[I originally shared this post three years ago. St. Louis Bertrand is the Patron Saint of our Lay Dominican Chapter.]
His early years – On January 1, 1526, one hundred and seven years after the death of St. Vincent Ferrer, another Dominican saint was born in
– St. Louis Bertrand. He was actually baptized in the same Church and font in which Valencia St. Vincent had been baptized. Louis’s father, John, was related to and had an ardent devotion to Saint Vincent. He passed that devotion to his son – one which Louis treasured throughout his life.
Louis has been described as “a fretful child and nothing seemed to comfort him except the sight of the holy images in the churches”. (Wilberforce 15) However, at an early age, he dedicated himself to the service of God and his studies. He learned to read and recite the Office of Our Lady before he was eight years old. As he grew older, he seldom spoke “unless the conversation turned upon spiritual matters”. (Wilberforce 17)
His entry into the Dominican Order – Louis was certain he would save his soul as a Dominican, but his father objected to his joining the Order, believing he was better suited for the Carthusians. His father acquiesced only after Louis told him he would rather die than leave the Order. He made his Dominican profession on August 27, 1545.
Prayer and fasting for Louis, as it must be for all Dominicans, was an essential part of his life. He devoted two hours every morning and two hours every evening to mental prayer. After dinner he spent a half hour with the Blessed Mother. He especially loved the Eucharist and often remained prostrate before the Blessed Sacrament for extended periods of time. He “languished with weakness whenever he was prevented from celebrating the holy sacrifice.” (Wilberforce 91)
When not actually praying in these ways, Louis was always conscious of the Divine Presence. He frequently meditated on our Lord’s Passion. The crucifix was his constant companion. In it our Saint insisted “you will find whatever you need”. (Wilberforce 73)
He also loved the Rosary, constantly reciting its mysteries. He taught it to his converts and depended on the intercession of Our Lady of the Rosary for the success of his preaching. “Many miraculous favors,” we are told, “were granted to those who devoutly used rosaries that had been blessed” by Louis. (Wilberforce 173)
Novice Master – At the age of twenty-six and after having only been a priest for four years, Louis was appointed Master of Novices, serving with distinction in that capacity at six different times in his life and for a total of thirty years. He frequently referred to
St. Vincent’s Treatise on the Spiritual Life, challenging his novices to see “which one of us shall be the imitator of this great man, whose equal is not to be found in this world”. (Pradel 184)
His own practice of humility “was unceasing, and extended to every detail of life”. (Wilberforce 66) He instructed his novices to despise themselves and the world and to have such contempt for material possessions that they should be willing “to abandon all for the love of God – from the very books from which they studied to their cells”. (Wilberforce 68)
Louis expected his novices to frequently confess their sins. He so valued this Sacrament that he would go to confession two or three times a day. His inability to do so during the time he later spent in
Latin America was the heaviest cross he had to bear as a missionary.
As a religious superior, Louis guided his brothers with a strict but loving hand. He demanded the “utmost exactness in every religious duty,” freely admonishing his brothers even for the most minor of faults. He “cared very little whether he pleased men, but he was very anxious to please God and
St. Dominic,” fondly telling his brothers “he did not wish to go himself to hell, or even to purgatory on account of the faults of his friends”. (Wilberforce 275, 271, 276) Lest anyone still not understand, he hung a scroll on his cell wall which read: “If I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ.” (Gal 1:10)
One of the major reasons for all of Louis’s fasts, disciplines, and prayers, and for all the penances he inflicted on his novices was to save him and them “as far as possible, from the penalties of Purgatory”. (Wilberforce 70) This urgent concern was no doubt reinforced after the soul of his father (a man who with human eyes seemed to have lived a holy and virtuous life) appeared to him over an eight year period, begging Louis to pray that he would be delivered from the pains of Purgatory.
