Today Pope Benedict has formally declared my beloved patroness Hildegard of Bingen, along with John of Avila, the newest Doctors of the Church – a rare honorific title (the two bring the total to 35) given to those who have made significant contributions to the Church’s tradition. After making it official, the pope offered this tribute in his homily at today’s opening of the Synod of Bishops:
Saint Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the twelfth century, offered her precious contribution to the growth of the Church of her time, employing the gifts received from God and showing herself to be a woman of brilliant intelligence, deep sensitivity and recognized spiritual authority. The Lord granted her a prophetic spirit and fervent capacity to discern the signs of the times. Hildegard nurtured an evident love of creation, and was learned in medicine, poetry and music. Above all, she maintained a great and faithful love for Christ and the Church.
The context is fitting for a theologian who got her big break, so to speak, by earning a round of applause from the bishops at the Trier Synod eight and a half centuries earlier, to whom Pope Eugenius III read excerpts from what would become her first book of visions.Medieval scholar Nathaniel M. Campbell has written some intriguing speculations on what Hildegard’s “doctor name” could be, based on a few of the most prominent facets of her manifold contributions. (Update: he provides an impressive news roundup here.) Personally, I like to think of her as the original Anti-Dichotomy Queen: a rational mystic, a poetic visionary who believed in an ordered universe, an artist and scientist, a prophetic and innovative reformer deeply committed to orthodoxy and tradition, a brazen leader who didn’t hesitate to give scoldings to anyone from laypeople to fellow monastic leaders to popes and emperors while openly expressing profound self-doubt when requesting encouragement from mentors and other leaders.
In light of her paradoxical qualities and the polarizations of our day, I hope others will join me in asking Hildegard’s intercession for the healing of the divisive wounds in our church and in our world. Saint Hildegard, Doctor of the Church, pray for us.