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POPE BENEDICT XVI

ON WOMEN AND THE CHURCH


birgitta

n August 2006, returning to his Bavaria, the Pope reiterated the message that the Church has space for women contemplatives, listing as examples, Hildegard of Bingen, Catherine of Siena and Birgitta of Sweden [known as 'Birgitta' in Swedish, 'Brigida' in Italian].

He had earlier, as Joseph, Cardinal Ratzinger, on the occasion of Pope John Paul II's celebration of Saint Birgitta of Sweden in 1991, said the following, which I excerpt from the second part of his address, 'The relevance of Saint Bridget of Sweden for our times'1:



Saint Bridget and Medieval Female Theology.

e will now consider another point in the profile of our saint. Saint Bridget as a woman, and as a woman she has left behind a very significant literary work, which has made her a Teacher of the Faith in the Church. Her 'Revelations' have for centuries shaped, in a very decisive  manner, the portrayal of the life and of the human sufferings of Jesus, in one word the image of Christ in the Church. Saint Bridget is not isolated as a 'female theologian' in the history of the medieval Church. She inserts herself in the great context of medieval 'female thelogy', which begins in the twelfth century with Elizabeth of Schönau and Hildegard of Bingen, continues in Germany in the thirteenth century with Mechtild of Magdebourg, Mechtild of Hackeborn and Gertrude the Great, while in Italy at about the same time Clare of Assisi gives new brilliance to the faith. She is followed by Margherita of Cortona and Angela of Foligno, and after Saint Bridget, mention must be made of Catherine of Siena. England contributes Julian of Norwich, and in this way we would continue with other names up to the great Saint Teresa of Avila.

Up to the middle of our century, the study of medieval theology was concentrated substantially on Scholasticism, therefore on the theology of the Universities, which since the beginning of the fourteenth century - in general offered a sad picture of dwindling intellectual stature and spiritual poverty. In the 1950s however, J. Leclercq called attention to the fact that side by side with scholastic theology, monastic theology is a second current, with its own dignity. This current was not made to correspond to the needs of the Schools, but is derived from lectio divina, from meditative and contemplative familiarity with Holy Scriptures, and in this way it always remained close to that kind of theology that the Fathers had developed.2 Therefore, very slowly, the conviction grew that female theology in turn had to be considered as a form of monastic theology. Today it is absolutely clear that this great current of spiritual knowledge cannot simply be labeled and filed as 'edifying'. What we have here, is a form of spiritual understanding of revelation, with its own dignity, even if it does not present itself in that form of sicence as developed at the Universities.

It would go beyond the limits of these introductory words, and the limits of my competence, to describe here more accurately the specifics of this female theology, into which Bridget of Sweden places herself with her profile and with a weight which is definitely original. I would just like to try to present one observation of formal character and one pertaining to content. Considering this female theology from the point of view of its form, it is not presented in the scholastic forms of a quæstio - of a treatise or of a school manual ('Summa') - because it did not originate from scholastic activity. Its form is rather the result of a personal encounter with the Lord. The medieval programme was one, according to which (and correctly so) God himself is the subject and not the object of theology. Only in this way can a truly sensible theology be presented. This principle is followed here in a wholly realistic way. Speaking about God takes the form of speaking with God. In Saint Bridget this process is one of 'revelation'. What does this mean? The saint herself explains in the following words: 'Most Sweet God, what you do in me is wonderful: when it pleased you, you let a spiritual slumber come over my body, you make my soul alert to see and hear the things of the Spirit'.3

The text speaks of the turning upside down of vigilance and of the faculties of perception in the human being. To be alert normally means 'to have one's senses keep watch', through which we take into ourselves the world of the senses that surrounds us. If, however, this sense of external perception does not correspond to an interior alertness, which knows how to look into the depths of what is true, it can lead to a dangerous limitation of the horizions of our existence. The power, then of the perception of our senses becomes so strong, that it absorbs in itself everything, and chains the human being to the superficiality of matter and dries up the deeper spiritual forces, which through the impression of the senses, should penetrate into the hidden fundamentals of reality. Saint Bridget describes the condition of 'revelation' as the overturning of this normal situation of man: the senses seem in some way to be asleep; what is visibly seen is by now hardly perceived. In this way however, the profound interior of the soul is awakened, thanks to which the soul enters into contact with its Creator. The human being begins to see, to hear, to savour interiorly. In this way even a change of activities takes place: it is no more the human being that draws concepts from impressions and structures them into judgements; but, now the soul becomes inwardly aware that God speaks. The human being, in the depths of his soul, beginning from the fundaments of things, begins to understand in multiple ways the voice of the Creator. Saint Bridget there does not call that which is perceived in such a manner, a thesis, a judgement, a reflection, but a 'revelation': she describes it as the Lord revealing himself, as a lifting of the veil, that normally prevents us from perceiving God.

