Even if she hadn’t lived in times that begged for reform, Saint Bridget of Sweden would have found opportunities to build a better Church and world. She was incapable of flinching from difficult realities. She was a natural contemplative and a woman of bold action who was guided by the Spirit throughout her life. She is honored as patroness of Sweden and co-patroness of Europe (along with Saints Catherine of Siena and Edith Stein).
The signs that great things were to come surfaced early. At age seven, Bridget reported a vision of an altar with a lady sitting above it, holding a crown and inviting Bridget to wear it. Throughout her life, she continued to speak of divine revelations, which usually focused on the sufferings of Jesus. These revelations made Bridget something of a celebrity to some and a controversial figure to others.
Born north of Stockholm around 1303 into a wealthy, powerful family, Bridget married young and bore eight children. She made it a priority to minister to the sick in her neighborhood, often with some of her children in tow.
Missions with Mixed Success
When her husband died after 28 years of marriage, Bridget undertook a life of penitence and celibacy. In 1347, guided by her ongoing revelations, she began the establishment of a “double community” of women and men—nuns, priests and brothers—that came to be known as the Order of the Most Holy Savior, or the Brigittines.
Members, including Bridget and her daughter Catherine (Saint Catherine of Sweden), lived austere lives. Any unneeded money went to the poor. Brigittines were permitted, however, to own books, and the monastery became the literary center of Scandinavia.
Bridget’s boldest mission still lay before her. Around 1350, she made a pilgrimage to Rome just as the Black Plague was sweeping through Europe. Her purpose was dual: to obtain papal approval for her new religious foundation and to gain the Jubilee indulgence that would be granted during the Holy Year in 1350. Her patience and perseverance were put to the test: She waited 20 years before receiving official Church approval for her new order.
Virtue’s Great Variety
Rome was hardly hospitable. Parts of the city lay in ruins while other parts were divided into armed camps headed by rival factions. For decades, the papacy had been headquartered in Avignon in southern France. Spurred by revelations, Bridget confidently launched a campaign to return the papacy to Rome, writing letters to several popes. If she’d had access to e-mails and faxes, she would have used them as well!
Despite her pleading and cajoling, the change she sought didn’t come until 1378, five years after her death. She was canonized in 1391.
If it’s not indelicate to ask, when did she reach her heyday? Early, as a devoted wife and mother? Later, as an ascetic widow and leader of a new religious community? Still later, as a struggling pilgrim in Rome? Finally, as a voice of Church reform? Or was it as a lifelong beneficiary of divine revelations?
In truth, Bridget displayed heroic holiness at every phase of her life. At each point along the way, she experienced joy as well as sorrow, success as well as failure, doubt as well as certainty. But she found God every time. Her life invites us to do the same.
Throughout most of Bridget’s life, Avignon in France, rather than Rome, was the seat of the papacy. The tumultuous period was later described as the “Babylonian Captivity of the Church.” The papacy was at its lowest point in prestige and influence. Bishops and other clergy were expected to pay taxes. Nepotism was common. Indulgences were for sale. Competing political interests among European nations led to further acrimony and strife.
Into the fray stepped Bridget of Sweden. Until a few months before her death, she was pleading with Pope Gregory XI to return to Rome lest he lose his temporal and spiritual power. Upon his return, Saint Catherine of Siena took up Bridget’s call.
Judy Ball is a retired writer and editor in Cincinnati, Ohio.