You surely have heard of Hildegard, the medieval mystic, composer, author, poet, and playwright who, in October 2012, became the thirty-fifth Doctor of the Church—and the fourth female Doctor. She was gifted with her first vision when she was still a toddler, and when she was somewhere around thirteen, went to live with Jutta of Sponheim, a woman religious who would be responsible for the education of Hildegard and other girls. The lessons included Latin, scripture, and reading and writing. This knowledge would prove critical to Hildegard later in life; starting when she was sixty, she put together at least four lengthy preaching tours, something that was as unusual for a woman then as it would be today. She traveled for miles and miles by foot, horseback, or ship despite some serious illnesses (not to mention natural aging; Hildegard wrote that her body was tired “like the herbs losing the greening power in winter.”
You may not know, however, that she was involved in controversy in the year she died. A young man who had been excommunicated had received the last rites and the Eucharist and been buried at the cemetery next to her convent. Local church authorities ordered Hildegard to have the body removed; she refused, saying he had been reconciled to the Lord. The convent for a time was barred from all religious activities, but ultimately, Hildegard prevailed, with the archbishop of Mainz accepting her explanation, but cautioning her against such activities in the future.
Knee-jerk challenges to authority benefit no one. But as Catholics, we are called to study our dogma and doctrine. It is our duty to share our thoughts and discernments on issues and situations that are open to discussion and interpretation, and to provide a thoughtful alternative view where appropriate.
The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature. (Saint Hildegard of Bingen)
Spend some time with the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or talk with a priest or spiritual adviser to better understand the basis for Church teachings that trouble you. You may be surprised to find your understanding of the Church’s position is more nuanced than you thought.
Pope Benedict spoke about Hildegard of Bingen during two of his general audiences in September 2010. He praised the humility with which she received God’s gifts, and the obedience she gave Church authorities. He praised too the “rich theological content” of her mystical visions that sum up the history of salvation from creation to the end of time.
During his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Let us always invoke the Holy Spirit, so that he may inspire in the Church holy and courageous women like Saint Hildegard of Bingen who, developing the gifts they have received from God, make their own special and valuable contribution to the spiritual development of our communities and of the Church in our time.”