St. Birgitta of Sweden was one of the great women of the fourteenth century: the wife of a nobleman and the mother of eight children; a nun and founder of monasteries as well as a religious order; a pilgrim who crossed continents and seas; a mystic who filled many volumes with accounts of her visions and colloquies with Christ; and a prophet who called kings to justice and popes to live up to their sacred duties.
She experienced her first vision as a child, when she saw an altar, and seated above it a woman who said, “Come, Birgitta,” and offered her a crown. Some years later she had another vision of Christ hanging on the cross. When she asked him who had treated him this way, he answered, “They who despise me and spurn my love for them.” From that point, she felt herself mystically united with Christ and determined to serve him in every way.
At fourteen, she married a prince named Ulf. It was a happy marriage that lasted twenty-eight years. Whenever she could, she would visit the hospitals, binding the wounds of the patients with her own hands. She often brought along her young children, desiring that they learn “at an early age to serve God and his poor and sick.” Eventually, fed up with the frivolity of court life, both she and Ulf embarked on a long pilgrimage that took them all the way to Compostela in Spain. On the return trip, Ulf died, and Birgitta sought consolation in becoming a member of the Third Order of St. Francis.
Before long, she received another vision, this time instructing her to found a monastery in Sweden. After she had accomplished this, she went on yet another pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where she again received many visions of the events of Christ’s life, before finally settling in Rome for the last twenty years of her life. Wherever she traveled, she spoke out against slavery, injustice, and threats to peace. Confronting the corruption she encountered in the Eternal City, she cried out, “O Rome, Rome, be converted and turn to the Lord thy God.” She excoriated the pope for abandoning Rome for Avignon, and at one point even denounced him as “a murderer of souls, worse than Lucifer, more unjust than Pilate, more merciless than Judas.” Despite her frankness, he approved the rule of her new order, the Birgittines.
St. Birgitta died on July 12, 1373. A triumphal procession, led by her daughter, accompanied her body across Europe and back to her abbey in Vadstena, where she was laid to rest.