Today the Church celebrates the feast day of St. Bernardine of Siena. As a child in Southern California, I never heard about St. Bernardine, though the nearby city of San Bernardino (my brother called it “San Ber-doo”) was named after him. I only later learned that this 15th-century Franciscan priest was quite a dynamic evangelist and preacher.
He is perhaps best known for fostering devotion to the Holy Name of Jesus. His “MO” was to travel from city to city throughout all of Italy carrying a banner with the large letters “IHS” (more on that in a minute) encircled by twelve golden rays surmounted by a cross.
I’ve always been curious about the “IHS,” which is found (thanks in large part to St. Bernardine) in many Catholic churches and on many religious items. There has been a certain amount of confusion on this. Some say it signifies “In hoc Signo vinces” (“In this Sign you will conquer,” referring to Constantine’s famous vision, with the nails on the emblem forming the “v”), while others say it’s the first letters of Jesus Hominum Salvator (“Jesus, Savior of Mankind”).
The most plausible and widely accepted interpretation that I’ve encountered is that it’s simply an abbreviated form of the name of Jesus, as it appears in Greek, The earliest recorded use of this monogram appears to be the eighth century.
Aside from all the history behind it, the important thing is that “IHS” has come to be recognized as a familiar symbol of the Holy Name of Jesus, a symbol that has been popularized over the past 500 years by Franciscans, Dominicans, and Jesuits. May we recognize, especially in our use of language, the holiness of the name before which “every knee shall bend” (Phil. 2:10).
Let’s close with the prayer of the Church:
You gave Saint Bernardine a special love
for the holy name of Jesus.
By the help of his prayers,
may we always be alive with the spirit of Your love.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. +Amen.