During his general audience on Sept. 1, Pope Benedict XVI initiated a series of teachings on the lives of medieval women who stand out for their lives of holiness and depth of teaching. He devoted his first teaching to St. Hildegard of Bingen.
This great nun and mystic of the 12th century used her spiritual gifts for the renewal of the Church and the spread of authentic Christian living. St. Hildegard, the Holy Father pointed out, continues to remind us of the contribution that women are called to make to the life of the Church in our own time.
Dear brothers and sisters,
In 1988, on the occasion of the Marian Year, Venerable John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter entitled Mulieris Dignitatem regarding the valuable role that women have played and continue to play in the life of the Church.
“The Church,” he wrote, “gives thanks for all the manifestations of the ‘feminine genius’ which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: She gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness” (No. 31).
During those centuries of history that are customarily called the Middle Ages, various women stand out for the sanctity of their life and the richness of their teaching. Today, I would like to present one of these women to you: St. Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century. She was born in 1098 in the Rhineland, probably at Bermersheim, near Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81 despite having fragile health her whole life.
Hildegard belonged to a large aristocratic family; her parents dedicated her to God’s service at her birth. When she was 8 years old, they offered her as an infant oblate (according to St. Benedict’s Rule, chapter 59). Her education was entrusted to Uda of Gollheim, a consecrated widow, and then to Jutta of Spanheim, who was living in the cloister at the Benedictine monastery of St. Disibod. A small cloistered community of women that followed the Rule of St. Benedict was being formed there.
Hildegard received the veil from Bishop Otto of Bamberg. In 1136, upon the death of Mother Jutta, who had become superior of the community, Hildegard was elected by her fellow sisters to succeed her. She carried out this task by using her gifts as an educated woman with great spiritual gifts — a woman capable of dealing with the organizational aspects of life in the cloister.
A few years later, in part due to the growing number of women who were drawn to the convent, Hildegard left the male monastery of St. Disibod to found another community in Bingen, dedicated to St. Rupert, where she spent the rest of her life. The manner in which she exercised her authority continues to be an example for all religious communities. It inspired an atmosphere of holy emulation in doing good deeds, so much so that — according to contemporary accounts — the mother superior and her nuns vied with each other in respecting and serving each other.
While she was still superior of the convent of St. Disibod, Hildegard began to dictate an account of the mystical visions she had been receiving for some time to her spiritual adviser, a monk named Volmar, and to her own secretary, Richardis of Strade, a nun of whom she was very fond.
As is always the case in the lives of true mystics, Hildegard desired to place herself under the authority of the wise in order to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they could be the fruit of some illusion and not from God.
For the Good of the Church
For this reason, Hildegard turned to a person whom the Church at that time held in the highest esteem, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in previous catecheses. He calmed her fears and encouraged her. Moreover, in 1147 she received another very important approval — that of Pope Eugene III, who, presiding over the Synod of Trier, read one of the texts dictated by Hildegard, which Archbishop Heinrich of Mainz had given to him. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and speak about them in public. From that moment, Hildegard’s spiritual prestige grew to the point that her contemporaries called her the “Teutonic prophetess.”
Dear friends, the sign of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism, is that the individual possessing supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to Church authority. All the gifts that the Holy Spirit gives are, in fact, destined for building up the Church, and the Church, through its pastors, recognizes their authenticity.
Saint for Our Own Time
Next Wednesday I will speak once more about this great “prophetess.” She has something very relevant to say to us today, with her courageous ability to discern the signs of the times, her love for creation, her medicine, her poetry, her music (which is being pieced back together today), her love for Christ and for his Church, which was suffering even back then, wounded by the sins of priests as well as laypeople, but all the more loved as the body of Christ.
This is how St. Hildegard speaks to us. We will say more about her next Wednesday. Thank you for listening.