By Oswald Sobrino, J.D.; M.A. (Econ.); M.A. (Theo.); M.L. (Master of Latin), doctoral student, University of Florida.

Friday, September 3, 2010

A Great and Influential Catholic Woman--and an Authority

Hildegard von Bingen empfängt eine göttliche I...Image via Wikipedia
That is the subject of the Pope's comments about St. Hildegard of Bingen, a German mother superior who exercised authority humbly and who had the charism of prophecy (funny that from time to time people ask me if the charism of prophecy is present in the Church after the biblical period--well, just pay attention to the Pope's history lessons for the obvious answer!).

Here is a leading Catholic women, highly influential and educated, with full scope for the exercise of her talents and charisms way back in the Middle Ages. Like St. Teresa of Jesus and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, St. Hildegard affirms that no woman need fear that her talents and charisms will find no scope in the Catholic Church, even if only men are eligible for ordination. The ordained ministry is not the only form of ministry in the Catholic Church, by any means.

I recall how Pope John Paul II said that the "Marian dimension" of the Church (that is, the dimension exemplified by the humility of the Virgin Mary) is more fundamental ("precedes") the Petrine dimension exemplified by the Apostle Peter and others exercising ordained ministry (scroll down to Abbot's message in the latter link). If anyone else had said that, some would have called it heresy. It is not heresy.

It is also important to emphasize the great and influential role of women in Christianity from its very beginnings to the present in order to draw an accurate and respectful comparison with the role of women in Islam. Let us not engage in disrespectful or uncharitable attacks--but let us make intelligent and informed comparisons so that individuals can freely decide for themselves which religion they prefer to remain in or to join. In the political world, shrewd candidates eschew negative "attack" ads in favor of "comparison" ads. That approach is wise. Below are the Pope's timely remarks, with emphasis added by me:


VATICAN CITY, 1 SEP 2010 (VIS) - The Holy Father held his general audience this morning in the square in front of the Apostolic Place of Castelgandolfo, where he is spending the summer. His catechesis was dedicated to St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a great seer known as the "Teutonic prophetess".

  Before focusing on the saint the Pope turned his attention John Paul II's 1988 Apostolic Letter "Mulieris dignitatem", which examined "the precious role women have played and continue to play in the life of the Church". The Church, that text states, "gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine 'genius' which have appeared in the course of history".

  "During the centuries we customarily call the Middle Ages", said Benedict XVI, "certain female figures also stood out for the sanctity of their lives and the richness of their teachings". One of these was Hildegard of Bingen, born to a noble family who chose to dedicate her to the service of God.

  Having received an appropriate human and Christian formation at the hands of her teacher Jutta of Spanheim, Hildegard entered the Benedictine convent of St. Disibod where she received the veil from Bishop Otto of Bamberg. In 1136 she was elected as mother superior, a role she carried out using "her gifts as a cultured and spiritually elevated woman, capable of dealing with the organisational aspects of life in the cloister", said the Pope.

  Soon afterwards, due to the large number of vocations, Hildegard founded another community, located in Bingen and dedicated to St. Rupert, where she spent the rest of her life. "The manner in which she exercised the ministry of authority remains exemplary for all religious communities", noted the Holy Father. "She aroused saintly emulation in the practice of good works".

  While still superior of the convent of St. Disibod the saint began to dictate her mystical visions to her spiritual advisor, the monk Volmar, and to her own secretary, Richardis of Strade. "As is always the case in the lives of true mystics, Hildegard wished to place herself under the authority of the wise, in order to discern the origin of her visions, which she was afraid could be the fruit of illusions and not from God".

  To this end she spoke with St. Bernard of Clairvaux who calmed her fears and encouraged her. In 1147, moreover, she received the crucial approbation of Pope Eugene III who, in the Synod of Trier, read out one of the texts dictated by Hildegard which had been presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz.

  "The Pope authorised the mystic to write her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard's spiritual prestige grew to the point that her contemporaries gave her the title of the 'Teutonic prophetess'", said Benedict XVI.

  "The sign of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of all charisms", the Pope concluded, "is that the individual possessing supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never shows them off and, above all, demonstrates complete obedience to ecclesiastical authority. All gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit are, in fact, intended for the edification of the Church and it is the Church, through her pastors, who recognises their authenticity".
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