Tomorrow, October 7, is a joyous day for the Church. Our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, will declare Saint John of Avila and Saint Hildegard of Bingen doctors of the Church. The “doctors” of the Church are a special group of men and women who are honored not only for their holy way of life but for their eminent learning. Their knowledge and wisdom, shared in their writings – everything from full-length books to homilies and letters – are of great value for the Church in every age.
The earliest doctors of the Church are those men who are also known as the Church Fathers; Clement, Ignatius, Jerome, Origen, John Chrysostom and Ambrose are some of the earliest theologians whose writings continue to influence theological thought today. Others of the doctors have made important contributions to our understanding of the spiritual life and life of prayer. We find such greats as Saints Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Francis de Sales in this group. With the addition of John of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen there will be 35 doctors, 31 men and four women.
John of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen are doctors of the spiritual life. Saint John of Avila was a Spaniard who lived in the sixteenth century and is well known in Spain as the patron saint of diocesan clergy. This diocesan priest was an outstanding preacher and spiritual writer.
Saint Hildegard of Bingen lived five centuries earlier, having been born in 1098 in Germany. Hildegard was a sickly child and battled serious illness most of her life but was blessed with a rich interior life through which she received many visions that helped her understand the presence of God in her own life and in the natural world. Hildegard loved the Mass and sacred music. Some of her compositions for liturgy are still sung by her Benedictine sisters as part of the daily prayer.
You may wonder why it has taken so long for these two new doctors to be recognized given that their work has been read and their music sung for centuries. The very fact that their work continues to bear fruit in the life of the Church is part of the rationale for acknowledging them with the title “doctor.” In some cases the timing of the honor and the introduction of the saint’s work to a new audience bears another kind of fruit.
In an age and a culture in which effective preaching by our pastors is so challenging and so critical, acknowledging the timelessness of John of Avila’s wisdom will be a gift to our pastors and preachers. And in an age in which women are searching for models of how to bring their gifts to bear in the life of the Church and the world, Hildegard’s complete devotion to Our Lord, her life as an abbess and her interest in healthy nutrition and natural healing remedies resonate once more in our time.
As we begin this Year of Faith, I invite you to pick up the writing of Saint John of Avila and Saint Hildegard of Bingen and see in their lives a reflection of your own.