and witches, he was vigorous and explicit in his call for their extermination. With Jews he called for the upholding of canon law, which meant social isolation."
Asst. Prof. Franco Mormando, SJ: "If Bernardino were up for canonization today, he would not be canonized. But in his day, what he said was Catholic orthodoxy."
In the age before mass media, popular preachers were among society's most important persuaders and opinion-leaders, said Fr. Mormando. Bernardino, he added, was "the televangelist of his day," whose public sermons were marked by the charismatic fervor of latter-day tent revivals.
"People would come up and declare themselves free of demonic possession, or converted from the sin of usury," Fr. Mormando said. "There would be screaming and hollering and crying out to Jesus."
The preacher would stoke the frenzy with impassioned denunciations of sinners, Fr. Mormando said, exhorting the faithful to put witches and sexual deviants to the torch.
Previous books on Bernardino of Siena have tended toward hagiography and have downplayed his inflammatory and anti-Semitic rhetoric, said Fr. Mormando, who researched his latest book at archives in Siena and Rome.
Fr. Mormando sees parallels between Renaissance society and our own. "Church and society remain perplexed by such topics as tolerance and intolerance, sexuality and anti-Semitism," he said. "What happened then is relevant to an understanding of how we got to where we are today."
Fr. Mormando said his book is not intended to be a "hatchet job" on Bernardino, but a more balanced view of the man than had been offered previously.
"If Bernardino were up for canonization today, he would not be canonized," commented Fr. Mormando. "But in his day, what he said was Catholic orthodoxy.
"As with most human beings - and many saints, as well - there is a mixture of light and darkness. My work tries to even out the record."
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