From all this it is evident that the word 'revelation' should not be taken in the sense we normally understand it, when we call the message of the Bible 'revelation'. The term instead means an interior perception, in which the soul feels essentially receptive, in such a way that its understanding takes on the character of a call from the Lord. Of course, such a 'theology' should be continually accompanied by analysis and rational criticism, so that its contribution to the knowledge of the faith can be correctly inserted and evaluated in the context of an organic structure. When this happens, it has a great meaning for the life of the Church in its totality, because from it comes the freshness of a living encounter with the mystery of Jesus Christ.

At this point our reflection automatically turns from the formal aspect to the content: What has this 'revelation' in fact given to the Church? The characteristic of the medieval female theology can be seen, in general, in the very close and intimate relationship with the humanity of Jesus. It is in this sense that it is placed on a par with the new devotion to Jesus, that blossoms with Bernard of Clairvaux and that conquered all Christianity through Francis of Assisi. These new depths of sentiment in the devotion to the humanity of Jesus may well be considered the great spiritual turning point, that took place in Western Christianity at the beginning of the second millennium and it had a stirring expression in Gothic art. In this movement, a special importance is due to the theology of some saints - each one of whom has given to this movement his or her own mark and has furnished it with his or her particular contribution. In Saint Bridget this prompt, friendly and warm-hearted devotion to the humanity of Jesus is also characterized by a particular solidarity with his sufferings. Here the experience of the lacerated and suffering Church of her time has played a great role. I think of, for example, a very impressive and moving passage from the thirty-eighth chapter of the first book of Revelation. Here the Son says to the Bride that the faith of the Church is bare, 'in fact everyone is ashamed of confessing the faith  and my commandments, and if there are some that proclaim my faith and my commandments, they are scorned and accused of lying'.4 In such a situation faith becomes com-passion with Christ. This helps us to understand the emblem of her Order: the Crown with the marks of the five wounds of Christ, which at the same time refers to the wounds of His Church. In this way another aspect has been highlighted: the devotion to Jesus is characterized by a great human warmth and tenderness. The idea of being the Bride is decisive. But this does not remain on a sentimental level. It becomes instead the suffering of cooperating in the redemption of the unredeemed world. The Order of Saint Bridget is therefore an Order of the Most Holy Redeemer. This name is the expression of the mystical origin as well as the concrete dynamics of love, as it burned in the heart of Saint Bridget. Finally, devotion to the Son includes also a great love for the Mother: the Order founded by Saint Bridget had, so to say, to place itself in that particular moment, in which the disciples gathered in the Last Supper, together with the Mother of Jesus.

It seems to me that it is important just at this moment to underline the permanent significance of the new dimension of spirituality and theology, that opened up with Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi and the medieval female theology. This develpment not only gave a decisive impulse to popular piety: the Rosary, the Way of the Cross, devotion to the Heart of Jesus were born here: but it had its effects also in the liturgy; when one thinks of, for example, how the moment of Consecration in the Eucharistic celebration has now become a moment of adoration, during which the faithful kneel down before the blessed humanity of Jesus. It is here that the Eucharistic piety which took a new direction in the second millennium has its roots. The rediscovery of the Fathers has induced many in our century to see in these developments only a decline from the greatness of the origins, an attack on the purity of liturgical form, a sentimentalism, that should be removed. In fact quite a few have let themselves be influenced by obsolete and puritan criteria, according to which only that which acquired shape and form during the early times - for example, up to the time of Gregory the Great - an aggressive biblicism, which in turn withers when confronted with the question of what, today, should be considered oldest and most original in the Bible. In the end, with reconstruction of every kind of this primitive, presumed originality, they merely succeed in reflecting themselves. We should fight against all this in the way Bonaventure responded to similar tendencies of his time: Opera Christi non deficiunt, sed proficiunt - the works of Christ are not lacking, but prospering. It is not a coincidence that this Christian 'concept of progress' was formulated very much in the context of the Franciscan movement. What has develped here is a real growing of the faith and therefore it belongs to the faith permanently.5

. . .

Bridget of Sweden can thus, in many ways, broaden and refresh our memory. Saint Gregory the Great once said the deeds of the Saints broaden our path, which because of many difficulties has become very narrow.6 Indeed, the spacious itineraries of our Saint can lead us out of many and manifold difficulties, and so the remembrance of her can become a help for our mission as Christians in this our time.


