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Hildegard von Bingen

Ruine Kloster Rupertsberg

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Born in Bemersheim (Böckelheim), West Franconia (now Germany), she was the tenth child of a well-to-do family. She’d had visions connected with illness (perhaps migraines) from a young age, and in 1106 her parents sent her to a 400-year-old Benedictine monastery which had only recently added a section for women. They put her under the care of a noblewoman and resident there, Jutta, calling Hildegard the family’s “tithe” to God.

Jutta, whom Hildegard later referred to as an “unlearned woman,” taught Hildegard to read and to write. Jutta became the abbess of the convent, which attracted other young women of noble background. In that time, convents were often places of learning, a welcome home to women who had intellectual gifts. Hildegard, as was true of many other women in convents at the time, learned Latin, read the scriptures, and had access to many other books of a religious and philosophical nature. Those who have traced the influence of ideas in her writings find that Hildegard must have read quite extensively. Part of the Benedictine rule required study, and Hildegard clearly availed herself of the opportunities.

When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard was elected unanimously as the new abbess. Rather than continue as part of a double house — a monastery with units for men and for women — Hildegard in 1148 decided to move the convent to Rupertsberg, where it was on its own, not directly under the supervision of a male house. This gave Hildegard considerable freedom as an administrator, and she traveled frequently in Germany and France. She claimed that she was following God’s order in making the move, firmly opposing her abbot’s opposition. Literally firmly: she assumed a rigid position, lying like a rock, until he gave his permission for the move. The move was completed in 1150.

The Rupertsberg convent grew to as many as 50 women, and became a popular burial site for the wealthy of the area. The women who joined the convent were of wealthy backgrounds, and the convent did not discourage them from maintaining something of their lifestyle. Hildegard of Bingen withstood criticism of this practice, claiming that wearing jewelry to worship God was honoring God, not practicing selfishness.

Part of the Benedictine rule is labor, and Hildegard spent early years in nursing, and at Rupertsberg in illustrating (“illuminating”) manuscripts. She hid her early visions; only after she was elected abbess did she receive a vision which she said clarified her knowledge of “the psaltery…, the evangelists and the volumes of the Old and New Testament.” Still showing much self-doubt, she began to write and to share her visions.

Hildegard of Bingen lived at a time when, within the Benedictine movement, there was stress on the inner experience, personal meditation, an immediate relationship with God, and visions. It was also a time in Germany of striving between papal authority and the authority of the German (Holy Roman) emperor, via papal schism.

Hildegard of Bingen, through her many letters, took to task the German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, but also the archbishop of Main. She wrote to such luminaries as King Henry II of England and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. She also corresponded with many individuals of low and high estate who wanted her advice or prayers.

Richardis or Ricardis von Stade, one of the convent’s nuns who was a personal assistant to Hildegard of Bingen, was a special favorite of Hildegard. Richardis’ brother was an archbishop, and he arranged for his sister to head another convent. Hildegard tried to persuade Richardis to stay, and wrote insulting letters to the brother and even wrote to the Pope hoping to stop the move. But Richardis left, and died after she attempted to return to Rupertsberg.

An infamous incident happened near the end of Hildegard’s life, when she was in her eighties. She allowed a nobleman who had been excommunicated to be buried at the convent, seeing that he had last rites. She claimed she’d received word from God allowing the burial. But her ecclesiastical superiors intervened, and ordered the body exhumed. Hildegard defied the authorities by hiding the grave, and the authorities excommunicated the entire convent community. Most insultingly to Hildegard, the interdict prohibited the community from singing. She complied with the interdict, avoiding singing and communion, but did not comply with the command to exhume the corpse. Hildegard appealed the decision to yet higher church authorities, and finally had the interdict lifted.

Hildegard of Bingen Writings

The best-known writing of Hildegard of Bingen is a trilogy including Scivias (1141–52), Liber Vitae Meritorum, (Book of the Life of Merits), and Liber Divinorum Operum (Book of the Divine Works). These include records of her visions — many are apocalyptic — and her explanations of scripture and salvation history. She also wrote plays, poetry, and music, and today many of her hymns and song cycles are recorded today. She also wrote on medicine and nature — and it’s important to note that for her, as for many in medieval times, theology, medicine, music, and all those topics were unitary, not separate spheres of knowledge.

Hildegard of Bingen – Feminist?

