On this celebration of All Saints Day, a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation, the faithful in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and throughout the Church are called to remember those blessed individuals who have gone before and by their holy example have become models for us: the Communion of Saints. Some of them shone with a brightness even beyond what one would expect from a saint, and that is one of the qualifications for becoming a Doctor of the Church.
On October 7, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI opened the bishops’ synod on the New Evangelization with a declaration of Sts John of Avila and Hildegard of Bingen as the 34th and 35th Doctors of the Catholic Church, a designation that, aside from requiring exemplary holiness, also needs to demonstrate an eminent command of the doctrine of the Church, most often represented by a body or writing, and third, by papal declaration. Before Pope Benedict’s pronouncement, the last doctor, Thérèse Lisieux, was instated October 19, 1997 by Pope John Paul II, who is, on the days leading up to his own canonization, considered a candidate for the same honor one day. It is not a coincidence that these two were chosen last year to become Doctors of the Church at a time when a new evangelization was being stressed.
Hildegard’s ascent was never an easy one. She is only the fourth woman to be named to such a distinction. In the early days of the Christian faith, becoming a saint was often done by popular proclamation rather than the strict rules followed in the modern Church. Such was the case with this woman who, although being a doctor of the faith, has never been formally canonized. Immediately after her death and for the next two centuries, no less than four different popes reopened the investigation for her sainthood, pressured to do so by popular demand.
The future saint was so sickly as a child that she was unable to attend school and did not learn to read or write. She was given over to her aunt, Blessed Jutta (also not yet a saint), a Benedictine nun who taught her thoroughly of the faith and how to read, but not how to write. Jutta had been the rather reclusive prioress of a small community, and on her death, Hildegard succeeded her, and immediately set about creating new convents and encouraging great numbers of novices.
Despite her lack of formal education and her supposed inability to write, Hildegard was blessed with supernatural visions and prophecies that were eventually approved by two or more bishops and Pope Eugenius III. She was a prolific writer on many doctrinal subjects and physical and spiritual health. Her revelations and visions were captured in print. The flow of people seeking her council and prayers was overwhelming, including King Henry II of England, four popes, and two emperors. At her death miracles were reported on the scene.
The papal cause for canonization was also overwhelming in the case of John of Avila, not to be confused with St John of the Cross, another Church doctor, even though they came from the same basic region in Spain and both held great influence over the Church in their country. One big difference is that John of Avila was a teacher of John of the Cross and of other saints of his time, including Teresa of Avila. He has been honored in one fashion or another for four consecutive centuries: declared ‘venerable’ in 1799, beatified in 1893, canonized in 1970, and named Doctor of the Church in 2012.
John was born to a wealthy family and was enrolled in a prestigious law school when he dropped out to study religious life and philosophy outside his parents’ considerable influence. In short order, he was ordained a priest and left with an impressive inheritance when his parents both died while he was studying. He disposed of the assets and gave most of the proceeds to the poor. John returned to his ministry, this time in a place called Andalusia, where he became known during his lifetime as the Apostle of Andalusia.
The powerful and public rhetoric of the priest became well known and tremendous crowds gathered for his sermons. Not everyone was friendly, and his name was reported to the Spanish Inquisition for his spiritual condemnation of the rich. Although John was temporarily imprisoned, he stood trial for his preaching and was exonerated. After that ordeal, he was more popular than ever and became a great influence over several people who would become saints themselves. Two of them, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, became Church doctors before him. It is recorded that he delivered his first sermon on July 22, 1529 and for the next nine years spearheaded a large growth in the wider community, even preaching in the court of Spanish royalty.
Like Hildegard, a substantial body of work by John of Avila is extant. His writings include letters to John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila, whom were no doubt influenced by his great desire for reform in religious life. He also wrote to St Ignatius Loyola and through him became an innovator for rules of life and study within the Jesuit community. In declaring John a Doctor of the Church, Pope Benedict reminded everyone that he carried the unique blend of never ending prayer coupled with action…faith with works…and an untiring missionary spirit to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
John was asked by the Spanish Inquisitor, Soto de Salazar, to make a judgment on the writings of Teresa of Avila’s spiritual life (a Christian Classic), which Salazar had requested she write down. John advised her about her spirituality and her writing skills, but in the end told her she should continue her path, but to be “watchful against robbers and pray for guidance,” and he thanked God that Teresa loved the Lord and had an attraction for Him, as well as an understanding of herself. Great advice from one mystic saint to another, and great advice to Christians everywhere on this All Saints Day.