Newest Doctor of the Church: Her Visions, Her Writings, and Her Secret Language

On Sunday, October 7, Pope Benedict is scheduled to proclaim St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. John of Avila as the newest doctors of the Church.

A doctor (Latin, "teacher") of the Church is a Christian writer who has been specially recognized by the Church for the value of his or her writings.

Earlier this year, Pope Benedict explained his decision to name these two individuals as doctors:

The Spirit, who “has spoken through the prophets”, with the gifts of wisdom and knowledge continues to inspire women and men who engage in the pursuit of truth, offering original ways of understanding and of delving into the mystery of God, of man and of the world.

In this context, I am delighted to announce that on 7 October, at the start of the Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, I will proclaim St John of Avila and St Hildegard of Bingen Doctors of the universal Church.

These two great witnesses of the faith lived in two very different historical periods and cultural environments.

Hildegard was a Benedictine nun in the heart of medieval Germany, an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of natural science and music.

John, a diocesan priest in the years of the Spanish Renaissance, shared in the travail of the cultural and religious renewal of the Church and of all society at the dawn of modern times.

But the sanctity of their life and the profundity of their doctrine render them perennially relevant: The grace of the Holy Spirit, in fact, projected them into the experience of penetrating understanding of divine revelation and intelligent dialogue with that world which constitutes the eternal horizon of the life and action of the Church.

Especially in light of the project for a new evangelization, to which the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, mentioned above will be dedicated on the eve of the Year of Faith, these two Saints and Doctors are of considerable and timely importance.

Even today, through their teaching, the Spirit of the Risen Lord continues to resonate his voice and illuminate the way which leads to the Truth that alone can set us free and give full meaning to our lives [Regina Caeli, Pentecost, May 27, 2012].


Meet St. Hildegard of Bingen

Let's learn a bit about St. Hildegard of Bingen. Pope Benedict gave a pair of audiences on her a few years ago. He introduced her this way:

Various female figures stand out for the holiness of their lives and the wealth of their teaching even in those centuries of history that we usually call the Middle Ages.

Today I would like to begin to present one of them to you: St Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century.

She was born in 1098, probably at Bermersheim, Rhineland, not far from Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81, in spite of having always been in poor health.

Hildegard belonged to a large noble family and her parents dedicated her to God from birth for his service [General Audience, September 1, 2010].


Religious Life

St. Hildegard became a Benedictine and, eventually, the prioress of her monastery. Pope Benedict explains:

A small cloistered women's monastery was developing there that followed the Rule of St Benedict.

Hildegard was clothed by Bishop Otto of Bamberg and in 1136, upon the death of Mother Jutta who had become the community magistra (Prioress), the sisters chose Hildegard to succeed her.

She fulfilled this office making the most of her gifts as a woman of culture and of lofty spirituality, capable of dealing competently with the organizational aspects of cloistered life.

A few years later, partly because of the increasing number of young women who were knocking at the monastery door, Hildegard broke away from the dominating male monastery of St Disibodenburg with her community, taking it to Bingen, calling it after St Rupert and here she spent the rest of her days.

Her manner of exercising the ministry of authority is an example for every religious community: She inspired holy emulation in the practice of good to such an extent that, as time was to tell, both the mother and her daughters competed in mutual esteem and in serving each other.


Her Visions

One of the things St. Hildegard is most famous for is the series of mystical visions she received:

During the years when she was superior of the Monastery of St Disibodenberg, Hildegard began to dictate the mystical visions that she had been receiving for some time to the monk Volmar, her spiritual director, and to Richardis di Strade, her secretary, a sister of whom she was very fond.

As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard too wanted to put herself under the authority of wise people to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the product of illusions and did not come from God.

She thus turned to a person who was most highly esteemed in the Church in those times: St Bernard of Clairvaux . . . [who] calmed and encouraged Hildegard.

However, in 1147 she received a further, very important approval. Pope Eugene III, who was presiding at a Synod in Trier, read a text dictated by Hildegard presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak in public.

