|Portrait of Hildegard of Bingen.|
Rupertsberg MS, fol. 1r.
Update: On May 10, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI formalized Hildegard of Bingen's saintly status in a process known as equivalent canonization, by which the Pontiff authorized the universal church to observe the veneration of a holy person (“Servant of God”) according to the rites of full canonization by inscription in the universal calendar of saints. Hildegard’s veneration within the dioceses of Germany was approved by what is now the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints in 1940, although her name appeared in the Roman Martyrologium beginning in the sixteenth century, and indulgences for local veneration in the Rhineland can be found throughout the later Middle Ages. Her feast day is September 17 (the date of her death in 1179). On May 27, in his Regina Caeli address for the Solemnity of Pentecost, Benedict announced that on October 7, 2012, Hildegard and St. John of Avila will join the thirty-three other Doctors of the Church, thirty men and three women.
Scholars and admirers of Hildegard of Bingen have for years dreamt that she might one day be declared a Doctor of the Church. Her visionary writings are amongst the most intensely daring and theologically innovative of the twelfth century, while her zeal for the reform of the Church could burst open the doors of cathedral and palace alike. But her bold tendencies, combined with the fact that she has never formally been canonized, have long made that dream seem distant and unattainable.
Not, it would seem, anymore. According to Vatican insiders, preparations are being made for Pope Benedict XVI formally to canonize Hildegard next year and to declare her a Doctor of the Church! In email correspondence, Sr. Phillipa Rath, O.S.B., of the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Eibingen, Germany, confirmed to me that preparations are underway for the declaration in October, 2012. Hildegard would become the thirty-fourth Doctor of the Church, and only the fourth woman, after Sts. Catherine of Siena, Theresa of Avila, and Therese of Lisieux.
Born in 1098 to a noble family of southern Germany, Hildegard entered at an early age the company of the recluse Jutta, cloistered at the monastery of St. Disibod. After Jutta’s death in 1136, Hildegard was elected magistra of the community of women that had developed around the recluse; and in the 1150’s she successfully battled the monks to have the community established in their own abbey on the Rupertsberg at Bingen on the Rhine river. Although she experienced visionary phenomena from an early age, she only felt confident to record the visions beginning in the 1140’s, when she received a divine command “to write down what you see and hear”. The result was the Scivias, the first of three great visionary works. As legend has it, St. Bernard of Clairvaux presented the half-finished work in 1147 to Pope Eugene III at a synod in Trier; after examination, the Pope is believed to have certified her visionary charism.
Hildegard’s gifts were celebrated across Christendom, and she corresponded with bishops and popes, princes and emperors. She felt compelled by her divine gifts of vision and prophecy to speak out against the corruptions of Church and Empire; and as schism grew between them in the 1160’s, her outlook grew increasingly fierce. In preaching tours undertaken in that decade and the one that followed, Hildegard repeatedly denounced the Cathar heresy in words of bold castigation and frightening prophecy. The visions of salvation history that mark her most complex work, the Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of Divine Works), completed in 1172, place her warnings to an age of “womanly weakness” against a cosmic backdrop of divine proportions. In words that would maintain her celebrity for centuries, she prophesied of five coming ages that would cycle between holiness and corruption, capped off with the disestablishment of the Roman See before the coming of the Antichrist.
Of more interest to modern scholars has been Hildegard’s extraordinary corpus of musical compositions, amongst the greatest music and poetry to survive the Middle Ages. Both her music and her works of natural medicine have found a place amongst New Age spirituality; while feminists have found hers a powerful voice of feminine agency battling the complacency of patriarchal institutions in an age of profound misogyny.
After a long afterlife as a prophet of the end times, Hildegard of Bingen has enjoyed a renewed recognition as one of the most extraordinary women of the Middle Ages. Her accomplishments have, in the last few decades, been recognized by scholars as amongst the greatest of any man or woman of her time. And finally, under the first German pontiff in centuries, the “Sybil of the Rhine”, the “German prophetess” (prophetissa teutonica), shall be recognized for her unique contributions to Christian theology.Notes
 Or thirty–fifth, depending on the status of St. John of Avila. Although the Pope announced during World Youth Day in August in Madrid that he would be declared a Doctor of the Church, no date has yet been set for the declaration. ↩