Missions – In 1562 Louis left
Valencia for Carthagena, New Granada (in what is now the country of ) hoping to be a martyr for the Faith – a crown he was not to receive. Instead, God used him to convert thousands of souls and to advocate for the humane treatment of the native Indians who were so frequently abused and mistreated by Louis’s fellow countrymen that Bishop Bartholomew de las Casas (himself a Dominican) insisted that priests withhold absolution from those who did so. Columbia
For his first three years, the convent of
in Carthagena was the base for his missionary trips. He joyfully accepted the dangers and rigors of travel by foot through tropical jungles and mountainous terrain, carrying no food or water but only a little bag, containing a Bible and his Office. St. Joseph
However, Louis quickly came to understand that his inability to speak the native languages impeded his effort to save their souls. He asked God “for the same gift of tongues for which St. Vincent Ferrer was so much celebrated, and by means of which he converted such multitudes to God.” (Wilberforce 154) The Lord answered his prayers. He and the Indians could understand each other. Thousands of them converted.
One Good Friday when Louis preached on the Passion of our Lord at St. Joseph’s convent, he, like St. Vincent before him, so deeply moved the hearts of his hearers that “sobs of contrition were heard in every part of the church, and the burning words of the Saint, who was so ardent a lover of the Cross of Jesus Christ, made men realize as they never had before, the meaning of these words – God has died for our sins”. (Wilberforce 156)
His superiors next sent him to Tubera, where his holy example, zeal for souls and the “penetrating power of his words” resulted in the conversion of its more than 10,000 inhabitants.
Three years later, Louis went to Cipacoa, an area which had been experiencing a severe drought for some time. Louis promised the residents that if they constructed an altar upon which he would say Mass the following morning, the drought would end. They did and the rains came. Many were converted.
He next visited St. Martha where he “instructed and baptized as many as 15,000 persons”. (Wilberforce 185). While there, he heard of the nearby Caribbee Indians, who had a superstitious veneration “to the bones of a defunct idolatrous priest” believing that “if any one removed them from the place in which they were worshipped, the sky would immediately collapse”. (Wilberforce 192) Despite his best efforts, Louis was unable to stop this practice so he secretly removed the bones, hoping when no catastrophe occurred that the Indians would abandon their practices and be open to the Gospel.
When the Caribbee discovered what Louis had done, they gave him a poisonous drink. Not knowing its contents, he drank it and became violently ill. He remained close to death for five days, joyfully suffering, while holding the cross of his wooden rosary and believing he was about to be a martyr. God had other plans. He survived. Before they were able to club him to death, one of the Indians whom Louis had previously converted, intervened, chastised them for refusing to recognize the supreme power of the God Louis loved, whom he had tried to share with them and who had delivered the Saint from the effects of the deadly poison. Their hearts were changed. Louis “had the consolation of bringing a great number of them to the faith and the holy Sacrament of Baptism”. (Wilberforce 195)
As he continued his missionary journeys, he found many natives dying in large numbers from some unknown pestilence. He went from house to house “sprinkling the inhabitants with holy water and blessing them with the sign of the Cross”. (Wilberforce 211). No one he so blessed died. At another point in his travels, he raised a young girl from the dead.
Valencia – Seven years after his arrival in Carthagena, Louis abruptly requested permission to return to . Biographers offer several reasons for his decision. Pre-eminent among them was “the wickedness of many of the Spanish officials, their atrocious barbarity to the poor natives” and the Saint’s inability to prevent such cruelties. (Wilberforce 214) Valencia
The friars of the Convent of Santa Fe de Bogota thought they could prevent the Saint from leaving their country by electing him their Prior, but the Master of the Order commanded him to return to
. On the voyage home, fierce storms so severely damaged the boat’s sails and rudder, that all on board save Louis feared death was imminent. Louis calmly made a sign of the cross and commanded the sea to be still. It complied. Not wanting to bring any attention to himself, Louis hid. The violent storm returned. The crew begged Louis to intercede again. He made another sign of the cross and the serene seas returned. There were no further storms and the ship with its precious saintly cargo arrived in Spain on October 18, 1569. Spain
