Born in 1303, the daughter of the wealthy governor of Uppland, Birgitta (Bridget) married at the age of fourteen. She bore her husband eight children, and in 1335 she was summoned to the Swedish court to be the chief lady-in-waiting to the queen, Blanche of Namur, wife of King Magnus the Second. It was at this time that she began to have supernatural revelations. The king and queen respect her, but they did not reform their lives according to her revelations, and the courtiers gossiped about her. On the death of her husband at the Cistercian abbey at Alvastra, Birgitta retired there to live as a penitent from 1343 to 1346.
Having gained an understanding during her retirement of what she should now do, in 1346 she founded a monastery at Vadstena, on the shores of Lake Vättern, for sixty nuns and twenty-five monks, who lives in separate cloisters but shared the same church. Her Rule stipulated:
“the number of choir nuns shall not exceed sixty, with four lay sisters; the priests shall be thirteen, according to the number of the thirteen apostles, of whom Paul the thirteenth was not the least in toil; then there must be four deacons, who also may be priests if they will, and they are the figure of the four principal Doctors, Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, and Jerome, the eight lay brothers, who with their labours shall minister necessaries to the clerics, therefore counting three-score sisters, thirteen priests, four deacons, and the eight servitors, the number of persons will be the same as the thirteen Apostles and the seventy-two disciples”.
The nuns were strictly cloistered, with an emphasis on scholarship and study, but the monks could also serve as preachers and itinerant missionaries. In temporal matters the abbess was supreme, while in spiritual ones the prior of the monks was. All superfluous income was given to the poor, and luxurious buildings were forbidden, but the nuns and monks could have as many books for study as they wished. The Brigettine Order enjoyed the generous patronage of King Magnus.
In 1349 Birgitta went to Rome to obtain approval for her Order. She never returned to Sweden but spent the rest of her life in Italy or on pilgrimages, including one to the Holy Land. Her austerity of life, her devotion both in visiting shrines and in serving pilgrims, the poor, and the sick were impressive. Throughout this time her visions continued. Some were of Christ’s Passion. Others, marked by comminatory prophecies and sayings, were concerned with political and religious events of her own day. She attempted to dissuade King Magnus from a so-called crusade against the pagans of Estonia and Latvia, and like other visionaries she warned Pope Clement the Sixth to return to Rome from Avignon and to make peace between England and France.
Birgitta died on July 23, 1373 in Rome. Her commemoration was formerly on October 8, the date of her canonization and of the translation of her relics to Vadstena Abbey.
The Brigettine Order was approved by the Holy See. At its greatest extent it numbered seventy houses, but nearly all of its northern European houses (the bulk of the Order’s houses) were dissolved during the Reformation. There is now a Swedish branch with houses in Europe, Asia (including India), and North America; and a Spanish branch with houses in Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela. While a twentieth century attempt to revive the Brigettine monks in England was eventually unsuccessful, in 1976 the monks were revived as the Brigettine Order of the Most Holy Savior with the establishment of the Monastery of Our Lady of Consolation in Amity, Oregon. The Societas Sanctae Birgittae (SSB) is a high church Lutheran religous order founded in 1920 in response to a charge by Archbishop Nathan Söderblom to deepen the spiritual life of the Church of Sweden by highlighting the rich spiritual life inherent in the Swedish tradition focused on the life and spirituality of St Birgitta and by deepening contact with Brigittine communities throughout the world and with corresponding spiritual movements in the Church of Sweden. The SSB lives out this charge by serving the Church of Sweden with liturgical worship emphasizing the celebration of the Eucharist, with preaching that is faithful to the Scriptures and the Creed, and with pastoral care.
prepared from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints and other sources
O God, by whose grace your servant Birgitta of Sweden, kindled with the flame of your love, became a burning and a shining light in your Church: Grant that we also may be aflame with the spirit of love and discipline, and walk before you as children of light; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.