A new Benedictine Saint : BERNARD TOLOMEI (1272-1348)
Founder of the Olivetan Congregation

bernardbuchoudauFr Bernard-M Buchoud, Abbey of Mesnil Saint-Loup, France

This conference was given at the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin in October 2009. The author has edited the text for the Bulletin.

Among the canonisations celebrated in 2009 the French have welcomes those of Jeanne Jugan, founder of the Little Sisters of the Poor, and of Damien De Veuster, known as Damien of Molokai, the well-known apostle of lepers. By contrast, the canonisations of monks have hardly caused a ripple, whether it be that of the Carmelite Nuna Álvares Pereira (1360-1431), though he at least is a national hero of Portugal and Brazil, or Brother Raphael Barón (1911- 1938), a young Spanish Trappist who was prevented by illness from taking his vows, or Bernard Tolomei, who is now our subject. Bernard, canonised on 26 April 2009, deserves mention because it is the first canonisation since that of Frances Rome in 1608 of a Benedictine saint to be canonised at the conclusion of a process which climaxed in the recognition of a miracle. The three English Benedictines of the seventeenth century canonised in 1970 were canonised under the title of martyrs, which itself constitutes the necessary miracle. However, if the liturgical cult of St Bernard Tolomei, founder of the Benedictine Congregation of St Mary of Mount Olivet, has been granted to the whole Church, nevertheless, this new intercessor still needs to become known to the Christian people.

A Silver Spoon

Bernard was born to Mino Tolomei and Fulvia Tancredi at Siena in 1272. At baptism he received the name Giovanni; Bernard was his later monastic name. His birth placed him among the most powerful families of this blossoming Tuscan city: the family of Tolomei belong to that glittering aristocracy who built their fortune and acquired their noble status by conducting flourishing commercial and banking enterprises. Like most of such families, they possessed in one of the central squares of their fine city of Siena a palace bristling with towers, signs of power and means of defence in the many guerrilla wars waged between the families.

It is common knowledge that the modern banking system was born in Italy precisely at this time: the ancestors of our saint were, among other families of Siena and Florence, pioneers in this trade which showed so much promise. Since the year 1255 the Tolomei had the envied title of campesores domini papae (money-changers of the Lord Pope), a rank which opened to them the doors and treasurechests of many other ecclesiastical institutions, but could also put them in a situation of some delicacy with regard to their own city. In the final throes of the long conflict between Pope and Emperor, Siena in fact belonged to the pro-imperial party called Ghibellines. It must be remembered that the quarrel known as that between Priesthood and Empire had a profound effect on an Italy still fragmented in a host of local powers – the Italian communes governed themselves as so many autonomous republics. This quarrel had become one of the issues of both political and religious rivalry between the Successor of Peter and the German monarch whose power made itself so strongly felt in Italy. Historians describe the spirit of Italy in this era as a real culture of violence, gnawed by an atmosphere of permanent violence between communes following the colour of their political allegiance to Pope or Emperor, and between social classes striving for superiority. Hence it needs no stretch of the imagination to feel the conflict of interest for our Tolomei between the papal bankers and the citizens of Siena, who had been placed under an interdict by Alexander IV and Urban IV. The conflict was speedily resolved to the profit of their financial dealings. They sided with the Pope and went into exile from their city for a few years, till the wind should change and the imperial party be defeated. After their return to the city they were obliged to rebuild their ruined palace and accept exclusion from the government of the commune, which had been swallowed up by representatives of the popolo, the rising bourgeoisie. Giovanni-Bernard was born precisely during these years of relative political exclusion of his family. This was a good school for him to learn at the same time the influence of money and of power, not usually pre-conditions for holiness, as evidence of the insecurity of worldly success.

The School of Holiness

It must be admitted that we are not well-informed about the childhood and formation of our saint. It may be assumed that he enjoyed the best education available to young people of his standing, still largely marked by the categories of classical antiquity and also including a solid legal grounding, since the practice of law was becoming an essential feature of Italian society. The most ancient Olivetan chronicle qualifies him as miles atque doctor eximius, that is, ‘an outstanding knight and teacher’. The title doctor makes him not necessarily an academic teacher, but someone qualified in law and thereby equipped for any sort of public office. His quality as miles is not merely an honorific distinction; it marks him as belonging to the citizen army, in his capacity to fight on horseback. We do not know the extent to which the young Giovanni put into practice his military capacities, but we should not underestimate this aspect.

