September 17: Memorial of St. Hildegard of Bingen?

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.

14 comments

  1. I had no idea who Hildegard was until some years ago when the group Anonymous 4 put together a recording of some of her works. Having never heard of her before, I did a little research, and recall wondering if all that I had read was true, and if so, why she was not canonized?

    It occurred to me then, that it was possible that some of things attributed to her were not verifiable and that might be the reason she never was canonized. Or, it could be that there were people involved in the process who were jealous of her gifts, and decided to suppress her consideration. Who knows?

    Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to be canonized in order to be a saint, and we all can reap the riches she left behind with or without an official okey-dokey. Thanks for the heads up, I did not know her date of entry into eternal life.

  2. You can also choose to observe your local Benedictine monastery’s calendar. 17 September is a memorial bei uns auch!

  3. I’m not sure the distinction between regional and official calendars is quite so sharp, as I’ve seen Hildegard’s memorial on several calendars not of German origin. I’ve also been taught that the church (take the word as broadly or as narrowly as you care to) explicitly acknowledges that the formal canon of saints is not exhaustive.

    I’ve never fully understood the impediments to her canonization process, but my impression has been that she happened to die at an inconvenient time, so to speak, as the process was becoming more rigorous. While malicious motives are always possible, I don’t think it’s helpful to speculate in that way (it certainly wouldn’t be very Ignatian, or Benedictine either).

    My question is, can her cause ever be reopened? It is my thoroughly biased opinion that she does indeed belong among the doctors of the church.

  4. Hildegard, is one of favorite saints. I would’nt want to speculate as to why she was not formally cannonized, but I have my hunchs, and will leave it at that.

  5. Albert the Great was not canonized before he was named a Doctor, something the German bishops should have known. (particularly any who had served in Regensburg, St Albert’s diocese)

    And Hildegard lived before the decree in the 18th century canonizing, without process, all who were considered saints.That is how St Christopher retained his place on the calendar.

    So something else is going on, IMO. But she was on the list of candidates for Dr in a recent post here.

    1. My apologies. The recent post was by Sandro Magister at:
      http://chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1349083?eng=y

      He lists others under consideration for the title Doctor, including:
      “Six of them are women: Saint Veronica Giuliani, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Gertrude of Helfta, Saint Bridget of Sweden, Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque, Blessed Julian of Norwich.”

      He also includes links to BXVI’s two audiences about St Hildegard.

  6. She is recognized as a saint in the current (2004) Roman Martyrology:

    In monasterio Montis Sancti Ruperti prope Bingium in Hassia, sanctae Hildegardis, virginis, quae, scientia rerum naturae et medicinae necnon arte musica perita, quam mystica contemplatione experta erat, pie in libris exposuit ac descripsit.

    1. 1910 Catholic Encyclopedia also says she is in the Roman Martyrology.

      Wikipedia sv Hildegard of Bingen says her name was “taken up in the Roman Martyrology at the end of the sixteenth century.” Since “The Roman Martyrology was first published in 1583”, that means she has been listed there from the beginning, or almost.

      So who questions that she is a saint?

  7. One of my daughters chose Hildegarde as her Confirmation patron precisely because Hildegarde chose charity over obedience and gave shelter and a Christian grave to a priest who was on the outs with the local bishop.

  8. Andrea Tornielli reports that Hildegard will be canonized sometime before being named a doctor of the Church next October:

    http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/homepage/documents/detail/articolo/ildegarda-bingen-mistici-mystics-misticos-10825/

    So apparently the Congregation for saints agrees that she is not currently considered a saint, despite my brilliant reasoning above that she is.

    But the important news is that she will be named a Doctor of the Church in October, not that I made a mistake.

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