March 22, 2014

Blessed Bernard of Offida

Feast Day : 23th August

Record Longevity
Brother Bernard of Offida who died at the ripe old age of 90 is the oldest Capuchin Brother to be beatified or canonized. He is also the Blessed who had lived out his Capuchin religious life for the longest period of time. As a matter of fact, the life of Blessed Bernard, who was born on the 7th of November 1604 and died on the 22nd of August 1694, spanned almost the entire 17th century and, for the last 68 years of this life, he lived as a Capuchin Lay Brother.
A Pious Shepherd Boy
Blessed Bernard had entered the Order of Capuchin Friars Minor at the age of 22, when he was clothed in the Capuchin Novice’s habit on the 14th of February 1626. Up until then he had been called by his secular name Dominic Peroni. Dominic had been baptized on the day he was born, the 7th of November 1604, and the village he grew up in was Villa Appignano, situated between the municipalities of Offida and Ascoli-Piceno in the Marche region along central Italy’s Adriatic coast. Since he was very young, Dominic had to help out on the family farm run by his father, Joseph Peroni. Dominic’s mother was Menica was a hardworking housewife. Like most boys of his social class at that time, he received no schooling and from the age of seven had to tend the family sheep and lead them to pasture. Dominic was the third of eight children and every hand was needed to eke a living from the land.  When he was sixteen years old, he began to till the rocky soil with hoe and plough. He also learned how to train the oxen that pulled the plough. Although physically robust, Dominic was very tender-hearted when it came to Marian devotions. As a shepherd boy, he not only brought along his bread and shepherds staff, but also a small image of Our Lady. This he used to set on a rock and, while the sheep were grazing nearby, he would quietly pray before it.
A Long-nurtured Dream Fulfilled

But young Dominic also liked to pray in the churches of the locality and among these churches the new Capuchin church founded in 1614 soon be came his favourite.  There he made his first contact with the Capuchins and there also he began to secretly dream of joining them. However, expecting parental opposition to his leaving home, he kept that dream secret for a number of years before finally working up the courage to tell his father of it in 1626. To his surprise his father readily gave his consent and Dominic Peroni was able to begin his Novitiate at Corinaldo Friary right away.

Shortly afterwards he moved to the new Novitiate Friary at Camerino and there in 1627 he made profession as Brother Bernard of Lama. Lama was the name of the general area where he had grown up but soon he became better known as Brother Bernard of Offida. Offida was one of the larger towns near his home.

Brother Bernard’s Forty-two Year-long Hidden Life

After Profession Brother Bernard was transferred to Fermo to continue his religious and professional formation as a Lay Brother under the expert guidance of Brother Maximus of Moresco, the Lay Brother responsible for the formation of newly professed Lay Brothers. Brother Maximus was said to be a better spiritual director than he was a cook and Brother Bernard soon excelled his master, Brother Maximus, at cooking. Brother Bernard’s first assignment was cooking for the sick Brothers in the infirmary. He spent some twenty years at Fermo and a similar amount of time at the Friary in Ascoli Piceno.  He was transferred to the friary of Offida in 1669 and there he spent the last years of his life. We know very little about his first his first 42 years in religious life, except for the fact that he served as cook, infirmarian, gardener, questor and porter.  Whatever he did, he did it with his whole heart, displaying the virtues that he had already acquired as a layman living with his family. These included frugality, modesty, industriousness, physical strength, shrewdness and tenacity.

A True Contemplative
Brother Bernard was also a man who nurtured a life of deep contemplative prayer, either in the friary as he went about his daily tasks or while gazing at the tabernacle in the church or resting in the makeshift wattle hut that he himself made in the woods near the Friary. Whenever he found the time he would go there to pray availing of the place’s seclusion and solitude to get closer to God. Even while answering the door bell or while welcoming visitors to the Friary, he would finger his rosary beads to keep up his dialogue with God and his Blessed Mother. He would often lose all concept of time when he prayed and the other Brothers would often have to go to look for him at mealtimes. Even his external appearance would clearly indicate when he was engaged in mental prayer for his eyes would be riveted to the tabernacle or some holy image and his voice, if he spoke at all, would be very subdued. He was sometimes seen absorbed in prayer with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross and some witnesses even claimed they saw him lifted up from the ground while at prayer. 

