Two Great Witnesses of the Faith

On Oct. 7, at the beginning of the ordinary assembly of the world Synod of Bishops, Pope Benedict XVI proclaimed St. John of Ávila and St. Hildegard of Bingen as the 34th and 35th Doctors of the Church. 

In his declaration regarding the new Doctors in May 2012, the Pope announced: “These two great witnesses of the faith lived in very different historical periods and came from different cultural backgrounds. But the sanctity of life and depth of teaching makes them perpetually present: the grace of the Holy Spirit, in fact, projected them into that experience of penetrating understanding of divine revelation and intelligent dialogue with the world that constitutes the horizon of permanent life and action of the Church. Especially in light of the project of the New Evangelization, to which the Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will be dedicated, and on the vigil of the Year of Faith, these two figures of saints and doctors are of considerable importance and relevance.”  

What Is a Doctor of the Church?

The Doctors of the Church are certain men and women who are revered by the Church for the special value of their writings and preaching, as well as the sanctity of their lives. There are three conditions for a person to be declared a Doctor: their eminent learning, their manifest sanctity, and a formal declaration by the Church. Each made important and lasting contributions to the faith and are to be recognized for their great merits. It is noted, however, that their writings were not completely free from error. Initially, the Doctors were considered the Fathers Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome and Gregory I the Great, but the Church added others to the list over the centuries. The first woman Doctor was St. Teresa of Ávila, named by Pope Paul VI in 1970; she was followed by Catherine of Siena that same year. In 1997, Pope John Paul II proclaimed St. Thérèse of Lisieux the third female Doctor. St. Hildegard is the fourth. 

St. John of Ávila (1500-1569)

Beloved as the so-called Apostle of Andalusia, John of Ávila was a Spanish mystic reformer and brilliant preacher. He was born near Toledo, Spain, to a Jewish family and studied law at Salamanca (1514-1515) before being drawn to a religious life. For three years, he adhered to a life of prayer and austerity before studying theology at Alcalá under the great Spanish Dominican Domingo Soto (1494-1560). Ordained in 1525, he initially prepared for missionary work in Mexico, but in 1528 Archbishop Hernando de Contreras of Seville asked him to remain in Spain to revive the faith in Andalusia. Preaching from 1529, he soon attracted huge crowds with his sermons and was investigated by the Spanish Inquisition on charges of heretical teaching of excessive rigorism, denunciations of wealth and exaggerations. Acquitted and acclaimed in 1535, he continued his Andalusian ministry.  

After nine years, he returned to Seville and then preached in Córdoba, Granada and numerous towns throughout the kingdom. Renowned for his sermons, he was an ardent proponent of clerical reform, especially concerning celibacy, and directly influenced such future saints as Francis Borgia, Luís of Granada, John of God and Teresa of Ávila. An associate of the Jesuits, he did much to foster the growth of the order in Spain, dying before he could fulfill his hope of becoming a member. Among his writings are Audi Filia (c. 1530), a treatise on Christian perfection addressed to a young nun, Doña Sancha Carillo, and spiritual letters.  

Beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1894, he was canonized on May 31, 1970, by Pope Paul VI. He was also declared patron of the Spanish diocesan clergy in 1946 by Pope Pius XII and has long been held as a role model for priests. Pope Paul VI said of him: “John did not doubt. He was conscious of his vocation. He had faith in his priestly election.” 

On Aug. 20, 2011, Pope Benedict announced during a trip to Spain that he would declare St. John a Doctor of the Church. He said: “With great joy, here in this Cathedral Church of Santa María La Real de la Almudena … I will shortly declare St. John of Ávila a Doctor of the universal Church. In making this announcement here, I would hope that the word and the example of this outstanding pastor will enlighten all priests and those who look forward to the day of their priestly ordination. I invite everyone to look to St. John of Ávila, and I commend to his intercession the bishops of Spain and those of the whole world, as well as all priests and seminarians.” 

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

A German mystic and abbess, called the “Sibyl of the Rhine” because of her many visions, Hildegard was a member of a German noble family, and she began experiencing mystical visions at an early age. She was entrusted to the care of a reputed recluse, Blessed Jutta, and, around 1116, was received into the Benedictine community that had grown around Jutta. In 1136, she became abbess of the community, traveling throughout Germany and corresponding with leading figures and personalities of the time, including St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa. Through the influence of Bernard, Hildegard secured papal approbation of her visions from Pope Eugenius III.  

A tapestry showing 12th-century German abbess St. Hildegard of Bingen hangs from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica prior to the opening Mass of the Synod of Bishops for the New Evangelization in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 7. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Hildegard wrote the Scivias, a collection of visions, divided into three books, which contained a number of prophecies of disaster. Other works included hymns, scientific treatises, letters and theological writings. 

Her body of writings, poems and hymns have become especially appreciated in recent years, and Pope Benedict XVI has said of her: “Hildegard’s mystical visions resemble those of the Old Testament prophets: expressing herself in the cultural and religious categories of her time, she interpreted the Sacred Scriptures in the light of God, applying them to the various circumstances of life. Thus all those who heard her felt the need to live a consistent and committed Christian lifestyle.” 

Hildegard had been venerated as a saint since the time of her death, especially within the Benedictine Order, but no formal canonization was ever held. That changed on May 10, 2012, when the Vatican announced that the Pope had extended the liturgical cult of St. Hildegard to the universal Church, inscribing her in the catalogue of saints. Her feast day is Sept. 17. [Readers might enjoy Sandra Miesel’s article on St. Hildegard in the July/August 2011 edition of TCA.] TCA 

Dr. Matthew E. Bunson is the general editor of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholic Almanac and editor The Catholic Answer.