Today, Hildegard of Bingen is celebrated as a feminist; this has to be interpreted within the context of her times.

On the one hand, she accepted many of the assumptions of the time about the inferiority of women. She called herself a “paupercula feminea forma” or poor weak woman, and implied that the current “feminine” age was thereby a less-desireable age. That God depended on women to bring his message was a sign of the chaotic times, not a sign of the advance of women.

On the other hand, in practice, she exercised considerably more authority than most women of her time, and she celebrated feminine community and beauty in her spiritual writings. She used the metaphor of marriage to God, though this was not her invention nor a new metaphor — but it was not universal. Her visions have female figures in them: Ecclesia, Caritas (heavenly love), Sapientia, and others. In her texts on medicine, she included topics which male writers usually did not, such as how to deal with menstrual cramps. She also wrote a text just on what we’d today call gynecology. Clearly, she was a more prolific writer than most women of her era; more to the point, she was more prolific than most of the men of the time.

There were some suspicions that her writing was not her own, and could be attributed to her scribe, Volman, who seems to have taken the writings that she put down and made permanent records of them. But even in her writing after he died, her usual fluency and complexity of writing is present.

Hildegard of Bingen – Saint?

Perhaps because of her famous (or infamous) flouting of ecclesiastical authority, Hildegard of Bingen was never canonized by the Roman Catholic Church as a saint. She has been honored locally as a saint.

Hildegard of Bingen – Legacy

Hildegard of Bingen was, by modern standards, not as revolutionary as she might have been considered in her time. She preached the superiority of order over change, and the church reforms she pushed for included the superiority of ecclesiastical power over secular power, of popes over kings. She opposed the Cathar heresy in France, and had a long-running rivalry (expressed in letters) with another whose influence was unusual for a woman, Elisabeth of Shonau.

Hildegard of Bingen is probably more properly classified as a prophetic visionary rather than a mystic, as revealing knowledge from God was more her priority than her own personal experience or union with God. Her apocalyptic visions of the consequences of acts and practices, her lack of concern for herself, and her sense that she was the instrument of God’s word to others, differentiate her from many of the (female and male) mystics near her time.

At the heart of Hildegard von Bingen’s extraordinary creativity was her accomplishment in music. In the poetry and melody of her songs, she reveals the full authority, intelligence and striking originality of her genius. She wrote profusely as no woman before her. Even though she received no formal training in music, her talent and motivation drove her to write 77 chants and the first musical drama in history, which she entitled The Ritual of the Virtues. She writes in her autobiographical passages: “I composed and chanted plainsong in praise of God and the saints even though I had never studied either musical notation or singing.” Unlike the mild, mainstream music of her day, her lyrical speech breaks into rhapsodic emotion; her zesty melodies soar up to two and one half octaves, leaping and swirling into flourishing roulades which leave the singer breathless.

“There is the Music of Heaven in all things and we have forgotten how to hear it until we sing.”
~Hildegard of Bingen

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Padre Pio


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Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968), an Italian priest and mystic, was consumed by a desire to suffer for the transgressions of mankind. For the last 50 years of his life he bore the marks of stigmata (the wounds of Jesus) on his hands, feet, side, and chest.

Padre Pio was a member of the Capuchin Order of the Friars Minor and a mystic of the Catholic Church. He lived his entire life in the rocky foothills of southern Italy. His mystic tendencies were well known throughout the region, and he was respected as a confessor and spiritual advisor to many of the inhabitants of the area. Some witnesses reported instances of bilocation (the ability to be in two places at one time) in connection with Padre Pio as well. Following his death in 1968 his followers took steps to canonize the friar as an official saint of the Catholic Church.

Padre Pio was born Francesco Forgione in Pietrelcina, Italy on May 25, 1887. He was the fourth of eight children of Grazio Maria Forgione and his wife, Maria Giuseppa De Nunzio. Three of the Forgione siblings died in infancy, and Padre Pio was only the second child to survive after Michele, the oldest. Padre Pio had three younger sisters: Felicita, Pellegrina, and Graziella. The youngest of the Forgione siblings, a boy named Mario, also died in infancy. As a child Padre Pio received the nickname il bello Francesco (beautiful Frances) because of his light brown eyes and attractive blonde hair that darkened gradually to auburn as he matured.

