Monday, December 19th, 2011
According to Vatican insider Andrea Tornielli, Pope Benedict XVI plans to canonize Hildegard of Bingen (d. 1179) and declare her a doctor of the church in October 2012. To date, thirty-three theologians have been granted this honor, only three of them women (St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux).
Many will be surprised to learn that their favorite visionary is not a saint already, for she is often styled as such. In fact, she has officially been “St. Hildegard” since 1940, her feast observed on September 17—but only in Germany and within the Benedictine order. To the puzzlement of non-Catholics, sainthood within the Roman Church is not an all-or-nothing affair. Regional observance and the liturgies of religious orders allow some middle ground between unofficial popular cults and veneration by the universal Church. Canonization itself did not become a papal prerogative until the mid-twelfth century, only a generation before Hildegard’s death. The great Cistercian Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153), one of her correspondents, was among the first saints to be formally canonized by Rome. Hildegard herself corresponded with several popes. Eugenius III gave her his blessing, but she harshly reproached his successor for failing “to rein in the pomposity of arrogance” among his subordinates and tolerating “depraved people who are blinded by foolishness and who delight in harmful things.” In a 2010 address on Hildegard, Benedict XVI stated that she served the church at a time when it was “wounded by the sins of priests and laity”—which she never hesitated to denounce.
That in itself would not have precluded her canonization in the Middle Ages. A process was first launched in 1233, but like most medieval processes, it fell short of its goal. A chief difficulty seems to have been the labyrinthine complexity of the process itself. Although numerous miracles were collected by the inquisitors charged with that task, the precise names, dates, and places could not be verified. More than half a century after Hildegard’s passing at the age of 81, most of her beneficiaries had also died.
As André Vauchez has shown in his great work on canonization, no special reason need be offered to explain why this or that medieval cause failed—though both women and Benedictines (as opposed to friars) stood at a disadvantage in the late Middle Ages. Rather, the rare cause that succeeded would owe its success to some extraordinary impetus. Often the deciding factor lay, and still lies, in a pope’s regional sympathies. For instance, Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) won a large popular following that quickly evolved into a cult, but she was not canonized until 1461, when the Sienese pope Pius II sat in Peter’s chair. Agnes of Prague, a princess who founded the first Franciscan nunnery in Bohemia, died in 1282 but achieved sainthood seven hundred years later, in 1989—when the Polish pope John Paul II was eager to encourage the faithful in countries newly freed from the Soviet yoke. Hildegard’s wait has been even longer. But it will be a German, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who finally raises one of his nation’s heroines to the honors of the altar.
Controversial in her lifetime, Hildegard was more so after her death, though the theological books for which she is now revered were soon forgotten. Too long and difficult to be frequently copied, they lay far outside both the scholastic and the mystical mainstream. The Hildegard best remembered by later generations was neither the theologian nor the composer, but the apocalyptic prophet. Not content merely to denounce clerical sins, the “sibyl of the Rhine” prophesied the advent of a treacherous new people with an aura of holiness, the birth of Antichrist, and the disendowment of the Church by secular princes—all in a suitably obscure and portentous style.
Depending on the interpreter, she was therefore said to have predicted the rise of the mendicant orders, the Jesuits, the English Reformation, and the French Revolution. But once partisan polemics ceded to the skeptical temper of the Enlightenment, Hildegard’s star sank rapidly. Like most medieval women writers, she was either confidently deprived of her authorship or relegated to the ranks of hysterical females. Some wondered what male author had used her as a convenient mask. One Catholic scholar allowed that Hildegard had written the works ascribed to her, but only as a passive vessel of the Holy Spirit, not understanding a word of them.
The soon-to-be-saint’s rehabilitation began in the mid-twentieth century. One of the chief grounds for canonizing long-dead figures is “immemorial cult,” which Hildegard can certainly claim. Of the two monasteries she founded, one perished in the Thirty Years’ War but the second, at Eibingen on the Rhine, survived until its secularization in 1803. Rebuilt from 1900-1908, it is today a thriving nunnery and pilgrimage site. The nuns of St. Hildegard’s Abbey may well have exerted some quiet pressure behind the scenes in Rome. For precisely that reason, the founders of religious communities hold an advantage in the politics of sainthood. But Hildegard’s nuns did more than exercise a long institutional memory. Two of them braved academic scorn and returned to the manuscripts, proving in a carefully documented study of 1956 that the visionary abbess had indeed authored the books bearing her name. Though their findings have been corrected in details, the achievement of Marianna Schrader and Adelgundis Führkötter, OSB, remains the essential foundation of all Hildegard scholarship and thus of the saint’s modern cult.
Other church historians followed in their wake—first German, then anglophone. By the 1980s this obscure medieval visionary had become a spiritual superstar, firing the imagination of a church transformed by the re-emergence of feminism. Hildegard was suddenly everywhere: musicians recorded her liturgical chant, medievalists edited and translated her works, book covers reproduced the manuscript paintings ascribed to her, retreat leaders presented her as a feminist role model, New Age healers touted her holistic remedies, deep ecologists recognized her as a precursor, and even cookbooks appeared in her name.
The Dominican Matthew Fox made Hildegard the poster child for his “creation-centered spirituality,” popularizing her in a series of books that bridged the chasm between scholarship and fandom. In 1998, the nine hundredth anniversary of her birth, she was celebrated in liturgies, conferences, lectures, and concerts around the globe—and the nuns of Eibingen constructed a new guest house for pilgrims. The latest episode in Hildegard’s media celebrity came in 2009 with the German film Vision, directed by Margarethe von Trotta and starring Barbara Sukowa as the mystical nun.
Many devotees expected that in 1998, if ever, the papacy would bow to Hildegard’s burgeoning cult and make it official. In retrospect, however, it is hard to say whether this belated fame helped or harmed her official cause. Matthew Fox was silenced by Cardinal Ratzinger for doctrinal errors and evicted from the Dominican order in 1993; a year later he left the Catholic Church. Nor did Hildegard’s popularity in women’s spirituality circles, both within and beyond the Catholic fold, necessarily commend her to a conservative papacy. The pope who had declared a moratorium on the mere discussion of women priests may have been less than eager to canonize a twelfth-century woman who made four extensive preaching tours. When Benedict XVI succeeded John Paul II in 2005, Catholic progressives feared that the papacy would continue on its conservative course, if not veer even further to the right. Moreover, Benedict reversed the policy of his predecessor, who had canonized more saints than all previous popes combined, by making the streamlined process more rigorous again.
In many ways, therefore, the announcement concerning Hildegard comes as a surprise. But it appears that the Roman tortoise has caught up with the dashing seer of Bingen at last. Secure in the possession of eternity, Rome never hurries. It would be a papal courtesy and a great honor for the Eibingen nuns if Hildegard’s sainthood were to be proclaimed urbi et orbi from the abbey she founded. She would almost certainly be the first saint to have her own music performed on such an occasion, and who better than her nuns to sing it? Your humble blogger would hope to be there.