A+ A A-

St. Hildegard of Bingen & St. John of Avila


On October 7, Pope Benedict XVI declared the 34th and 35th official "Doctors of the Church" Hildegard of Bingen and John of Avila.

Saint Hildegard of Bingen, O.S.B.

The latter was a crucial figure in the sixteenth century reform of the Church.  Hildegard, born in 1098 to a noble family in what is now Germany, is more remote, but extraordinarily compelling for her unique genius.

She became abbess of a Benedictine monastery in Disibodenberg which, as it grew, was moved to Bingen.  There she graced the Church as a philosopher, theologian, botanist, medical scientist, and musician.  She charted the orthodox way through some of the more fantastic heresies and enthusiasms afflicting the twelfth century, most notoriously the Cathars.  St. Bernard commended her writing to Pope Eugenius III, who had been trained by him, and after that she became well known beyond Germany.  Her musical compositions have become popular in our own day, a vivid glimpse of liturgical chant at the cusp of a golden age.  She is the first composer whose biography is known, and she may have written the first opera — Ordo Virtutum.  In it, the Virtues sing angelic melodies while Satan only speaks, for he cannot sing.

On the day she became a Doctor of the Church, I recalled another musical Hildegarde of our own day.  Hildegarde Sell, born in 1906 to a German-American family in Wisconsin, started the fashion for some entertainers to use only one name, and she became the most famous cabaret singer of her time as "The Incomparable Hildegarde."  She first appeared in films in 1933 and was the first person to sing on the new medium of television in 1936.  King Gustav VI of Sweden and the Duke of Windsor were devoted to her, and she was enshrined in song by George and Ira Gershwin.  She appeared on the covers of Time and Life magazines, advertised as the most expensively dressed celebrity of her day.  Like her patron saint, she wrote about herbal remedies, though she was more interested in their cosmetic properties than was the Doctor of the Church.

While The Incomparable Hildegarde's signature song "Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup" will not be confused with St. Hildegard's Ordo Virtutum, she was a Third Order Carmelite and a daily communicant.  She made a point of having the best silks and satins of her wardrobe tailored into vestments for the missions.  St. Hildegard died at 82, a great age in the Middle Ages, and our Hildegarde was 99, a great age in any age.  I visited her as she was dying in a nursing home, where her one room was considerably smaller than her ten-room suite at the Plaza.  And instead of her favorite Renoir, there was a small lithograph of the Sacred Heart.  She wore none of her famous line of cosmetics as she said the Rosary, and she never looked lovelier.  She would have understood what her patroness and Doctor of the Church said: "I am a feather on the breath of God."



Father George William Rutler. "Saint Hildegard of Bingen & St. John of Avila." From the Pastor (October 14, 2012). 

Reprinted with permission of Father George W. Rutler.

The Author

Father Rutler received priestly ordination in 1981. Born in 1945 and reared in the Episcopal tradition, Father Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1979 and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. Father Rutler graduated from Dartmouth, where he was a Rufus Choate Scholar, and took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1989 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford.  He is the pastor of St. Michael's church in New York City. 

rutler46sm.jpg Rutler.jpg Rutler4.jpg

Father Rutler has published 18 books, including: Principalities and Powers: Spiritual Combat 1942-1943, Cloud of Witnesses — Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2012 Father George W. Rutler
back to top