The Forgione family was descended from “possedenti” or upper-class peasantry, although given the excessive poverty of the region, they were at best tenant farmers in the southern Italian province of Campania. In his youth, Padre Pio tended a handful of sheep. At the age of ten he contracted typhoid fever and nearly died. After his recovery he wished to become a Capuchin friar, and his father thereafter spent several years in sailing back and forth to America (a common practice at that time) in order to finance more schooling for Padre Pio, in preparation for the priesthood.

In childhood Padre Pio experienced paranormal visions with such frequency that he took the episodes for granted and assumed that others experienced similar phenomena. He confided this information only later in life to a priest and was surprised to learn that such occurrence is rare. Padre Pio also suffered from a desire to be a “victim of divine love,” a religious concept whereby a person wishes intensely to endure constant and severe suffering, to atone for the failings of mankind.

Headed to Morcone

On January 6, 1903 at the age of 16 he departed to the town of Morcone to join the friary of Saints Philip and James of the Capuchin Order of the Friars Minor, a “mendicant” order. (Capuchins live in poverty by design; they own nothing and live essentially as beggars in the world.) To symbolize their poverty Capuchins never shave their faces and never wear shoes – only open leather sandals. They never wear hats but attach brown woolen hoods to their garments. They spend a significant portion of each day in prayer, maintain long periods of silence, and always travel in pairs. At the friary Padre Pio lived in a cell furnished with a table, chair, washstand, and water jug; he slept on a cornhusk mattress. He received the Capuchin garments in a ceremony on January 22, 1903. On that day the former Francesco Forgione adopted the name of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. As a symbol of austerity, Capuchin friars never used surnames, thus for legal purposes Padre Pio signed his name as “Padre Pio of Pietrelcina al secolo Francesco Forgione.”

Padre Pio traveled to Foggia to live a life of fasting and prayer. On January 22, 1904 he moved to Sant’Elia a Pianisi for more schooling. The following year he went to San Marco la Catola, not far from Sant’Elia, to study philosophy. He returned to Sant’Elia in 1906 and, in 1907 took a solemn vow to live as a Capuchin. He then spent time at Capuchin friaries at Serracapriola and Montefusco where he became so immersed in prayer and study, that he failed to attend the wedding of his older brother.

Throughout his lifetime Padre Pio suffered from a severe but undiagnosed stomach disorder that caused persistent pain and vomiting. Beginning in December of 1908 his superiors sent him home on numerous occasions. Inexplicably the symptoms disappeared each time he departed the friary; transfers to friaries at other locations failed to alleviate the symptoms. At the age of 23 he traveled from his hometown of Pietrelcina to the cathedral of Benevento in Morcone. There Archbishop Paolo Schinosi ordained Padre Pio as a Roman Catholic priest on August 10, 1910.

Mystical Occurrences

The visions and voices that plagued Padre Pio in his youth persisted during his early years as a priest. He developed a close confidentiality with Salvatore Maria Pannullo who, in 1901, became the Archpriest of Pietrelcina. In 1905 and 1906 Padre Pio consulted with Padre Benedetto Nardella of San Marco, an expert on mysticism; and in 1911 Padre Pio confided in Padre Agostino of San Marco as well. Thus Padres Benedetto and Agostino, along with Pannullo, were privy to the true extent of Padre Pio’s paranormal experiences.

Padre Pio developed marks of stigmata initially in 1910 at San Nicandro. He showed the puncture wounds on his hands to Pannullo on September 7 of that year. A doctor examined Padre Pio and diagnosed tuberculosis of the skin. Following the medical diagnosis Padre Pio returned to his hometown for a time. On October 28, 1911, he moved to the friary of San Nicandro at Venafro, where Padre Agostino was vicar. Padre Pio was personally humiliated by the painful markings and kept his hands hidden at all times. The wounds disappeared for a time, only to reappear more acutely nearly a decade later. His superiors ordered him to Pietrelcina repeatedly after 1911. There he performed works of charity and served as a spiritual director. He was well known, loved, and respected for his saintly bearing.

