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THE MOTHERLY SAINT

Father Francis's picture
Saint Bridget of Sweden

The gift of clairvoyance is a mixed blessing. St. Bridget is famous for her visions, which were sometimes a means of guidance for herself or others, but were often a cause of anxiety and even ridicule. At the same time, she seems to have been a woman of great common sense whose life revolved around her family.

She was born in 1303 in a province of Sweden of which her father was governor. Her mother died when she was about 12 years old, and two years later she married 18 year old Ulf Gudmarsson, the heir to a country estate. It was a happy marriage, and the couple brought up their eight children in a devout Catholic home. Both Ulf and Bridget joined the Third Order of St. Francis. Bridget might have spent her whole life as a feudal lady, but at the age of 32 she was summoned to the court of the young King Magnus II, who had recently married. Bridget was to be principal lady-in-waiting to Queen Blanche. It turned out to be a challenging task, because Magnus was weak and had several vices, while Blanche was good-natured but irresponsible and luxury-loving. Bridget devoted her energies to guiding and advising the queen, and trying to be a steadying influence on the young couple.

It was at this time that Bridget began to have her visions. They were varied and confusing, and when she spoke of them she became the laughing stock of the court. The joke went round, "What was the Lady Bridget dreaming about last night?" She seemed to be making little headway in her efforts to curb the excesses of Magnus and Blanche, so she asked for leave of absence from the court. Two family tragedies had distressed her, the death of her youngest son and the troubled marriage of one of her daughters. In search of consolation she and her husband Ulf went on pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James at Compostella.

On the way back from the pilgrimage, Ulf was taken seriously ill. Bridget prayed fervently for his recovery, and when he was restored to health they both decided to dedicate their lives to God by entering religious houses. But before they could put their plan into effect, Ulf died in 1344 at the Cistercian monastery of Alvastra. Bridget was only 41. She now divided her property among her children and stayed on at Alvastra as a penitent. Her visions and revelations increased and she became alarmed, fearing that they might be the work of the Devil, or her own imagination. She approached Master Matthias, a priest of experience and learning, and he reassured her that her clairvoyant powers were a gift from God. From then onwards, Bridget reported all her visions to Peter, the prior of Alvastra, who recorded them in writing.

One of Bridget's visions urged her to go to King Magnus and rebuke him and all his court for their sinful behaviour. For a time, Magnus mended his ways, and endowed a monastery which Bridget was inspired to establish at Vadstena. She set up a house for 60 nuns, with separate accommodation for 13 priests. Acting on one of her visions, she drew up constitutions for her Order, which she called the Order of the Most Holy Saviour. All the religious lived in simplicity, and all income was shared with the poor. Today, the Order is all female and is known as the Bridgettines in honour of their mother foundress.

Further visions led Bridget on pilgrimages to Rome and Assisi. They also prompted her to advise heads of state on political questions, although her advice was not always well received. When she was 68 she embarked on her last journey, to the Holy Land, accompanied by her daughter and two sons. On the way, there was more family trouble as her son Charles fell in love with Queen Joanna of Naples. Both were married, and Bridget was horror-stricken at her son’s foolishness. She prayed ceaselessly for some solution to the problem but further tragedy was in store: Charles was struck down by a fever and after a fortnight’s illness he died in his mother’s arms.

In her grief, Bridget continues her journey to the Holy Land. There, her visions were a great consolation to her, for she was allowed to see the events which had occurred at the Holy Places she visited. She returned to Rome early in 1373, but fell ill. She received the last rites from her friend, Peter of Alvastra, and died on the day she herself had foretold, 23 July. She was 70 years old.

St. Bridget has been declared the patron saint of Sweden. She is remarkable for her piety and her extraordinary gift of clairvoyance; but she also leaves a lasting impression of a motherly woman. She did her best to keep her children on the right path, and one of her daughters is now venerated as St. Catherine of Sweden. She tried to be a mother to the young king and queen and was certainly a mother to the religious congregation she founded.

Bridget knew very well the anxieties and concerns of a mother. All mothers worry about their children's health, their moral welfare, their marital problems, and their future. We pray for all mothers and ask St. Bridget and Our Lady to keep them in their care.