As a citizen of Siena, Giovanni was also placed in a school for saints, for the city was not merely boiling with the sound of business and political strife, but was equally vibrant with a mystical strain in which a renewed taste for evangelical poverty and penance were joined together, notably in the school of the Poor Man of Assisi and the Friars Minor, together with an attraction to the solitary life, the whole falling within the framework of lay piety. Giovanni Tolomei was a member of the brotherhood of flagellants (disciplinati) of Santa Maria della Scala, an association of laymen who met in the great hospice of that name opposite the cathedral of Siena. Its members supported their spiritual life by various exercises of piety, notably the periodical renewal of participation in spirit and in act in the passion of Christ, that is to say, in the use of the discipline. They also took part regularly in the Eucharist. In addition, within the framework of the important institution of hospitallers, they devoted themselves to works of charity, helping to care for the sick. Enrolment in this lay community also represented the acceptance of a sort of social commitment, for the confraternity was open to all the Christians of Siena without distinction of class or wealth. Many of the members were illiterate, but one could also find oneself among members of opposing noble families. It was, therefore, a place in which to renew appreciation of evangelical brotherhood beyond such strong social cleavages. For Giovanni, in any case, it was the opportunity for devoted friendship with two personalities, Patrizio Patrizi and Ambrogio Piccolomini, who were subsequently to become his companions on his spiritual journey. Patrizio belonged to the merchant class, to this popolo which had seized power at the expense of the noble families. These three were to become the closest companions for their whole life. One feature of Giovanni- Bernard’s holiness may there be discerned: a man of brotherhood, friendship and reconciliation.

An Exodus

In 1313 the struggles between the factions were re-kindled in the peninsula as a consequence of the descent into Italy of the Emperor Henry VII of Luxemburg. Giovanni Tolomei, who was now forty years old, made the decisive choice of splitting off from this permanently quarrelsome society. In company with his two friends he left Siena and made for the ‘desert’, in this case a place called Acona, thirty kilometres south-east of Siena in the region of crete – that is, literally ‘clayey soils’, but in fact hills of tufa and steep ravines – a plot of land which he had inherited. Here, in the isolation of this steep terrain, accessible only from one side, surrounded by copses of pine, small oaks and olive-trees, our three friends lived a life of penance, both eremitical in form and equally strongly marked by fraternity. An ancient Olivetan chronicler represents it thus: ‘they were assiduous in prayer, most punctilious for silence and eager to give praise to God.’ The caves which they made for themselves in the hillside are venerated to this day. To mark their new way of life the three companions wore the clothing of a poor man; what is more, these grand noblemen learned to live by the work of their own hands. They built for themselves the little chapel in which they prayed the Office and invited priests of their choice to celebrate the holy mysteries.

Nevertheless, this ‘desert’ rapidly became peopled, as frequently occurs in this type of experience. This growth engendered a change in the experience, its institutionalisation. In this process the Church must have played a determinant part. In general, since the legislation of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and the Second Council of Lyons (1274), the intervention of the Church was a pre-requisite for wearing non-secular clothing and leading a life of ‘conversion’, or entering an already constituted Order, or adopting a recognized Rule, essentially that of St Benedict for monks, that of St Augustine for canons, and also that of St Francis. At this period, when the Inquisition was at its most active, it was better not to challenge its principles and risk finding oneself considered a heretical sect. In particular, the period at which the group at Acona was constituted coincided with the beginning of the pontificate of the Avignon Pope John XXII (1316-1334), who was to pursue with full rigour those Franciscans who were called ‘spirituals’, held to be sorely deviant because of their insistence on the absolute poverty dictated by the Testament of St Francis. Furthermore, these ‘spirituals’ were heavily represented in Tuscany. In all likelihood, therefore, the informal group of hermits in Acona, in their penitential clothing, were at some stage assimilated to these ‘spirituals’, since a chronicle makes play with an inquisition aimed at them. Subsequent events show that the presumption was without foundation.

At this period Giovanni was granted a heavenly revelation. To be precise, he had a vision of a ‘silver ladder’ by which a great number of brothers, clad in a white habit, and guided by angels, were going up to heaven towards Christ and his Mother, who were also clad in sparkling white. This mystical experience may be considered an invitation to the companions of Acona to emerge from their undefined status and submit to the wise directives of the Church by adopting the ladder of monastic life or of humility (RB 7), with the Benedictine Rule as norm. It would have been at this moment that Giovanni changed his name, putting himself under the patronage of the illustrious Abbot of Clairvaux, singer of the Virgin and model of a reformed monastic life, although it must be admitted that at this moment traditional monastic life, both Benedictine and Cistercian, seemed to be somewhat in crisis.

