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St. Bernardine’s advice for handling criticism gracefully

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3 tips from the life of a great man who was routinely criticized.

As a priest, I hear a lot of criticism. The topics are fairly comprehensive — the volume of the sound system, the volume of babies during Mass, where I placed the candles on the altar, a particular word I used during a homily, the way I dress, etc. And the criticism isn’t just confined to me. People tell me what’s wrong with other people and with the world. In a sense, it’s a sign of respect that people are so willing to be honest with me, and hopefully they’ve noticed that I don’t take offense.

I wasn’t always so easy-going about such things. I still recall when I first began writing seriously and publishing articles. On the internet, feedback can be brutal. There would be comments pointing out a typo, a personal attack, or a totally random, negative reaction. These bothered me greatly, but then I noticed something else. Everyone gets criticized. As a priest and a writer, I’m not unique. Everyone, in every walk of life, finds themselves questioned, complained about, and second-guessed. It could be from friends, co-workers, or customers. It could be about your parenting style, what you buy, who you choose to be friends with or date — anything, really.

Tomorrow is the feast of St. Bernardine, a 14th-century Franciscan monk who lived in northern Italy, and as I was reading his story I was amazed by how even this humble man was constantly criticized. When he became a monk, his first assignment was to beg alms in the town of Siena, for which he was often criticized by the townspeople. Even his own family criticized him because they were embarrassed he had chosen to become a poor monk instead of a businessman. Bernardine was said to have calmly absorbed the insults and critiques.

Later in his life, Bernardine became a famous preacher, attracting crowds of 30,000 to hear him speak. With his greater stature, the criticisms became even more intense. A local noble took offense and threatened him with imprisonment and death if Bernardine wouldn’t change the topics of his sermons. He was then denounced as a heretic and forced to go on trial before the pope to defend himself. He eventually cleared his name, but while in the midst of the criticisms, he remained, as always, perfectly calm. All he would say was, “God has a care of these things.”

Bernardine talks about how to handle criticism gracefully, telling a story about an abbot and one of his young monks. The abbot tells the monk to get a donkey, which he mounts for a journey while the young monk follows on foot. As they pass through town, a man complains that the abbot is selfishly riding while the monk is walking in mud. So the abbot gets off the donkey and makes the young monk ride. Further along, a man sees them and comments that it is very strange that an old man would walk while the youth rides when, in fact, they could both ride. So the abbot gets on the donkey, too. Further down the path, a man sees them and remarks that two men on one overburdened donkey is hardly a good way to treat an animal. So they both get off. Another man sees them and says how crazy it is to not use the donkey at all. Bernadine makes the point that someone, somewhere, will criticize you for anything you do, so don’t worry about the opinions of other people.

From Bernardine’s life and teaching, we can glean helpful advice about handling criticism.

First, take criticism seriously, but not personally.

This doesn’t mean changing at the first hint of a different opinion, but it also means not defaulting to a defensive reaction. Bernadine quietly went about his business.

Second, if you’ve thought about your actions, don’t worry about what other people think.

Seek good advice, search your conscience, make your decision, and don’t pay any attention to negativity and criticism.

Third, no arguments are necessary.

Neither Bernardine nor his fictional abbot stopped to argue with their detractors. Not everyone needs to agree or even understand everything you do, and arguing with critics is often wasted effort.

In the end, Bernardine handled criticism so well because he knew he was doing good in the best way he could. His actions were from genuine concern for other people and not for the sake of his reputation. The only thing that matters is to live generously and humbly, always seeking to do good in every situation — no matter what our critics say.

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