About those two new Doctors of the Church…

From Pope Benedict XVI’s homily yesterday, given during the Mass, in St. Peter’s Square, that opened the XIII Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation:

At various times in history, divine providence has given birth to a renewed dynamism in Church’s evangelizing activity. We need only think of the evangelization of the Anglo-Saxon peoples or the Slavs, or the transmission of the faith on the continent of America, or the missionary undertakings among the peoples of Africa, Asia and Oceania. It is against this dynamic background that I like to look at the two radiant figures that I have just proclaimed Doctors of the Church, Saint John of Avila and Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Even in our own times, the Holy Spirit has nurtured in the Church a new effort to announce the Good News, a pastoral and spiritual dynamism which found a more universal expression and its most authoritative impulse in the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. Such renewed evangelical dynamism produces a beneficent influence on the two specific “branches” developed by it, that is, on the one hand the Missio ad Gentes or announcement of the Gospel to those who do not yet know Jesus Christ and his message of salvation, and on the other the New Evangelization, directed principally at those who, though baptized, have drifted away from the Church and live without reference to the Christian life. …

At this point, let us pause for a moment to appreciate the two saints who today have been added to the elect number of Doctors of the Church. Saint John of Avila lived in the sixteenth century. A profound expert on the sacred Scriptures, he was gifted with an ardent missionary spirit. He knew how to penetrate in a uniquely profound way the mysteries of the redemption worked by Christ for humanity. A man of God, he united constant prayer to apostolic action. He dedicated himself to preaching and to the more frequent practice of the sacraments, concentrating his commitment on improving the formation of candidates for the priesthood, of religious and of lay people, with a view to a fruitful reform of the Church.Saint Hildegard of Bingen, an important female figure of the twelfth century, offered her precious contribution to the growth of the Church of her time, employing the gifts received from God and showing herself to be a woman of brilliant intelligence, deep sensitivity and recognized spiritual authority. The Lord granted her a prophetic spirit and fervent capacity to discern the signs of the times. Hildegard nurtured an evident love of creation, and was learned in medicine, poetry and music. Above all, she maintained a great and faithful love for Christ and the Church.

Read the entire homily. Also see some of Benedict’s remarks on St. Hildegard, given in in September 2010.

Medievalist Sandra Miesel, in her CWR essay, “Hildegard of Bingen: Voice of the Living Light” (Jan. 25, 2012), remarked upon the visions of the great German mystic:

Nothing would have seemed extraordinary about Hildegard for the first half of her long life. She did not wish to publicize the visionary experiences she had been having since the age of three when a blaze of dazzling brightness burst into her sight. A diffuse radiance which she called her visio filled her field of vision for the rest of her life without interfering with ordinary sight. Hildegard came to understand this phenomenon as “the reflection of the living Light” which conferred the gift of prophecy and gave her an intuitive knowledge of the Divine.
Hildegard’s visions were not apparitions or dreams. She scarcely ever fell into ecstasy but rather perceived sights and messages with the “inner” eyes and ears of her soul. She dictated what she “saw” and “heard” to secretaries while fully lucid. Because the astonishing images she described and directed artists to illustrate feature sparkling gems, shimmering orbs, pulsating stars, curious towers and crenellated walls, modern psychologists have suggested that Hildegard suffered from a form of migraine called “scintillating scotomata.” The debilitating illnesses that preceded or accompanied her visionary episodes might have been migraine attacks. Because supernatural communications are received according to the capacity of the receiver, neurology can offer insights on Hildegard’s particular repertory of forms. But it cannot explain away her experiences or the religious meanings she assigns to them. These were genuine occasions of contact between Hildegard and God.   

And Dr. Christopher Morrissey penned, “A Beginner’s Guide to the Music of St. Hildegard of Bingen” (June 25, 2012):

It will cost you somewhat more to download Hildegard’s entire musical output from iTunes. But if you wish, you can start your downloading project with only a few selections taken from the Sequentia treasure chest. After all, unless you have the musical skills of a Mozart, being deluged with St. Hildegard’s lifetime musical achievement will probably be overwhelming for you. So why not start with a playlist of 12 of her best?