From that moment Hildegard's spiritual prestige continued to grow so that her contemporaries called her the "Teutonic prophetess".

This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority.

Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity.


Visions on Salvation History

Regarding the content of her visions, Pope Benedict noted:

Hildegard's mystical visions have a rich theological content. They refer to the principal events of salvation history, and use a language for the most part poetic and symbolic.

For example, in her best known work entitled Scivias, that is, "You know the ways," she sums up in 35 visions the events of the history of salvation from the creation of the world to the end of time.

With the characteristic traits of feminine sensitivity, Hildegard develops at the very heart of her work the theme of the mysterious marriage between God and humanity that is brought about in the Incarnation. On the tree of the Cross take place the nuptials of the Son of God with the Church, his Bride, filled with grace and the ability to give new children to God, in the love of the Holy Spirit (cf. Visio tertia: PL 197, 453c) [General Audience, September 8, 2010].


Medicine, Science, Music

St. Hildegard is not only remembered for her mystical visions, though. She also made contributions in other areas:

Finally, in other writings Hildegard manifests the versatility of interests and cultural vivacity of the female monasteries of the Middle Ages, in a manner contrary to the prejudices which still weighed on that period.

Hildegard took an interest in medicine and in the natural sciences as well as in music, since she was endowed with artistic talent.

Thus she composed hymns, antiphons and songs, gathered under the title: Symphonia Harmoniae Caelestium Revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), that were performed joyously in her monasteries, spreading an atmosphere of tranquillity and that have also come down to us.

For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit who is in himself joy and jubilation.


Rebuking an Emperor

She also spoke fearlessly when the occasion called for it, even rebuking the emperor himself:

And when the Emperor Frederic Barbarossa caused a schism in the Church by supporting at least three anti-popes against Alexander III, the legitimate Pope, Hildegard did not hesitate, inspired by her visions, to remind him that even he, the Emperor, was subject to God's judgement.

With fearlessness, a feature of every prophet, she wrote to the Emperor these words as spoken by God: "You will be sorry for this wicked conduct of the godless who despise me! Listen, O King, if you wish to live! Otherwise my sword will pierce you!" (ibid., p. 412).


Dealing with Dissenters

St. Hildegard also dealt with dissenters in her day who wanted to change the fundamental structure of the Church (not unlike some in our own day):

In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They--cátari means literally "pure"--advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy.

She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures.

This is a message that we should never forget.


Secret Language!

St. Hildegard also had her own secret language! How cool is that!

It even had its own special alphabet!

The grammar of her lingua ignota (Latin, "unknown language") appears to be like Latin's, but the vocabulary is different. Here are some sample terms, along with her Latin gloss (explanation of its meaning) and its meaning in English:

  • Aigonz: deus (God)
  • Aieganz: angelus (angel)
  • Zuuenz: sanctus (saint)
  • Liuionz salvator (saviour)
  • Diueliz: diabolus (devil)
  • Ispariz: spiritus
  • Inimois: homo (human being)
  • Jur: vir (man)
  • Vanix: femina (woman)

You can read more about her secret language on Wikipedia.


Secret Info!

Since the subject of secrets has come up, I should mention my Secret Information Club.

If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email (in English, not a secret language!).

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

To celebrate the beginning of the Year of Faith, I'll be send out a special “interview” I did with Pope Benedict about the Year of Faith. What I did was compose questions about the subject and take the answers from what he has written.

I'll be sending out this "interview" bright and early on Sunday, October 7th--the same day he is scheduled to proclaim St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. John of Avila doctors of the Church.

If you'd like to get it, and you aren't already a member of the Secret Info Club, just sign up at or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at [email protected] if you have any difficulty.

Also, to tide you over until Sunday, I'll immediately send you another "interview" with Pope Benedict on the book of Revelation.

He has a lot of interesting things to say!

Thanks, and I look forward to seeing you in the Secret Information Clubhouse!

In the meantime, what do you think about the new doctors of the Church?