Padre Pio experienced numerous ecstasies over a period of many years. According to documentation by Padre Agostino, Padre Pio was tormented by poltergeist aberrations accompanied by furious, audible thrashing noises that left him sweating, bruised, and sometimes bleeding. On other occasions he received visitations from the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and angels. In addition to the visitations and stigmata, Padre Pio was reportedly prone to bi-location phenomena, appearing in two locations simultaneously. The most remarkable of these reported incidents occurred on January 18, 1905 shortly before midnight. Padre Pio was in the choir at the friary when, according to his description, his mind traveled to a location in Udine where a child was being born prematurely just moments before the death of her father. In 1923 he met the girl and “recognized” her. The girl’s mother recalled very clearly the death of her husband and the vision of a Capuchin monk in Udine on the night when the girl was born.

Private Francesco Forgione

With the outbreak of World War I in November 1914, many Capuchins were drafted into the Italian army. Padre Pio was drafted into the 10th Company of the Italian Medical Corps in Naples, under the name of Private Francesco Forgione. His stomach discomfort continued, and army doctors diagnosed chronic bronchitis. They granted him a medical leave of absence, and he returned to Pietrelcina. In February 1916 he moved to the friary of St. Anne at Foggia and, in July of that year, he accepted an invitation from Padre Paolino to live at the friary of Our Lady of Grace at San Giovanni Rotondo in the Gargano Mountains near the Adriatic coast. Padre Pio taught seminary students and prayed with the townswomen. Many Capuchins were at war, and only seven friars remained at the residence when he arrived.

In August 1917 the army recalled Padre Pio to active duty and assigned him to the 4th Platoon of the 10th Company of the Italian Medical Corps. He took a leave of absence again on November 6 and received a permanent discharge on March 16, 1918. Padre Pio then visited his hometown for the last time in his life and returned to the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo. He remained at the remote friary in the spur of the Italian boot for the rest of his life.

Stigmata for Life

Beginning in August 1918 and over the course of several weeks, Padre Pio developed permanent, painful stigmata that bled intermittently for the next 50 years and disappeared only a few days before his death. The experience began on August 5 when he claimed to observe a vision of a fiery spear being hurled at his chest. He suffered excruciating pain for two days, resulting in a chest laceration. A few weeks later, in September, a similar incident left him with permanent wounds on his hands and feet. A series of doctors examined the wounds of Padre Pio and verified the existence of the condition, but left no written comment or explanation. Luigi Romanelli, chief physician of the City Hospital of Barletta, examined the priest’s wounds five times over the course of one year. Dr. Giorgio Festa, a private practitioner, viewed them in 1920 and again in 1925. Professor Giuseppe Bastianelli, physician to Pope Benedict XV agreed that the wounds indeed existed but made no other comment. Angelo Maria Merla of San Giovanni Rotondo noted that the wounds were not tubercular in origin, but made no diagnosis; nor did pathologist, Dr. Amico Bignami of the University of Rome. The wounds bled severely at times, although medical examiners reported no fever, nor anemia or change of blood pressure associated with the condition. According to witnesses the wounds of Padre Pio emitted a distinctively fragrant odor, and all other abrasions to Padre Pio’s body healed normally during those years, including an incision to repair a hernia.

As with the earlier incident, Padre Pio felt humiliation at the visible stigmata, but stated nevertheless that he welcomed the pain for all mankind; his greatest wish was to die. Pilgrims visited him at the friary and attested to miraculous occurrences associated with his presence. The friary at San Giovanni Rotondo became a target of pilgrims, much like the shrine at Lourdes, France to which many miracles are also attributed.

Road to Sainthood

Padre Pio died of an apparent heart attack at the friary of Our Lady of Grace in the Italian village of San Giovanni Rotondo on the morning of September 23, 1968. After his death, the friars and other associates were eager to begin the lengthy process of canonization, whereby the mystic might be named a saint of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II beatified the memory of Padre Pio at a Mass on May 2, 1999 in St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, as a final step in preparation for sainthood.

Padre Pio never traveled far from the region of his birth. The farthest that he went in his lifetime was to Rome, in May 1917. Yet for years after his death millions of pilgrims visited the friary at San Giovanni Rotondo where he lived. A permanent shrine designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano was planned in 1993 for the site, designed to hold crowds as large as 10,000 people. The proposal for the church of Padre Pio featured a huge amphitheater with 167-foot stone arches, larger than those at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.

Further Reading

Ruffin, C. Bernard, Padre Pio: The True Story, Our Sunday Visitor, 1991.
National Catholic Reporter, May 14, 1999.
Newsweek, January 11, 1993.
Time, May 10, 1999

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