Sr. Louise Zdunich

November 19, 2012

QuestionI read recently that Hildegard of Bingen was declared a doctor of the Church.

Who was she and what did she do?


Answer"Doctrina" in Latin signifies teaching or training. The term "doctor" was used by the Romans for higher forms of teaching such as philosophy. Christians began using the word for teaching Christ's message.

Tertullian, an early Christian writer, referred to Christian teachers' dependence on the Holy Spirit in teaching the faith.

St. Augustine's writings appealed to teachings of the renowned doctors of the Church, listing several who were bishops. Later, priests, deacons, laymen and women were added to the list, now 34 individuals.

Included are four women: St. Catherine of Sienna (1347-80), Teresa of Avila (1515-82), Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) and Hildegard (1098-1179). These women expressed the faith for all Christians in popular rather than formal language.

Catherine worked to return the pope to Rome from France where he had fled. Her Dialogue is a record of God's conversations with her. Teresa of Avila was a great teacher of contemplative prayer. Thérèse of Lisieux is famous for her Little Way, focusing on love of and trust in God rather than on great works.

Hildegard of Bingen was born in present-day Germany from noble parentage. At age eight, she was placed with Jutta, a holy anchoress, to be educated. There she learned formal Benedictine prayer and crafts but no academics.

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen

After more women joined, they became a Benedictine monastery. At 15, Hildegard took the Benedictine habit and when Jutta died in 1136, she was elected abbess.


The chaplain, Volmar, asked Hildegard to record her visions to determine their source. Finding them authentic, he helped her record these in Scivias (Know the Ways of the Lord) on the truths of Christian revelation. Hildegard felt she had gained new insight in the Scriptures and early Christian writers from the "living light" which God had shone brightly on her from the age of three.

In 1146, Hildegard consulted St. Bernard, a leader in reform and an influential person in religious circles. Bernard's confirmation of her mission helped create a positive reception of her works at the 1147-48 Trier Synod presided over by Pope Eugenius who authorized Hildegard to publish what she had learned through the Holy Spirit.

The monks were pleased with the increasingly good reputation of the women's monastery and the money coming from endowments and the dowries. But Hildegard was dissatisfied with her monastery's lack of independence and cramped quarters, while the men were enlarging their own quarters. In a vision, she was told to found a new monastery but there was much resistance from all.

The abbot realized Hildegard's subsequent illness was a sign of God's disapproval of him so he agreed to let her go. In 1150, Hildegard with 20 nuns made the trip to Rupertsberg from Disibodenberg.

Hildegard's monastery was dependent on the monks for all administrative and financial matters.

Due to dire poverty at the new convent, Hildegard was finally successful in obtaining the sisters' dowries from the men in 1158.

During this period, Hildegard wrote two scientific works: Natural History and Causes and Cures, a medical compendium. She later wrote the Book of Life's Merits, describing both vices and virtues in brilliantly coloured and poetic language, and the Book of Divine Works.

With her monastery secure, she turned her energies in a new direction. During a serious illness, something that usually preceded her major decisions, a vision impelled her to preach.


So, at the age of 60, a woman who had been enclosed most of her life embarked on a journey, the first of four within a radius of some 200 km, to preach the word of God in the towns and villages. She addressed clergy and laity, attempting to repair the harm done to the Church by their lax morality

Hildegard's contributions were vast. Her numerous, illustrated books cover religious subjects, human physiology, medicine, psychology, nature and biographies of individuals. Her image of God's greenness captures natural and divine fruitfulness.

She wrote an abundance of letters to highly placed people, chastising them when needed, among them the emperor for having named an anti-pope. She composed many liturgical hymns praising God, as music for her was sharing in the life of God. These have a distinctive melody and can be heard on radio today.

Although never formally canonized, Pope John Paul II declared Hildegard a saint and Pope Benedict proclaimed her a doctor of the church.

(Other questions? Email: