Address of Pope Benedict XVI
General Audience of September 1, 2010
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In 1988, on the occasion of the Marian Year, the Venerable John Paul II wrote an Apostolic Letter titled "Mulieris dignitatem," dealing with the valuable role that women have had and have in the life of the Church.
"The Church," one reads there, "gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine 'genius' which have appeared in the course of history, in the midst of all peoples and nations; she gives thanks for all the charisms which the Holy Spirit distributes to women in the history of the People of God, for all the victories which she owes to their faith, hope and charity: she gives thanks for all the fruits of feminine holiness" (No. 31).
In those centuries of history that we usually call medieval, several women are outstanding for their holiness of life and the richness of their teaching. Today I would like to begin to present one of them to you: St. Hildegard of Bingen, who lived in Germany in the 12th century. She was born in the Rhineland in Bermersheim in 1098, in the region of Alzey, and died in 1179 at the age of 81, despite having permanently frail health.
Hildegard belonged to a noble and numerous family and, from her birth, she was vowed by her parents to the service of God. At 8 years of age, in order to receive an adequate human and Christian formation, she was entrusted to the care of the teacher Judith of Spanheim, who had withdrawn into a cloister near the Benedictine monastery of St. Disibod. A small women's cloistered monastery was being formed, which followed the Rule of St. Benedict. Hildegard received the veil from Bishop Othon of Bamberg and, in 1136, on the death of Mother Judith, who had become the superior of the community, her fellow-sisters called Hildegard to succeed her. She carried out this task bringing to fruition her gifts as an educated woman, spiritually elevated and able to address competently the organizational aspects of cloistered life. A year or so later, also because of the growing number of young women who knocked on the door of the monastery, Hildegard founded another community in Bingen, named after St. Rupert, where she spent the rest of her life. The style with which she exercised the ministry of authority is exemplary for every religious community: It inspired a holy emulation in the practice of goodness, so much so that, as we see from testimonies of the time, the mother and the daughters competed in their reciprocal esteem and service.
Already in the years in which she was superior of the monastery of St. Disibod, Hildegard had begun to dictate the mystical visions she had received for some time to her spiritual adviser, monk Volmar, and to her secretary, a fellow sister to whom she was very devoted, Richardis of Strade. As always happens in the life of true mystics, Hildegard, too, wanted to be subject to the authority of wise persons to discern the origin of her visions, fearing that they were the fruit of illusions and that they did not come from God. She turned, therefore, to the person that at her time enjoyed the highest esteem of the Church: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, of whom I have already spoken in some catecheses. He calmed and encouraged Hildegard. However, in 1147 she received another very important approval. Pope Eugene III, who was presiding at a synod in Treviri, read a text dictated by Hildegard, presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz. The Pope authorized the mystic to write down her visions and to speak publicly.
From that moment, Hildegard's spiritual prestige grew increasingly, so much so that her contemporaries attributed to her the title of "Teutonic prophetess." This is, dear friends, the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, source of every charism: The receiver of supernatural gifts never boasts, does not exhibit them and, above all, shows total obedience to ecclesial authority. Every gift distributed by the Holy Spirit, in fact, is destined for the edification of the Church, and the Church, through her pastors, recognizes their authenticity.
I will speak once again next Wednesday about this great woman "prophetess," who speaks with great timeliness also to us today, with her courageous capacity to discern the signs of the times, with her love for creation, her medicine, her poetry, her music, which today is being pieced together, her love of Christ and of his Church, suffering also at that time, wounded also at that time by the sins of priests and laymen, and that much more loved as Body of Christ. So St. Hildegard speaks to us; we will speak of her again next Wednesday.