S. Brigida e la teologia femminile medievale

Prendiamo ora in considerazine un secondo punto di vista nel profilo della nostra santa. S. Brigida era una donna e come donna ha lasciato un'opera letteraria significativa, che l'ha resa maestra della fede nella Chiesa. Con le sue 'Rivelazioni' essa ha plasmato per secoli in modo decisivo la rappresentazione della vita e della sofferenza umana di Gesù, in una parola l'immagine di Cristo nella Chiesa. S. Brigida non si pone affatto in modo isolato come 'teologa' nella storia dela Chiesa medievale. Essa si inserisce nel grande contesto della 'teologia femminile' medievale, che comincia nel 12° secolo con Elisabetta von Schönau e Ildegarda von Bingen, continua nella Germania del 13° secolo con Mechtild von Magdebourg, Mechtild von Hackeborn e Gertrude la Grande, mentre in Italia all'incirca nello stesso tempo Chiara d'Assisi dà nuova luminaosità alla fede. Le seguono poi Margherita da Cortona, Angela da Foligno e dopo S. Brigida, che sarebbe da inserire qui, Caterina da Siena. L'Inghilterra si affianca con Giuliana da Norwich, e così potremmo continuare con altri nomi fino alla grande santa Teresa d'Avila.

Lo studio della teologia medievale fino alla metà del nostro secolo si era concentrato sostanzialmente sulla Scholastica, quindi sulla teologia delle università, che a partire dal 12° secolo nonostante tutte le significative figure singole, che ancora vi erano, nel complesso offre tuttavia un'immagine piuttosto triste di sfaldamento intellettuale e di povertà spirituale. A partire dagli anni cinquanta però J. Leclercq ha richiamato l'attenzione sul fatto che accanto alla teologia scolastica come una seconda corrente con una sua propria dignità si colloca la teologia monastica, che non è plasmata dalle necessità della Scuola, ma derive dalla lectio divina, dalla familiartià meditativa e contemplativa con la Sacra Scrittua e così è rimasta sempre vicina a quel tipo di teologia, che i Padri avevano sviluppato.2 Solo lentamente quindi si è sviluppata la convinzione, che la teologia femminile a sua volta debba essere considerata come una forma propria della teologia monastica. Oggì è assolutamente chiaro che questa corrente della conoscenza spirituale non può essere semplicemente archiviata sotto l'ettichetta di ciò che sarebbe solo 'edificante'; ciò che incontriamo qui, è una forma di comprensione spirituale della rivelazione, che ha una sua propria dignità, anche se non si presenta in quella forma di scienza, come è stata sviluppata nelle Università.

. . .

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, 'L'attualità di Santa Brigida di Svezia/ The relevance of Saint Bridget for our times', Atti dell'incontro internazionale di studio, Roma, 3-7 ottobre 1991/ Proceedings of the International Study Meeting, Rome, October 5-7, 1991.
Prefaced: John Paul II. Roma: Casa Generalizia Suore Santa Brigida, 1991. Pp. 71-92.

2 Jean Leclercq, L'amour des lettres e le desir de Dieu, Paris 1957. On how to understand women in monastic theology, cf. Leclercq, Monks on Marriage: A Twelfth-Century View, New York 1982.

3 Revelations VI. 52.
3 O dulcissime Deus, mirabile est, quod facis mecum! Quando enim placet tibi, soporas corpus meum spirituali sopore, excitas quoque tunc animam meam ad videndum et audiendum spiritualia.

4
Revelations I. 38. 7 Tres enim in mundo sunt. Primus est totus nudus, secundus est siciens, tercius esuriens. Primus significat fidem Ecclesie mee, que nuda est, quia omnes erubescunt loqui fidem et mandata mea. Et si sunt, qui loquuntur, contempnuntur et mendacii arguuntur.

5 Cf. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Geschichtstheologie des heiligen Bonaventura, Munchen-Zurich 1959, in Italian 1991.

6 Hom. in Ez. II 6,15.



JULIAN OF NORWICH, HER SHOWING OF LOVE AND ITS CONTEXTS ©1997-2017 JULIA BOLTON HOLLOWAY  || JULIAN OF NORWICH  || SHOWING OF LOVE || HER TEXTS || HER SELF || ABOUT HER TEXTS || BEFORE JULIAN || HER CONTEMPORARIES || AFTER JULIAN || JULIAN IN OUR TIME ||  ST BIRGITTA OF SWEDEN  ||  BIBLE AND WOMEN || EQUALLY IN GOD'S IMAGE  || MIRROR OF SAINTS || BENEDICTINISM || THE CLOISTER || ITS SCRIPTORIUM  || AMHERST MANUSCRIPT || PRAYER || CATALOGUE AND PORTFOLIO (HANDCRAFTS, BOOKS ) || BOOK REVIEWS || BIBLIOGRAPHY ||