Quick-fire: St Hildegard, a little missal, and another perspective on abuse

This is something of a quick-fire post, dealing with a few points while they enjoy their brief sojourn in the memory.

The first is that Pope Benedict XVI has, by decree, raised Blessed Hildegard of Bingen to the altars of the universal Church, and so confirming her as “Saint”. This 12th-century German Benedictine nun is most famous in the secular world for her haunting Latin hymns and chants, such as those on the best-selling CD, A Feather on the Breath of God (if you follow this link, click the  to hear an excerpt, and click also “English” to see the text and its translation). Her hymn to the Blessed Virgin, Ave Generosa, for mixed voices, is a particular favourite. Another composition, Ordo Virtutum, is a type of liturgical drama in song drawn from her mystical visions, and is possibly the oldest morality play known to us.

Yet she was not just a composer, but also a very important mystical writer. She was something of a jill of all trades, as she wrote also on herbal medicine and philosophy, while managing to be abbess of a monastery. She was sought out by many abbots and bishops for counsel and advice, and of this there is a rich record in her surviving letters. One of her more remarkable, though not often mentioned, feats was to construct an alphabet of 23 letters for her Lingua Ignota (“unknown language”), which appears to have been a secret language she devised to elaborate her mystical experiences. You can see a glossary for it on this fascinating website.

The alphabet for St Hildegard’s ‘Lingua Ignota’.

She has become something of a cause célebre for feminists, who love to latch on to strong women in Catholic history as if they somehow subverted the system, patriarchal as it was, of course. She was a strong and gifted woman, but as an abbess, mystic, liturgist and aristocrat she is not a convincing model of systemic subversion, but rather an example of its health.

What is particularly interesting is that she has not been canonised in the normal way. Normally, after a lengthy process of investigation, a decree is issued by the Holy See in the name of the Pope declaring the person to be a saint, which is then formally confirmed in a liturgical ceremony. In this case Pope Benedict has enacted an equivalent canonisation. Instead of the normal process the Pope has issued a decree that enjoins the universal Church to celebrate the cultus of Hildegard. In this sense she is truly raised to the altars of the entire Church, and by this act the Pope has implicitly canonised her (for only a saint can be so venerated). Other saints ‘canonised’ in this way include great monastic figures like St Romuald, St Bruno, St Norbert (technically a canon, not a monk, but …), St Wenceslaus, and Pope St Gregory VII.

Looking through what Pope Benedict has said of her in recent years, we might perhaps detect one strong reason he has made this move:

With the spiritual authority with which she was endowed, in the last years of her life Hildegard set out on journeys, despite her advanced age and the uncomfortable conditions of travel, in order to speak to the people of God. They all listened willingly, even when she spoke severely: they considered her a messenger sent by God. She called above all the monastic communities and the clergy to a life in conformity with their vocation. In a special way Hildegard countered the movement of German cátari (Cathars). They cátari means literally “pure” advocated a radical reform of the Church, especially to combat the abuses of the clergy. She harshly reprimanded them for seeking to subvert the very nature of the Church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community is obtained with a sincere spirit of repentance and a demanding process of conversion, rather than with a change of structures. This is a message that we should never forget. (General Audience, 8 September 2010)

This, dear friends, is the seal of an authentic experience of the Holy Spirit, the source of every charism: the person endowed with supernatural gifts never boasts of them, never flaunts them and, above all, shows complete obedience to the ecclesial authority. Every gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit, is in fact intended for the edification of the Church and the Church, through her Pastors, recognizes its authenticity. (General Audience, 1 September 2010)

St Hildegard is an example of how to go about authentic reform in the Church, and that in even her most personal, mystical moments, her gifts were gifts for the benefit of all God’s people. In other words, in St Hildegard we have a true woman of the Church.


Secondly, a little something on the Missal, too small perhaps for its own post. Often the question has been put (and still is) as to why the Lord’s Prayer is in an older style of English, while the embolism that follows it in the Mass (ie, “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours…” etc) is in modern English. This was a complaint made of the previous Missal as well as the revised one. The point being made was usually either that the Our Father should be likewise put into modern English, or that the embolism be put into the old English with which we are familiar from the Protestant version, “For thine is the kingdom, the power..” etc. Normally, there is a plaintive cry to conclude, that it is inconsistent and just doesn’t make sense.

Not so. It is not too difficult to fathom really. The Lord’s Prayer has been retained in its familiar wording precisely because it is that, familiar. It is so familiar that it is part of anglophone culture even among non-believers. Moreover it is a text that is ecumenical in its scope. Given that the Our Father is the one prayer that Our Lord enjoined on us to pray, it is fitting that we keep the version of it that is so familiar to other Christians, especially as it is such an elegant rendering.

So why not change the embolism to match? Because for the Catholic Church it has never been considered part of the Lord’s Prayer. It is an addition. However, itt is a fine little expression of praise, and so the Church is happy to include it in the Mass, but only in such a way as it is manifestly not part of the Lord’s Prayer. Thus it is separated from the prayer itself, and put into English consistent with the rest of the liturgy.


Lastly, something grabbed the attention recently. In the recent crisis in the Church surrounding clerical abuse of children, much blame has been laid on bishops and superiors of decades ago for not dealing with abusers properly, but moving them around and apparently covering up for them. This was indeed a grave fault, but its gravity is only starkly clear in hindsight. At the time, the seriousness of much abusive behaviour was often not recognised, being seen as a moral and/or personal failure, much on a par with alcoholism. Thankfully our understanding of the true state of affairs has advanced and we deal with abuse with much more care and vigour.

What might often be forgotten is that this attitude was not confined to the Church. The English public school system dealt with abuse in much the same way. Indeed, it might not be stretching things too much to say that the real crime was to be caught. In public schools, as in the Church, there was a horror of scandal, not least because of the potential it had to damage confidence in the system.

So it was interesting to read of Evelyn Waugh’s brief period as a master in a prep school in northern Wales after he left Oxford University in the mid-1920s. Joining the staff with him at Arnold House was Dick Young, who was the model for Grimes in Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall. Young was probably a true paedophile, and not a homosexual with an attraction to pubescent males (which, though not paedophilia as such, can be just as dangerous). It seems, in those very different days, that Young felt able to speak freely of his sexual activity in the school with other masters. Waugh wrote of Young that, after being expelled from Wellington College, sent down from Oxford, and forced to resign from the army, Young

“has left four schools precipitately, three in the middle of the term through his being taken in sodomy and one through his being drunk six nights in succession. And yet he goes on getting better and better jobs.” The reason was that whenever he left a school in disgrace, he always took with him very good references, since no headmaster dared to confess that he had hired a pederast.  [from Paula Byrne, Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead (London, 2010), p.80]

That is gobsmacking for the modern to read. First, it seemed never to occur to Waugh or Young’s other colleagues to report his explicit admission of abusive behaviour. Secondly, could there be a baser, more selfish motive for a headmaster to cover up such behaviour? Nevertheless it is a useful reminder that, however great the failures of certain Church authorities to take proper action against clearly-abusive clergy, such failures were not restricted to the Church. It was a case of the Church being too much of the world, rather than just in it. Happily, statistically and realistically speaking, there is probably no safer place for a child now than at Church or in a Catholic school. Deo gratias.

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