Benedict XVI reflects on a terrifying image of the church

…We were all the more dismayed, then, when in this year of all years and to a degree we could not have imagined, we came to know of abuse of minors committed by priests who twist the sacrament into its antithesis, and under the mantle of the sacred profoundly wound human persons in their childhood, damaging them for a whole lifetime.

In this context, a vision of Saint Hildegard of Bingen came to my mind, a vision which describes in a shocking way what we have lived through this past year.

“In the year of our Lord’s incarnation 1170, I had been lying on my sick-bed for a long time when, fully conscious in body and in mind, I had a vision of a woman of such beauty that the human mind is unable to comprehend. She stretched in height from earth to heaven. Her face shone with exceeding brightness and her gaze was fixed on heaven. She was dressed in a dazzling robe of white silk and draped in a cloak, adorned with stones of great price. On her feet she wore shoes of onyx. But her face was stained with dust, her robe was ripped down the right side, her cloak had lost its sheen of beauty and her shoes had been blackened. And she herself, in a voice loud with sorrow, was calling to the heights of heaven, saying, ‘Hear, heaven, how my face is sullied; mourn, earth, that my robe is torn; tremble, abyss, because my shoes are blackened!’

And she continued: ‘I lay hidden in the heart of the Father until the Son of Man, who was conceived and born in virginity, poured out his blood. With that same blood as his dowry, he made me his betrothed.

For my Bridegroom’s wounds remain fresh and open as long as the wounds of men’s sins continue to gape. And Christ’s wounds remain open because of the sins of priests. They tear my robe, since they are violators of the Law, the Gospel and their own priesthood; they darken my cloak by neglecting, in every way, the precepts which they are meant to uphold; my shoes too are blackened, since priests do not keep to the straight paths of justice, which are hard and rugged, or set good examples to those beneath them. Nevertheless, in some of them I find the splendour of truth.’

And I heard a voice from heaven which said: ‘This image represents the Church. For this reason, O you who see all this and who listen to the word of lament, proclaim it to the priests who are destined to offer guidance and instruction to God’s people and to whom, as to the apostles, it was said: go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation’ (Mk 16:15)” (Letter to Werner von Kirchheim and his Priestly Community: PL 197, 269ff.).

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Benedict XVI offers St. Hildegard of Bingen as a role model for women

Among other things, the pope noted that Hildegard demanded that the priests of her day live “a life consistent with their vocation,” in response to perceptions of widespread corruption and immorality in the clerical ranks.

At the same time, Benedict added, Hildegard was opposed to the Cathars, a quasi-Gnostic medieval reform movement seeking a more “pure” church.

Here’s what Benedict said:

“The Cathars … proposed a radical reform of the church, above all to combat abuses by clergy. She criticized them strongly for wanting to subvert the very nature of the church, reminding them that a true renewal of the ecclesial community isn’t obtained so much with change in structures, but a sincere spirit of penance and a difficult path of conversion.”

“This,” Benedict concluded, “is a message that we must never forget.”

On a different note, Benedict XVI also offered St. Hildegard of Bingen as a role model for women theologians, praising the perspective that women bring to theological discussions.

“Theology can receive a unique contribtuion from women, because they’re capable of speaking about God and the mysteries of the faith with a special intelligence and sensibility,” the pope said.

“I therefore encourage all those women who perform this service to do it with a profound ecclesial spirit, nourishing their own reflections with prayer, and looking to the great richness, in part still unexplored, of the medieval mystical tradition, above all that represented by luminous models such as Hildegard of Bingen.”

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