– Louis was allowed to remain secluded in his convent without any formal office for a year. He was then elected Prior of St. Onuphrius – a small convent without many financial resources, in disrepair, heavily in debt, and with few religious. He did not want this position, did not feel qualified for it and sought to be excused. Permission was denied. Ever obedient, Louis assumed his duties as Prior and went about transforming the convent, physically, financially and spiritually. Vocations flourished. Spain
On one occasion shortly after assuming his duties at this priory, the subprior informed Louis there was no bread except for seven broken bread crusts. So great was the Saint’s faith in Divine Providence that he directed the doubting subprior to assemble the thirty friars in the refectory and divide those crusts among them. He reluctantly did so. “They all did eat and had their fill.” (Wilberforce 241)
At the end of his term, Louis yearned to dwell in his cell in solitude with God alone. This was not to be. Many sought out this holy and wise man for his blessing, advice and counsel. He thought of escaping these distractions by hiding in the solitude of a nearby Carthusian monastery. There were two reasons why he chose to persevere in his Dominican vocation – his “burning thirst for the salvation of souls” and “the loving veneration he felt towards St. Dominic and the other Saints of the Order, but particularly St. Vincent Ferrer”. (Wilberforce 256)
– It wasn’t long thereafter that Louis was again made Novice Master. He fulfilled these duties reluctantly but admirably and effectively. However, he became disheartened when he was later elected Prior of the Convent in Valencia . He sought consolation by going to the chapel that had once been the cell of St. Vincent Ferrer and gazing upon the image of the saint to whom he was deeply devoted offered this prayer: Valencia
"O holy Father Vincent, they have made me Prior of this convent, and I am thoroughly unworthy of the charge, and utterly unable rightly to fulfill its duties. I therefore transfer this priorship to you, and I beg you, glorious Saint, to deign to be Prior of this house instead of me. I will be your subprior, and I will govern according to your commands." (Wilberforce 269)
At the end of this prayer, Louis reportedly “stooped forward to kiss the feet of the image, but the figure of the Saint, as though it were the living St. Vincent, himself, bent down and raised him up, thus preventing him from kissing his feet”. (Wilberforce 269)
Spiritual Discernment and Zeal for Souls – Louis was able to discern the condition of souls and used this gift for the spiritual advancement of those who sought his counsel, often telling priests and lay penitents alike what they needed to or had forgotten to confess. Individuals conscious of unconfessed sin often avoided him until after they had availed themselves of the Sacrament of Confession.
His fearlessness and zeal for the salvation of souls knew no bounds, especially with respect to those whose open sinfulness gave public scandal. Such obstinate sinners “dreaded the Saint's preaching, knowing that if they did not repent, he might publicly reprehend them”. (Wilberforce 262)
Once Louis approached two men who gave public scandal by openly living with a woman to whom they were not married. He spoke to them individually and privately, but failed in trying to have them recognize and repent of their sin. He then preached publicly in general terms of this type of sin without mentioning these specific men by name. When both obstinately persisted in this grave and public sin, Louis reprimanded them by name from the pulpit.
One of them immediately attempted to attack the Saint but was stopped “by the sight of flames of heavenly fire surrounding and defending” the priest. (Wilberforce 263) He fled from the Church, returned home and told his lover what had just happened. She, not he, ran back to the Church and publicly sought forgiveness and reconciled with her Lord. The other gentlemen waited for a time until he found the Saint standing outside the Church. Louis knew this man was intending to kill him, but instead of safely entering the Church to escape from him, he smiled “kindly on his enemy and asked if he could do him any service”. (Wilberforce 264) This fearless act so touched this man’s heart that he got off his horse, knelt before Louis and begged pardon for his scandalous life.
Final days – After his term as Prior ended, Louis was finally able to enjoy the solitude of his cell where his prayer became more prolonged, his penance more rigorous, and his humility more profound. He died in
on October 9, 1581 and was canonized by Pope Clement X in 1671. Valencia
So effective was Louis in the formation of the novices entrusted to his care that St. Theresa of
asked for his advice as she sought to reform her Carmelite order. He is the patron saint of novice masters and mistresses and novitiate brothers and sisters and is often referred to as “Preacher to the Indians”. Avila
(Primary sources for this article: Pradel, Fr. Andrew, OP. St. Vincent Ferrer-The Angel of the Judgment,
: TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., 2000 and Wilberforce, Arthur Henry. The Life of St.Lewis Bertrand. 1882) Rockford, IL