Transformative Preachers: Hildegard of Bingen and Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney | Dn. Bill Smith | Homiletic & Pastoral Review
Hildegard and Vianney were transformative preachers, catalysts for change.
Every preacher faces a choice. One can preach stability, promoting the existing spiritual situation of the congregation. This is preaching what the congregation desires to hear: they are doing well and they are headed for salvation. On the other hand, one can decide to preach transformation, promoting a higher level of spirituality for a congregation so it can recognize the need to move closer to the Triune God. Most congregations do not like to hear preaching that tells them to change, making them uncomfortable with the lives they lead. Transformative preaching takes courage and skill. A quick review of the preaching lives of two historical preachers might put this concept into better focus.
On the surface, there are few preachers less alike than St. Hildegard of Bingen and St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney. Hildegard of Bingen was a female aristocrat, abbess, and mystic, who was comfortable with Pope Eugenius III, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa. Jean Vianney was a male of peasant stock who served as a simple parish priest for forty-one years, in the tiny French hamlet of Ars, where he was comfortable with members of his congregation, peasant farmers and shopkeepers. If that is not enough diffusion, they lived eight centuries apart in totally different historical, social, and political milieus.
This paper argues that both Hildegard and Vianney were transformative preachers, catalysts for change. Hildegard broke new ground simply by her presence in what was, and is, in many cases, a “man’s world.” Vianney broke new ground by living his life as a “sermon of humility” in the Age of Enlightenment, when humanity had cast aside spiritual values for a life ruled by science and reason. Hildegard and Vianney stand out as heroic preachers, whose lives need to be studied for their relevance today.
Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179) was born in present day Germany, the tenth child of a medieval knight and his lady. She was called to her vocation through visions from God commencing in her early youth. Edwards indicates that “Hildegard was precociously religious, having her first visionary experience before she was five.” 1 Eventually her visions directed her to write down what she had received. “While she was writing, her project came to the attention of Pope Eugenius, who read what she had done and commanded her to finish the work.” 2 Using the Pope’s authority, she skillfully expanded it to preaching and, in 1160, Hildegard began preaching publicly in Trier, and other cities along the Main River, a tributary to the Rhine.
Some seven centuries later, Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney (1786 – 1859) followed in the preaching footsteps of Hildegard. While there is no evidence he received dramatic visions prior to his ordination, we can estimate the influence of his calling to preach by measuring the perseverance he exhibited in becoming a priest, and in his realizing that preaching was a critical characteristic of his vocation.