Allow me to give you that recommended playlist, below. I will list 12 downloads for which you need only pay about $0.99 each. This custom playlist introduction is the best way I can think of to get you started, short of recommending one of the “desert island” albums that I already mentioned above.

And this playlist is not just for beginners. This is my own custom “Hildegard highlights” iPhone playlist, and it probably resembles the playlists on the iPhones of other advanced chant enthusiasts.

By the way, if you ever do move from a beginning to an advanced comprehension of Hildegard’s entire musical corpus, you will want to compare the different recorded versions of every single one of her works. Thanks to the Internet, this task has never been easier, as an exhaustive and well-ordered discography of every recording of Hildegard’s music is available.

The 2004 Homiletic & Pastoral Review article, “Saint John of Avila and the Reform of the Priesthood”, by Sr. Joan Gormley is a helpful introduction to this great reformer:

St. John of Avila was a parish priest and theologian in 16th century Spain who exercised some influence over ideas concerning the reform of priestly reformation at the Council of Trent. Avila linked the priesthood closely to the Eucharist and regarded  holiness as the preeminent quality of a priest, who must serve as a mediator between God and man. To this end, he recommended painstaking selection of candidates followed by rigorous spiritual and intellectual formation within a community. For Avila, renewal of the priesthood demanded the priest’s conformity to Christ as both Good Shepherd and High Priest.

Sixteenth century Spain was a golden age of sanctity during which a veritable procession of saints appeared on the scene before and after the Council of Trent and contributed in a multitude of ways to the reform and renewal of the Church. We might mention, for example, such saints as Ignatius of Loyola, Peter of Alcantara, Teresa of Avila, Francis Borgia, and John of God. All of these saints were religious who renewed the life of the Church by founding or reforming communities that became renowned for holiness of life and apostolic zeal. Less often noticed, but definitely a participant in the procession of sixteenth century Spanish saints is St. John of Avila,[1] a diocesan priest who labored as a preacher, confessor, spiritual director, catechist, evangelizer, educator, and theologian and knew and helped each and all of the saints mentioned above.

Venerated in Spain as the patron of diocesan priests, John Avila was a major figure in the reform of the life and ministry of parish priests who, as shepherds of Christ’s faithful, have direct influence on the holiness of the Church. His teaching on the priesthood and its renewal continues to be illuminating for the Church, especially in the contemporary situation in which profound questions have been raised about priestly life and ministry. Avila was profoundly convinced of the holiness of the priestly state and of the holiness of life required of each and every priest. He considered the very holiness of the Church and its members to depend on the careful selection and formation of candidates for the priesthood so that they might be holy and exercise their office of sanctifying others.

Introduction to St. John of Avila

John of Avila was born on the feast of the Epiphany in 1499 in Extremadura in the ecclesiastical province of Toledo, the only child of his parents. [2] He spent four years at the University of Salamanca studying law (1513-1517), and then returned to his parents’ home where he lived in seclusion for several years. On the advice of a Franciscan priest, the young man left his solitude and matriculated at the University of Alcala, an important center for humanistic studies in Spain, where he studied from 1520-1526. After ordination to the priesthood in 1526, Avila went to Seville to prepare for departure as a missionary to the new world. While waiting to set sail, the newly ordained priest engaged in catechesis and preaching, so impressing the priest with whom he lived and worked, Father Fernando Contreras, that he urged the Archbishop of Seville to keep Avila in Spain, where an enormous mission field had opened up with the end of Muslim domination. Thus, John Avila began the missionary work in Southern Spain that would earn him the title, “Apostle of Andalusia.”

Read the entire piece on IgnatiusInsight.com.

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About Carl E. Olson 1230 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.