Today, 19 Jul 2012, is the anniversary of death of St Bernulf of Utrecht (a.k.a. Bernold, Bernward, Bernulphus), an 11th century bishop of that city in the Netherlands. In those days bishops were not only spiritual leaders but also secular leaders, the term ‘prince-bishops’ was coined for them. St Bernulf stands out because he used the temporal and spiritual power given to him for good purposes.
St Bernulf was born sometime in the later part of the 10th century and probably wasn’t expecting to be made a bishop. Definitely prior to his appointment he must have been a valued official with the court of Emperor Conrad II, because Conrad had a habit of appointing people he knew well. Because you don’t say no to Emperors, Bernulf became a bishop and served God’s people for some 27-28 years.
During his long episcopate Bernulf worked to bring about spiritual progress in his diocese. In particular he encouraged adherence to the stricter form of the Benedictine Rule begun at Cluny. Any increase in holiness in a region brings about great benefits to the whole place, and good leaders know this and encourage it. A stricter Rule in monasteries almost always goes hand in hand with greater holiness. Seeing that too much secular control of church matters was detrimental to the church, curtailing its apostolic freedom and providing openings for corruption, Bernulf undertook the delicate diplomatic work of reducing secular hold over spiritual matters. He reduced the control of feudal lords over churches and church property and land. He even reduced his own episcopal rights over the operation of the Benedictine abbey at Amersfoot, despite this action reducing his own prestige. This action speaks of a person of humility and high integrity.
Additionally Bernulf embarked upon a programme of church building. The grand plan was to have the cathedral at the centre with four churches arranged in cruciform shape around it. Three of them Bernulf was involved in : St John’s at Janskerk in 1040, St Peter’s at St Pieterskerk in 1039, St Pauls abbey church at St Pauluskerk c.1050. Begun well after Bernulf’s death, the fourth church in the pattern was dedicated to Our Lady and started in 1090 called Mariakerk. It was this passion and dedication to building beautiful things for God’s glory that led to Bernulf becoming the patron of the Guild of St Bernulphus in 1869 ; set up in Utrecht in order to preserve local traditions and crafsmanship of religious art and church architecture.
Emperors Conrad II and Henry III had good ongoing working relationships with Bernulf and from time to time displayed their approval of him by granting extra land to the diocese. Local nobles were unimpressed by this largesse and caused a bit of trouble about it.
When Bernulf was called into eternity on 19 July 1054, people increasingly valued his holy life and began making pilgrimages to his tomb. This veneration was widespread from at least the 14th century onwards. An ornate alb residing in the Rijksmusuem at Utrecht is called the Alb of St Bernulf. It dates from the 12th century, so Bernulf would not have worn it while he was alive, but it is entirely possible that his remains were moved at some point and people put a new alb on his body temporarily so as to have a second-class relic.
Bernulf used the authority he had been given for good, with tact and without force. For this he is a good example to all of us.
St Bernulf of Utrecht, pray for us.