In the liturgical calendars of most Catholics, September 17 is the memorial of the great Jesuit (and doctor of the church) Robert Bellarmine (+ 1621). Franciscans mark September 17 as the day on which Saint Francis received the stigmata. In the regional German calendar, on the other hand, September 17 is first and foremost the memorial of the great twelfth-century visionary, monastic leader, writer, composer, and preacher Hildegard of Bingen, who died on this day in 1179. The only problem is that Hildegard was never officially canonized – or she would in all likelihood be another doctor of the church by now. But when in 1978 the German bishops petitioned Rome to have the honorary title doctor ecclesiae conferred on Hildegard, the Vatican’s response was clear: Such an honor could only be conferred upon those properly canonized by Rome in the first place.
Why on earth was this holy woman never canonized, when in fact Pope Gregory IX had responded positively, in 1228, to a request by the convent of Rupertsberg to inquire into Hildegard’s life with a view toward canonization? Well, to begin with, the men charged with the task of gathering the necessary materials, especially the accounts of witnesses, failed miserably. When late in 1233 they finally dispatched a report to Rome, it lacked fundamental details, e.g., the names of witnesses of Hildegard’s miracles. Pope Gregory then appointed three different men to gather the missing information; these men failed even more grandiosely by, apparently, simply doing nothing. Finally, after a papal inquiry in 1243, a commission provided the necessary details to the initial report — but this detailed documentation simply vanished somewhere between the Rhine valley and Rome. Thus ended the official canonization process of Hildegard of Bingen.
In some ways we are lucky today that the cultural production of “icons” is no longer so closely wedded to Vatican processes and approvals anyway, enabling Hildegard of Bingen’s triumphal advance into contemporary consciousness – well beyond the confines of the church — to proceed without the help of an official canonization. And yet, we do well not to forget that in celebrating Hildegard of Bingen this September 17, we step beyond the limits of what official liturgical calendars know – unless of course you follow the German regional calendar on this day.