Known as the “Sybil of the Rhine,” Hildegard of Bingen was a remarkable woman who produced multiple visionary writings and major theological works throughout her life (1098-1179). During a time period when women received little respect, Hildegard was consulted by religious and political leaders and advised popes and kings. Her contributions are many and include founding a convent, composing music, and writing about the medicinal uses of natural objects such as plants, trees, animals, and stones.
It was recently announced that Hildegard of Bingen will be canonized and declared a doctor of the church. Hearing this I was among the many who were surprised by the news since I had assumed that Hildegard was already canonized, particularly since she has been called St. Hildegard and has had a feast day on September 17th since 1940 (although only within the Benedictine order in Germany). Nonetheless, I have recognized Hildegard as a crucial woman in Christian history – as crucial as St. Catherine of Siena, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese of Lisieux who have already been canonized. So why the delay in granting this honor to Hildegard of Bingen?
According to Barbara Newman, Hildegard’s outspokenness against the Church did not prevent her canonization; rather the complexity of the process itself resulted in it failing to reach its goal. Initially, Hildegard was not canonized because those who sought to carry out the task of collecting information about her deeds were unsuccessful; they had waited too long and most of Hildegard’s beneficiaries had died.
While Hildegard was considered a controversial figure in life, she was even more so in death. Thus, the idea of canonizing her was quickly forgotten and Hildegard’s reputation suffered throughout history. It was claimed that her work was not that of her own, but rather written by a man who utilized Hildegard as a false front. She was denied any credit for her many important contributions and labeled a hysterical woman.
Movements in the twentieth century resulted in reparation of Hildegard’s name and again her canonization was called for. Although Pope John Paul II canonized more saints than “all previous popes combined” (Newman), he did not canonize Hildegard. Surprisingly, his very conservative successor, Pope Benedict XVI, who made the process of canonization even more strenuous and declared a ban on all discussions of women’s ordination, has decided to canonize Hildegard and proclaim her a doctor of the church.
While there are currently 33 doctors of the church, only three are women, and Hildegard will be the fourth. Although it is disappointing that this honor was not bestowed upon Hildegard until the 21st century, it is gratifying to know that Hildegard will finally be recognized for her great contributions to Catholic theology, as well as their continued impact in the world.
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