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Mystic and politics

Saint Bridget of Sweden at her desk, epitaph for Brigitte Topler, 1483, detail; Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

Patroness of Sweden and Europe

29 August 2020

Bridget, champion of the Church


Born into fourteenth century Swedish high aristocracy (the daughter of Birg Petersson, governor of Uppland), Bridget of Sweden was a bride, a mother of eight children, a widow, a pilgrim, a founder, a mystic, and a prophet. We are therefore in the presence of an immense charismatic personality whose religious dimension -closely linked with her political vocation-, made her a unique figure not only in the society of that time, but also in the Church today which recognized her as the patroness saint of Europe in 1999.

As the daughter and granddaughter of passionate pilgrims, the first aspect which characterizes Bridget’s life, is the pilgrimage experience; in fact, she was born during her mother’s adventurous journey to the shrine of Cell Dara in Ireland. This pilgrimage experience continued with her husband Ulf Gudmarsson for she journeyed to sanctuaries, including Santiago de Compostela.  As a widow, she undertook a long pilgrimage through Europe during the Jubilee of 1350. From Sweden, passing through Germany and Switzerland, she arrived in Milan to honor the tomb of St Ambrose. From there she moved to Pavia to venerate the relics of St Augustine.  From Genoa she embarked for Ostia and to Rome where she remained for some years, devoting herself to caring for the poor in a desolate city that had “become a kingdom of scandal” due to the Pope’s absence who had moved to Avignon.

In the spring of 1364 she began a journey to Central and Southern Italy to visit the major sanctuaries and tombs of the saints.  These include: Assisi (St Francis), Ortona (St Thomas), Monte Sant’Angelo (Archangel Gabriel), Bari (St Nicholas), Benevento (St Bartholomew), Salerno (St Matthew), Amalfi (St Andrew) which comprise just half of her destinations, for her  pilgrimage experience concluded in the Holy Land, which she travelled to in 1371,  and 1373. From Jerusalem, she returned to Rome where she died in July that year.

During her pilgrimages to Southern Italy she visited Naples on three occasions. While there she took the opportunity to remind Queen Joan and Bishop Bernard of their roles of government. This included correct moral behavior, the appropriate defense of the poor, the rejection of the practice of abortion and, above all, the elimination of the slave trade. She was mindful of her father’s commitment who had abolished slavery in Sweden: “God loves them all, he created them all and redeemed them all”.

The sense of justice is a key element in Bridget’s life. In 1335, at the age of thirty, King Magnus II called her to Stockholm as court teacher for the royal family. While there she not only offered spiritual guidance to sovereigns, but also intervened in matters of economic and juridical administration, and was attentive of the most fragile sections of society thanks to her father’s teachings and the suggestions of the learned master Mattias of Linköping. The latter, an expert in Sacred Scripture and a sensitive theologian, became her confessor. This led her to a constant meditation on the Bible and a knowledge of the religious and political questions of the time, thus preparing her for her future mission.

The sacred text is central to Bridget’s journey of faith, for she was responsible for the first translation of the Bible into Swedish, which she offered as a wedding gift to King Magnus II and his wife Blanche. The Scripture, read, meditated and contemplated, is the lens through which she interpreted every aspect of the Church and society, subjected to the “living word” of God.

The other element that characterizes Bridget’s life and experience is her ability to combine mysticism and politics. In fact, the close link between contemplative experiences, prophetic vocation and political-pastoral commitment permitted her to look at Christian society as a whole. For this reason she can be considered the champion of reform in the Church when, upon receiving the Revelations, she felt elected by Jesus as a messenger in Europe of a broad project of renewal. The first task was to call the Pope from his French exile to return to Rome to restore to the city its centrality in Christian life and to rethink its pastoral role. This should be more in keeping with a spiritual and evangelical dimension and free from the tangles of power.

Bridget’s attention, however, was not limited to ecclesiastical leaders, who were often stigmatized because they were corrupt.  Instead, it was addressed to all believers, who are equal before God because they are baptized, thus overcoming the traditional hierarchy of states of perfection, above all the concept of the virginal. For the Swedish saint, even marriage was “not excluded from heaven”, for it was to be understood as a pivotal experience of Christian life. In this way, being a woman, a laywoman, bride and mother permitted her a particular perspective that allowed her to re-evaluate the lay condition and to emphasize how people should be judged by obedience to the divine will and fidelity to the Gospel and not by their state of life, be they virgins, widows or married; lay or consecrated.

These interventions of hers were also the fruit of a close dialogue with the Virgin who was a constant guide and point of reference for her. To such a degree, in fact, she can be defined a Marian saint. Mary, in fact, was a protagonist in the work of reform that the Swedish saint was called to absolve, for it was she who ordered her to write to the Popes Urban V and Gregory XI so that they might return to Rome. She was the political advisor in her relations with the Archbishop of Naples, Queen Joan and Queen Eleanor of Cyprus. During her stay in Alvastra, it was Mary who appeared to Bridget to invest her with a prophetic mission in the Church: the foundation in her honor of a double monastery (female and male) for the conversion of Christians. Thus, the Order of the Most Holy Savior was founded. This is a double religious community that provides for the presence of thirteen monks (the number of apostles, including St Paul), four deacons (in honor of the Fathers of the undivided Church), eight lay brothers and sixty religious (symbolizing the 72 disciples), all relaying on a woman, the abbess, representing Mary, caput et domina of the monastery. The model to which Bridget is inspired in designing this community with female guidance is that of the early Church gathered at Pentecost: the Mother of Jesus is also the mother of the disciples and the nascent Church. The abbess represents her while recognizing her authority; she can present the consecrated bread and, in imitation of the heavenly hegemony of the Virgin, as head and queen of the apostles and disciples of Christ, must rule over all clerics and laymen, men and women.

With Bridget, the Marian principle presentsan undisputed authority for women, but, although in 1370 Pope Urban V approved the Order, the female government was never fully realized because the two communities were forced to live two separate lives. However, it is important that she was the first woman to design a unified double monastic order, with priests, deacons, lay brothers and nuns, all subject to the power of the abbess.

Finally, the Revelations that were spoken about above, which are collected in eight volumes, consecrate the Swedish saint as one of the most representative mystics of the Christian tradition. Thanks to her visions, she also introduced certain details into the story of the nativity; for example, Mary and Joseph kneeling at the sides of the child, which has deeply influenced the iconography, as proof of the mutual exchange between the mystical experience and the world of images.

Among the many aspects of this extraordinary figure, which continue to be topical, I think we should highlight the importance she attributes to the Marian and feminine dimension in Christianity. These are indispensable for the reform of the Church and for inspiring a new theological language.

by Adriana Valerio
Historian and theologian, professor of History of Christianity and Churches at the University Federico II in Naples


Birgitta Birgersdotter


Born
Finsta, in 1303
Died Rome July 23, 1373
Venerated by the Catholic Church and Lutherans
Canonization October 7, 1391 by Boniface IX –
Anniversary July 23,
Patroness of Sweden, Co-Patroness of Europe


The Brigidines’ crown


The most characteristic element of the Brigidine dress is the white linen crown they wear on their head, and which is fixed to their veil with a pin. There are five circular pieces of red fabric which are sewn to the crown in a cross shape (one on the forehead, one behind the head, two above the ears and one on the top of the head). All these signs recall Jesus’ passion (the cross, the crown of thorns, the five wounds).