Contemplation Overflowing into Action

Like Saint Francis before him, Brother Bernard also deeply reverenced churches. Not only that but he also taught others to do the same. “This is the house of God.” he would remind them. 
He would also urge people to “draw close to God” at the main altar, rather than standing at the end of the church where they could become distracted by other people entering and leaving.  Brother Bernard was a truly contemplative Capuchin whose contemplation overflowed into action and whose prayerful love of God found expression also in a practical love of neighbour. He wanted everyone to be happy and did not hesitate to remind them that true and complete happiness could only be found with God in heaven. To those who were depressed he would say things like “Paradise, Paradise. Our true hope is in heaven.”While going about the countryside questing for food, he always took time to catechize poor farming folk and their children, since these were often neglected in the Church’s official pastoral outreaches that tended to concentrate on the larger centres of population. Brother Bernard did not preach long and learned sermons. Nevertheless, using short and simple phrases, he did not hesitate to preach the Gospel by summing up in a nutshell the truths of the faith or by expressing the will of God in clear words to someone needing to discover it. When some people brought along a young man noted for his immoral lifestyle, Brother Bernard enjoined him to repent by drawing him aside and pointing towards the Crucifix, saying “See, my son, how much Jesus Christ suffered for you and you want to suffer damnation.”  Especially in his old age many came to him for spiritual advice while others corresponded with him by letter. Being illiterate, he could not read these himself, so he would rely on priests in the Fraternity to read the letters and write down the responses he dictated. Even the local bishops came to him for advice and said that he converted more souls in their dioceses than all the other preachers put together. 

The Capuchin’s Robin Hood

Brother Bernard’s concrete love of others was expressed also in his kindness to the poor. At Offida, he obtained the Guardian’s permission to grow vegetables in a garden plot to provide for the needs of the poor. But since he couldn't grow bread or meat there he would also raid the Brothers’ larder to give away food to the poor and, for his efforts, only brought down on himself the complaints of a good number of his confreres. He would listen patiently to the criticism and then ignore it, In fact, in times of scarcity. The fruit of Brother Bernard’s begging efforts not only provided generously for the poor but also served to ensure that the Brothers were well-fed.   

Healer of Broken Relationships and Broken Bodies

After Brother Bernard died, in ties of conflict, locals would often be overheard saying, “Oh where is Brother Bernard? He would quickly restore peace. Now no one bothers.” For Brother Bernard was in truth a great reconciler of conflicts. Often he did not wait to be asked to intervene when feuds and quarrels arose, he would spontaneously set out to make peace between the contenders.  

A man called Louis Carloni was determined to wreak revenge on a neighbour by killing him but when he met Brother Bernard, he was surprised to find that old Brother Bernard knew what was in his heart,  “Louis, why are you harbouring such vicious thoughts? What is troubling you?” he asked him and then went on to advise him not to carry out his planned revenge.  “We must overcome these hard feelings against our neighbour.” Deeply moved by the old man’s words, Louis went immediately to patch things up with his former enemy. Brother Bernard was not only a healer of broken relationships but also a healer of broken bodies. He would often anoint people with oil taken from the lamp on the altar of the then Blessed Felix of Cantalice and attribute any miracles that ensued to Blessed Felix’s prayers rather than his own.  Like many of our Capuchin Lay Brothers, Brother Bernard had a deep devotion to this ‘Blessed Beggar’ and modelled his life on that of the Brother Felix, the first Capuchin to be beatified and canonized. But Brother Bernard’s love for the sick was not only expressed in his praying for miraculous recoveries but also in his tender nursing care of sick confreres in the infirmary and in his visiting the sick lay people in their homes. It was said that a Brother would consider himself fortunate to be sick in the Friary where Brother Bernard was stationed because he took better care of them than even their own mothers would have done. Even when he was old and feeble, Brother Bernard would hobble about the infirmary, taking care of the sick. He would serve them their specially cooked meals on trays decorated with pretty flowers or sprigs of herbs and, if needs be, he would spoon-fed them himself. When a Brother was seriously ill or dying, he would ask to be relieved of all other duties to provide the sick Brother with twenty-four hour nursing care. If he was tired, he would snatch some sleep sitting on a stool with his head leaning back against the wall. Even here he did not neglect his prayer life but had the guardian make a small window in the sickroom and the altar of the Chruch so that both he, himself, and his patients might hear the Masses there and adore the Blessed Sacrament.

"Paradise, Paradise! Our True Hope is in Heaven."

His own last illness did not last long. A slight paralysis he had suffered from for a long time grew rapidly worse as did his dose of erysipelas or Saint Anthony’s Fire, a burning skin-ailment. Crowds gathered around his bedside as he lay dying and he urged them to keep God’s commandments, bring up their children in the faith and not to delay rectifying their lifestyles which becomes harder the older one gets.  He urged his fellow Capuchins to observe the Rule faithfully, to live in harmony with one another and be generous to the poor.  After receiving his Gaurdian’s permission to leave this world, Brother Bernard of Offida died peacefully on the morning of the 22nd of August 1694.  He was beatified in 1795 by Pope Pius VI and his body lies enshrined in the Shrine of Blessed Bernard attached to the Capuchin Friary in Offida. His deathbed exhortations to foster a Christian family life, to be faithful to one’s religious commitments and to do good to all not only serve as Blessed Bernard’s unwritten last will and testament but also an excellent summary of his life and mission.  

"I hope that we shall all meet in Paradise.. Stay close to God! Fear God! Love God ! Avoid sin ! Lead a good life !" - Blessed Bernard of Offida

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