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A Patron Saint for Mountain Climbers

First slide

St. Bernard of Menthon (c.1000-c.1081)

Feast day: May 28

John Paul II was not our only athletic pope. Achille Ratti, who became Pius XI in 1922, was a lifelong aficionado of mountain climbing. After his election to the papacy, Cardinal Ratti had to give up his favorite sport, but as pope he was able to do something to promote it. In 1923, Pius XI named St. Bernard of Menthon patron of mountaineers. By extension, St. Bernard has also become the patron of the popular contemporary sport of rock climbing.

Menthon castle stands on the shores of Lake Annecy in a mountainous region where the borders of France, Switzerland and Italy meet. In all likelihood this is where St. Bernard was born into a noble family about the year 1000. When Bernard was a young boy his parents, Richard and Bernoline, hired a man named Germain to be his tutor. Germain taught Bernard to read and write, encouraged the boy's religious devotion and took him on rambles into the mountains. These hikes would prove to have a farther reaching influence than Germain ever could have imagined.

One version of Bernard's story says that as a teenager his parents sent him to Paris to finish his education. While their son was away, Richard and Bernoline arranged a marriage for him. Their plans fell apart once Bernard returned home. He had decided on the religious life. Bernard said goodbye to his parents, left the castle and went to live with Peter, the archdeacon of Aosta. Peter's house became Bernard's seminary where he prepared for ordination to the priesthood.

Although the Aosta Diocese extended into the Alps, Catholicism's impact among the mountain people had been limited. Many people who lived in remote alpine valleys were still pagans, or they practiced an odd mixture of Christian and pagan customs. After ordination these isolated regions became Bernard's parish. For the next 42 years he traveled through the mountains preaching the Gospel in small towns and isolated farms. It was during these missionary expeditions that Bernard came to know firsthand the dangers of alpine travel. Often he ran across pilgrims from France or Germany on their way to Rome whose companions had died of exposure in the mountains, or had been swept away by an avalanche. To help these travelers he opened a monastery and hospice in what is known today as Great St. Bernard Pass, 8,100 feet above sea level.

A few years later Bernard opened a second monastery at the Little St. Bernard Pass, 7,076 feet above sea level. The monks who staffed these houses, assisted by large dogs that have come to be known as St. Bernards, dedicated themselves to rescuing lost or injured travelers and giving decent burial to those who died in the mountains. Legend says that Bernard's mother and father were among the pilgrims who found shelter in the monastery.

St. Bernard's work goes on. Monks still staff the hospice in Great St. Bernard Pass, welcoming crowds of visitors, mountaineers and hikers in the summer, and a few hardy pilgrims, climbers and skiers in the winter. St. Bernard dogs are still on the site as pets; helicopters are used in rescue operations today.

Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001) and Patron Saints: Catholic Cardlinks (Our Sunday Visitor, 2004).

Copyright 2005 Arlington Catholic Herald. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2005