A Benedictine Foundation: St Mary of Mount Olivet

Accompanied by Patrizio, Bernard therefore set off to find the Bishop of Arezzo, in whose diocese Acona lay. On 26th March, 1319, Bishop Guido Tarlati granted the two Sienese a foundation-charter for their future monastery, instituted ‘in honour of the glorious Virgin, under the Rule of St Benedict and monastic observance, to be named St Mary of Olivet at Acona’. Then on 29th March, still at Arezzo, the three founders – Ambrogio having joined the first two - received their white habits from the monk Giovanni de Sasso, acting in the name of Bishop Guido. They made profession on the spot, ‘promising to live always in the said monastery, without any possessions, in chastity and under obedience to the abbot of the monastery, according to the Rule of St Benedict.’ Then the final act of a foundation which can be followed almost minute by minute, thanks to the legal documents which record its memory: on 1st April, 1319, Palm Sunday, the priest Restauro, delegated by the bishop, went to Acona, where the new monks in white garments had rejoined their companions. They showed him the place chosen for the construction of the monastery and he planted the cross there and laid the first stone.

Attention should be drawn to the spiritual foundations of this nascent institution. Marian devotion is clearly an important point, but equally clear is the extent to which this devotion is intimately linked to the cult of the humanity of the Saviour, written into the choice of a name for the monastery: St Mary of Olivet, probably of course because there was an olive-plantation, but also – since the latter part of the name was soon developed into ‘Mount Olivet’ – an obvious reference to the Mount of Olives and so to the Passover of Christ. In this respect the dates of the foundation events still have their tale to tell. The charter was signed by Bishop Guido on Monday 26th March in the full light of the Annunciation, and the cross was planted in Acona on Palm Sunday. The Marian and Christocentric programme of the monastic life which was beginning could not have been more clearly defined: with Mary, union to the Saviour in his passion in order to share in his glory, by humility, obedience and poverty to climb with him and in him the ladder which his glorious cross had erected between earth and heaven.

On the juridical level the aspect which catches the eye is the fixed option for the Benedictine Rule. This confirms the cenobitic evolution of this group of solitaries, and their desire to enrich their still untried ardour by the wisdom of monastic observance known for its longevity and its moderation. It is notable that the vow of poverty – ‘without any possessions’ – in conformity with the Benedictine interpretation rather than the practice (or at least the theory) of the mendicant Orders is understood as a personal and not a community dispossession.

However, if the foundation rejoins the Benedictine tradition by the choice of the Rule a resolute option for originality is also noticeable, a reasonable autonomy within the bounds of this tradition. The extent to which this new monastery puts itself in the embrace of the Church is obvious: everything is received at the hands of the bishop, charter, consecration by the habit and the vows, cross and foundation stone. The nascent monastery is put under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of Arezzo, who is to confirm its abbots and to conduct visitations. Everything seems conceived to avoid a dependence on earlier monasticism. The founders show their awareness of their liberty in the depths of the Benedictine tradition by their choice of a white habit, which distinguishes them obviously from the black monks, but above all, and more surprisingly, by a temporary abbacy, lasting one year. Could this be the influence of the length of public office in the communal Italian institutions? Or a means of avoiding commendatory abbots? The motivation has not been completely clarified.

Nevertheless, after three successive refusals on the ground of a visual impediment, an excuse which no doubt also hid the more profound motive of humility, Bernard Tolomei had to resolve to accept this mission which, not surprisingly, all wanted him to undertake. He was therefore the fourth abbot of the monastic community to which he had given birth. It is a sign of the confidence in which he was held among his brothers that, notwithstanding the fixed norm, he was re-elected year after year until his death. As far as one can judge, his way of leading the others, firm and sometimes sharp, was equally marked by discretion and humility: he wanted to be a father, an animator, even if he had the qualities of a boss. In his decisions he placed himself always among the brothers rather than over them. The epithets which he applied to himself – ‘Most unworthy Abbot of the monastery of St Mary of Monte Oliveto’ or ‘Brother Bernard, a sinner’ – ring under his pen quite differently from merely stylistic clauses or empty formulae.

bernardtolomeiThe Flowering of the Olivetan Congregation

Under Bernard’s abbacy the monastery experienced a growing influence, for in the space of two decades it swarmed into ten different places at the request of bishops or lay noblemen who wanted to profit from the presence of these new white monks. It was not completely by chance that the city of Siena was the first to be served, with the monastery of St Benedict near the Porta Tufi, outside the city walls. The mark left by their city of origin on the three founders is undeniable. There followed Arezzo, Florence, Gubbio, Foligno, Rome and others.

