On October 7th, Pope Benedict XVI marked the beginning of the Synod on the New Evangelization by declaring St. Hildegard von Bingen and St. John of Avila as the 34th and 35th Doctors of the Church. Word On Fire Research Assistant Jack Thornton discusses the announcement.
On October 7th, Pope Benedict XVI marked the beginning of the Synod on the New Evangelization by declaring St. Hildegard von Bingen and St. John of Avila as the 34th and 35th Doctors of the Church. The fact that only 35 figures have been named as Doctors of the Church indicates how significant this announcement is. The title of Doctor of the Church is bestowed on those whose writings the Church recognizes as particularly important in the development of doctrine and theology.
St. Hildegard was born the tenth child in a noble family in what is now Germany around the year 1098. From a very early age she experienced mystical visions, which continued throughout her life. She became an anchorite nun at a young age where she learned Latin, and studied Scripture, music and natural science. She eventually became the prioress of her community and, from all accounts, managed her community with grace and wisdom. She wrote extensively on natural science and medicine, composed poetry, morality plays and some of the more influential musical pieces of the early classical tradition, in addition to eventually writing accounts of her visions, Scriptural exegesis and theological
At first she was reluctant speak of or write about her visions since she worried that they were illusions or did not come from God, but eventually she dictated some of them to her confidants. Later she received encouragement to write from St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugenius III, and, out of humble respect for their approval and support, she wrote several great theological works, spoke publicly on a number of topics all over Germany, and corresponded with many of the most important clergy and political figures in Europe. One topic of particular interest, that was especially evident in her lectures and letters, was her call for a reform of the clergy.
The Catholic Church in St. Hildegard’s time some members of the clergy were not exactly the examples of humility, virtue and goodness that one would hope. There were many, including bishops, who focused more on their own comfort and pleasure than the wellbeing and education of their flocks. This licentiousness among the clergy led to the rise of certain heretical sects, most notably the Cathars, who called for a dramatic, fundamental change to the structure and nature of the Church. Hildegard spoke out against the Cathars, and defended the Church and its mission. She did, however, admit that the clergy needed reform, and called for a renewal of virtue, repentance and conversion among the priests, monks and bishops that would be necessary for them to fulfill their duties as caretakers of the Church. By defending the Church against the heretics, while simultaneously urging improvement within it, she showed the immense wisdom, strength and grace of a true prophet.
St. John of Avila lived in a different time and circumstances, but there are important similarities between St. John and St. Hildegard.
St. John was born to a wealthy family in Spain in 1499. He became a priest in 1526, and decided to do missionary work in America. Due to his skills as a teacher and preacher, he was convinced to stay in Spain and evangelize there, and his great piety and fervor made him a leading Catholic voice in Spain. One of his great passions was for greater education at all levels, but especially for priests and religious. The Church at that time was experiencing the shockwaves caused by the Protestant Reformation throughout St. John’s life. St John was a leader of the Church’s response to the Reformation, and he focused many of his ideas on the reformation of the priesthood.
He, like St. Hildegard, noticed a lack of heroic virtue among the priests of his day, and insisted that priests, as the mediator between God and the Church through the sacraments, must commit to personal holiness, and friendship and imitation of Christ. He also demanded that bishops be the leaders of this reform, and that they must be as servants and fathers to their priests.
The two chief causes of the tarnishing of the priesthood, according to St. John, were the acceptance of the wrong people into the clergy and the poor formation of the priests. He saw that many men entered the priesthood due to ambition, a desire for comfort and luxury, or simply because they saw it as an easy life and did not have a proper understanding of what priesthood entails. St. John wanted bishops to only accept men who truly desired to by the servants of God into the priesthood and he wanted those men to be educated the right way so that they could teach, preach and live the faith as they were supposed to.
Although St. Hildegard and St. John lived in different times it is clear that there were issues that both were concerned about similar things, especially the reform of the priesthood.
That leads us to this year, when both saints have been granted one of the highest honors the Catholic Church holds.
The priesthood in the Catholic Church has undergone quite a bit of change and turmoil in the past 50 years since Vatican II. Interpretations of the council’s ideas have brought about some practices that would probably have been unthinkable in the ages before it. Some are good, others not so good.
What would St. John and St. Hildegard say about the priesthood in the 21st century?
Now I’m not nearly as intelligent or holy as either of these figures, so I obviously can’t say for sure. But it’s clear that they would certainly take umbrage at the sexual abuse scandal that recently rocked the Church, and the efforts by some high-ranking clerics to avoid the demands of justice by sweeping it under the rug. Now, our Church has taken steps to mend these wounds and to ensure that such a tragedy will never happen again
But one thing we can learn from both St. Hildegard and St. John is that the reform and renewal is a perennial task of the Church- it is never a one shot deal. The Church is always a Church of saints and sinners, and there is a real struggle going on in every age of the Church's life to bring about greater holiness rather than greater iniquity. The clergy are on the front lines of this struggle and when they fall, the rest of the faithful are rendered all the more vulnerable. Thus, the concern of St. Hildegard and St. John. (The Protestant reformers tried to deal with all this by essentially getting rid of the clergy, but in doing so, they did not get sin out of the Church). It isn't simply the fault of the clergy that sin afflicts the Body of Christ. The mysterium iniquitatis afflicts us all and neither innocence or vigilance protects us from its effects.
Often times the reform and renewal of the Church is thought of as how we can get to the Church to give in to an ideological agenda. The period after Vatican II provides many examples of this tendency. However, reform and renewal are not about the imposition of someone's or some group's plan, but by an acceptance of personal conversion that leads to heroic virtue. St. Hildegard and St. John wanted this to be manifested by the clergy so that the laity would see that it was possible for them as well. Vatican II named this spiritual dynamic as the universal call to holiness. The clergy are meant as the ones who bear the invitation to holiness to the Church. In order for that invitation to be taken seriously, they have to not only speak about it, but reveal it in their own lives.
I think that's something both St. Hildegard and St. John would say, and I think it's something we all should think about.
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