The life and leadership of St. Hildegard

On May 10, Pope Benedict XVI declared Hildegard of Bingen a saint of the Catholic Church.  

Shortly after, on May 27, the pope announced he would make St. Hildegard, along with St. John of Avila, a Doctor of the Church on Oct. 7, at the beginning of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization. 

Who was Hildegard?

St. Hildegard of Bingen was a German Benedictine nun of the 12th century and was one of the most well-informed, intelligent and revered women of her day. 

She was born around 1098, the youngest of 10 children of noble parents. She entered a Benedictine monastery on All Saints’ Day of 1112. At 38, St. Hildegard was elected magistra, or teacher, of the community. By that time, she was already teaching, exploring, writing, composing and offering guidance to Church and world leaders. 

“She had a huge mind. Poetry, music, letters, Scripture, theology — she excelled in all of that and more. It would be amazing enough if she were a 21st-century person, but the fact that she achieved what she did as a woman in the 12th century is stunning,” Carmen Acevedo Butcher told Our Sunday Visitor. Butcher, a professor at Shorter College in Rome and the editor of “Hildegard of Bingen: A Spiritual Reader” (Paraclete Press, $16.95), frequently leads retreats centered on Hildegard’s life and spirituality. 

St. Hildegard is best known for her spiritual and theological writings, especially the book “Scivias,” which offers commentary about Catholic doctrines on the Trinity, Jesus, the Church, the sacraments and the virtues. 

St. Hildegard wrote a trilogy of theological works over many years, the content of which she insisted was based on visions and revelations she received in prayer, which included visions of the “living light” of God.  

She wrote, “I cannot describe when and how I see it, but while I see it all sorrow and anguish leave me, so that then I feel like a simple girl instead of an old woman.” 

Challenging leaders

After becoming familiar with her writings through St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Pope Eugene III commanded her to continue the work, which made her better-known in Europe.  

However, St. Hildegard was not afraid to challenge leaders in the Church and secular world, and wrote strongly-worded letters to Pope Anastasius IV and King Frederick when she disagreed with their decisions. 

St. Hildegard was also a spiritual guide to nuns and monks throughout Germany.  

She undertook four separate preaching tours of German monasteries during her life, composed many liturgical chants, wrote poetry and a play and wrote on medical and scientific topics, including work on animals, plants, minerals, nutrition, disease and sexuality.  

Despite all this, she often referred to herself as “an uneducated woman” in her writings. She struggled with poor health and what some scholars identify as depression. 

‘St. Hildegard’ already?

St. Hildegard died around the age of 81, on Sept. 17, 1179. Devotion to her grew quickly, and the cause for her canonization was formally initiated half a century after her death, by Pope Gregory IX in 1229. But bureaucratic delays slowed the process and her popularity began to wane as time passed.  

By the 20th century, she was little-known except among medieval scholars. The 1970s and 1980s brought a renewed interest in her, which has been picking up steam ever since. Pope Benedict’s decision to formally canonize her and name her a Doctor of the Church marks the culmination of that development. 

She has long been recognized as a saint. She is identified as St. Hildegard of Bingen in the 1913 edition of The Catholic Encyclopedia. Pope John Paul II referred to her as St. Hildegard in a 1979 letter that marked the 800th anniversary of her death. More recently, Pope Benedict has spoken of her publicly as St. Hildegard in 2006 and again in 2010. 

Barry Hudock is the author of “The Eucharistic Prayer: A User’s Guide” (Liturgical Press, $16.95).