These foundations manifest another originality of the Olivetan institution: in order to maintain the cohesion of the whole and strengthen the communion between all the brothers, it was resolved that the foundations, present and future, should remain under Monte Oliveto, ‘as members to the head’, tamquam membra capiti, according to an originally Pauline formula then in ecclesiastical usage. The ensemble of the houses should constitute one single family, one single body with their monastery of origin, with the sole Abbot of Monte Oliveto at their head. On the occasion of the annual general chapter the monks could be called to transfer from one house to another of this single family. It would probably be a false step to regard this organisation of the young Olivetan Congregation merely under the juridical concept of centralisation. This may describe the reality in one sense, but it leaves no room for its historic breadth and leaves to one side the spiritual motives which determined such a choice. The original and fruitful conception of the monastic family as a single body appears, on the part of Bernard and his first companions, to be a yearning for communion, a vigorous refusal of any centrifugal force or separation. ‘We order,’ says one chapter of the Constitutions, ‘that the communion in charity be defended at all costs and strengthened among the brothers day by day.’ We should not forget the milieu from which our Tolomei came, the currents of centrifugal force in civil society which Bernard had experienced, the strife between parties, the city rivalries, the ancestral hostilities, the culture of exclusion, of mutual excommunication. In the face of their fragmented society the white monks of Mont-Olivet, the ‘Mount of Olives’, mean to give an eschatological sign of a family which is already gathering in the unity of the heavenly Jerusalem.

On 21st January 1344 Pope Clement VI (1342-1352), himself once a Benedictine of La Chaise-Dieu, issued at Avignon two apostolic letters which confirmed this statute and constitute the moment of birth of the Olivetan Congregation, now consisting of 160 monks, within the Order of St Benedict. It logically imposed a precise geographical limitation on this very unified organisation centred on the monastery of Monte Oliveto and the general chapter: the Congregation might develop only within Italy, in partibus dumtaxat Italiae. This remained the situation for five centuries.


At the age of 72 the founder perhaps aspired to find himself released from the responsibility which weighed upon his shoulders with a weight which continued to grow. His brothers did not listen: on 4th May, 1347, the chapter voted a complete delegation of power to Abbot Bernard, ‘with full confidence that because of his holiness he would not depart from the will of God nor from the salvation of the souls of his brothers and sons’ – a precious testimony to the reputation for holiness which surrounded the founder even during his life.

At the end of this same year the bacillus of the plague arrived in Italy, carried by Genoese galleys from the shores of the Black Sea. This pandemic, the terrible Black Death of 1348/9, was one of the most disastrous plagues of the Middle Ages because Europe was destined to lose one-third of its population. It was accompanied by a terrible moral crisis, as all contemporaries attest: sick people often abandoned to their fate even by their closest relations, and priests refusing to administer the sacraments for fear of contagion. In the midst of this trial the confidence in their abbot expressed by the Congregation was shown to be fully justified: far from trying to escape the danger, he saw the final will of God for him in serving the dying. Leaving the solitude of Monte Oliveto in an astonishing return to the sources of his vocation, Bernard went to Siena, to the monastery of the Porta Tufi, to those of his children who were most at risk, to give them the assurance of his presence and the witness of his fatherly tenderness. On 20th August, 1348, according to the traditional date, he rendered his soul to God in the midst of his own people, in that epidemic which carried off 24 monks in all, half the young Congregation. Bernard’s body disappeared, perhaps into the anonymity of a common grave. The long retreat on the ‘Mount of Olives’ had borne its full fruit in a paschal offering; the mounting of the glimpsed silver ladder occurred on the cross. Saint Bernard Tolomei, in the words of the Pope in his homily at the canonisation, was ‘a true martyr of charity’.

By way of conclusion let us present in two words the present aspect of the Olivetan Congregation, now largely internationalized. Curiously the nineteenth century brought many dangers. Caught up in the storm of suppressions which broke on the religious orders in Italy, it was in the gravest danger of losing everything. However, this was also the crucible of a true renaissance: a handful of remarkable monks succeeded in keeping the flame burning and laying the foundations of a real renewal. An adaptation of the constitution allowed the first foundations outside Italy, first in France and in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (in Carinthia). The century which has just ended was marked by an expansion of this presence in the world and by the feminisation of the face of the Congregation, though this was not entirely new, having been inaugurated by St Frances of Rome (1384-1440) and the oblates of Tor de’Specchi; today there are twice as many sisters as brothers. From east to west we find a presence of Olivetans in Southern Korea, in Israel, in Europe (Italy, Switzerland, Belgium, France, the United Kingdom), in Ghana (a brand new foundation), in America, Brazil, Guatemala and the United States including Hawaii. Probably one of the tasks today is to manage to maintain the spirit of communion handed down from St Bernard Tolomei in an organism stamped with a real and legitimate diversity.