Women in church leadership

Benjamin Being Catholic

I have heard many Catholics tell me they are concerned that the Catholic Church is not accepting the gifts of women because it reserves the priesthood to men. I have seen, however, that women have a huge role to play in the Church, and that both religious and lay women exercise a moral leadership that is very great. Pope Benedict used his audience this week to talk about Hildegard of Bingen, who saw visions and was much sought after for her wisdom and holiness. Contrary to popular opinion, women were not despised by Medieval society. While only certain roles were available to them (wife, mother, nun) women were respected in those roles and could wield considerable influence (e.g. queen, countess, abbess). I think this is meaningful for us because, rather than wasting energy inventing her own role, Hildegard simply used her gifts to their greatest potential within the roles available to her. Consequently, her voice was heard by the whole Church and is still heard even today.

HILDEGARD OF BINGEN: EXEMPLARY MINISTRY OF AUTHORITY

VATICAN CITY, 1 SEP 2010 (VIS) – The Holy Father held his general audience this morning in the square in front of the Apostolic Place of Castelgandolfo, where he is spending the summer. His catechesis was dedicated to St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a great seer known as the “Teutonic prophetess”.

Before focusing on the saint the Pope turned his attention John Paul II’s 1988 Apostolic Letter “Mulieris dignitatem”, which examined “the precious role women have played and continue to play in the life of the Church”. The Church, that text states, “gives thanks for all the manifestations of the feminine ‘genius’ which have appeared in the course of history”.

“During the centuries we customarily call the Middle Ages”, said Benedict XVI, “certain female figures also stood out for the sanctity of their lives and the richness of their teachings”. One of these was Hildegard of Bingen, born to a noble family who chose to dedicate herself to the service of God.

Having received an appropriate human and Christian formation at the hands of her teacher Jutta of Spanheim, Hildegard entered the Benedictine convent of St. Disibod where she received the veil from Bishop Otto of Bamberg. In 1136 she was elected as mother superior, a role she carried out using “her gifts as a cultured and spiritually elevated woman, capable of dealing with the organisational aspects of life in the cloister”, said the Pope.

Soon afterwards, due to the large number of vocations, Hildegard founded another community, located in Bingen and dedicated to St. Rupert, where she spent the rest of her life. “The manner in which she exercised the ministry of authority remains exemplary for all religious communities”, noted the Holy Father. “She aroused saintly emulation in the practice of good works”.

While still superior of the convent of St. Disibod the saint began to dictate her mystical visions to her spiritual advisor, the monk Volmar, and to her own secretary, Richardis of Strade. “As is always the case in the lives of true mystics, Hildegard wished to place herself under the authority of the wise, in order to discern the origin of her visions, which she was afraid could be the fruit of illusions and not from God”.

To this end she spoke with St. Bernard of Clairvaux who calmed her fears and encouraged her. In 1147, moreover, she received the crucial approbation of Pope Eugene III who, in the Synod of Trier, read out one of the texts dictated by Hildegard which had been presented to him by Archbishop Henry of Mainz.

“The Pope authorised the mystic to write her visions and to speak in public. From that moment Hildegard’s spiritual prestige grew to the point that her contemporaries gave her the title of the ‘Teutonic prophetess'”, said Benedict XVI.

“The sign of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of all charisms”, the Pope concluded, “is that the individual possessing supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never shows them off and, above all, demonstrates complete obedience to ecclesiastical authority. All gifts distributed by the Holy Spirit are, in fact, intended for the edification of the Church and it is the Church, through her pastors, who recognises their authenticity”.

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By the way, as a note on her character, Catholic Encyclopedia says this. “In the last year of her life Hildegard had to undergo a very severe trial. In the cemetery adjoining her convent a young man was buried who had once been under excommunication. The ecclesiastical authorities of Mainz demanded that she have the body removed. She did not consider herself bound to obey since the young man had received the last sacraments and was therefore supposed to have been reconciled to the Church. Sentence of interdict was placed on her convent by the chapter of Mainz, and the sentence was confirmed by the bishop. After much worry and correspondence she succeeded in having the interdict removed.”