Reread that headline carefully. The question is not who is the most influential saint of all time, but rather of his or her
time. The answer to the former is probably easy. I imagine many of us
would tick of one of the following—St. Francis, St. Catherine, St.
Patrick, St. Anthony, St. Joseph, St. Therese of Lisieux, St. Augustine,
St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Dominic, to name just a few—it’s a long list.
But the second question—who was most influential in his lifetime?—is a
bit of a head-scratcher.
Think of your own answer to this question and e-mail me (firstname.lastname@example.org)
your thoughts before reading further. (Please, in addition to listing
your nominee, give a reason. I may post the runners-up in a follow-up,
but I’ll keep your names out of it!) I imagine that few of us, including
yours truly, would have come up with the answer that noted Catholic
historian Warren Carroll does:
Answer: St. Bernard of Clairvaux.
Here’s what Carroll writes of him:
No man before or since who held no office of power throughout his
life bestrode his age as did this monk of genius and of leashed but
flaming passion, juridically only one of the many hundreds of abbots in
the Church, yet the terror and inspiration of emperors and kings, the
shield and sword—and where necessary the goad—of Popes. No historical
determinist theory, no calculations of material or institutional power
and influence can begin to account for St. Bernard of Clairvaux and what
This is high praise, even for a saint, but St. Bernard deserves it.
During his life, he launched a sweeping reform of the religious life in
Europe, squashed a major anti-trinitarian heresy, nearly single-handedly
averted a schism in the Papacy, and sparked a new crusade to Jerusalem,
according to Carroll’s account. His achievements do not stop there. St.
Bernard, among other things, also drew up the rule for the legendary
Knights Templar and was one of the founders of the Cistercian order. He
is also credited with writing about ten treatises. And, it is to him,
that we owe prayers like the “Memorare” to Mary and hymns such as “O
Sacred Head Surrounded.” Indeed, it is hard to think of a saint whose do
deeply touched so many different areas of the social, political, and
spiritual life of his time.
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