Transformative Preachers: Hildegard of Bingen and Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney

Hildegard and Vianney were transformative preachers, catalysts for change—Hildegard by her presence in what was … a “man’s world;”  Vianney  by living his life as a “sermon of humility” in the Age of Enlightenment, when humanity cast aside spiritual values for …  science and reason.  


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. 3  Vianney was born on May 8, 1796, in the small farming community of Dardilly, a few kilometers west of Lyon, France.  His birth occurred a scant three years before the French Revolution rocked the world, destroyed the Old Order, driving priests underground to hide from the Reign of Terror. Lomask tells of a very young Vianney helping hide a priest on the family farm during this period. 4  Despite these, Vianney responded to God’s call.  When the political winds shifted in France, and the Catholic Church was once again allowed to care for the souls of French people, Vianney pursued the call to the priesthood, a call to preach with vigor.  The immediate problem was that “Vianney knew how to farm; he did not know how to read.” 5   Vianney’s lack of a formal education did not stop him from studying endless hours.  He was tutored extensively by his friend and spiritual advisor, Monsieur Charles Balley, the Cure of Ecully.  Balley was a priest of the Diocese of Lyon. He so closely and astutely guided Vianney that he was finally admitted to St. Irenaeus Seminary. However, after six months, the faculty dismissed the future patron saint of the world’s parish priests with the lowest marks they could give.  He fell into despair. But, as Rutler puts it, he then turned to the female of the species, two of them in fact:  “After being dismissed, he went to his mother’s grave and wept.  He then turned to Christ’s own mother … By kneeling in the face of affliction, and saying “Amen,” suffering moved from humiliation to humility … Again, Monsieur Balley gave him a crash course, presenting him for the ordination examination.  Finally, he was ordained as a priest on August 22, 1815 at Grenoble.” 6

Clearly, both Hildegard of Bingen, and Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney, were called to preach. However, being called, and being a transformative preacher, are not synonymous.  Craddock adds to the calling theme by stating that those called to be effective preachers are also called to a life of study:

The hours of study bear directly and immediately on whom the minister is, and the ministers influence, by word and action.  It is in the study that so much of the minister’s formation of character and faith takes place … Study is an act of obedience … It is a time of worship … It is a time of pastoral work … Finally, is it a homiletical act that breeds confidence, and releases the powers of communication. 7

Pasquarello believes, along with Sts Augustine, that the joy of knowing God is essential for the preacher. One of the best ways to know God is to follow the Dominican model which “required constant immersion in liturgical, intellectual, and moral training.” 8  The question before us now is did Hildegard and Vianney pursue a life of study?

That Hildegard of Bingen was a devoted student all her life can be demonstrated by reverse osmosis, in that we can estimate her study by the amount and scope of her intellectual output.  Wilson tells us that “although she was forty-three before she began to write, the writing, and range of her writing, exceeds that of most men of her time.  Her surviving works include biographies of saints; books on cosmology, doctrine, ethics, and medicine; visionary treatises on God’s ways, life’s merits, and divine works; hymns, canticles, and a musical morality play; and several hundred sermons.” 9  Wilson indicates that she was a scholar, self-taught perhaps, but a lifelong scholar, indeed. She hid this with a political savvy because women prophets were acceptable to men of her age; women scholars were not.

Vianney is another personality altogether.  “Though he was of average intelligence ,and his masters never seem to have doubted his vocation, his knowledge was extremely limited, being confined to a little arithmetic, history, and geography, and he found learning excessively difficult.” 10  This, and his failure at the seminary, indicate he was not likely a life-long student. He would have been happy, it seems, to leave the world of books for the simple pastoral duties in the village of Ars.  However, “Monsieur Balley introduced him to most of his favorite writers.  And after a while, he knew them almost on a conversational basis…Gradually, St. Jerome and St. Vincent (De Paul) began to sound like Vianney, if only because Vianney at night had been spending so much time in the land of Jerome and Vincent.” 11  He was often known to walk the thirty-five kilometers to Lyon to buy books for the library at his parish, Notre Dame de Misercorde.

Underlying the call to preach, and acceptance of it, is dedicated study throughout the preacher’s life.  Pasquarello states that the grammar of the preaching life calls us to an integrative way of being and knowing that involves vigorous study, prayerful direction, and loving obedience in the conformity of humanity to the grammar of Christ. 12  Both Hildegard of Bingen and Jean Vianney followed this way to Christ, becoming preachers of excellence, transformative preachers, whom one might even call “agents of change.”  They became the ‘living sermons” of St. Augustine, moving others to see the presence of God in their lives.

Hildegard’s position as abbess gave her preaching authority, but it was limited to preaching to her cloistered nuns.  In 1160, however, “Hildegard emerged even further into public life, embarking on a series of preaching tours … During her second tour, she took the highly unusual step (for a woman) of preaching in public at Trier, followed by public preaching at Metz and Krauftal.  On her third tour, undertaken sometime before 1163, she went north to Cologne and Werden; her fourth, in 1170, took her south to Zwiefalten.” 13

A woman preaching publicly in the Middle Ages is evidence enough of heroic virtue.  What drove Hildegard to preach in public?  Her motivation was to obey God’s commands, and in doing so, she became so transformative because her preaching expressed a need to instigate church reform.  Dryer argues that Hildegard expressed “her religious passion through an intense commitment to reform, virtue, and compassion for others.” 14  Flanagan goes further, arguing that “Official recognition that Hildegard’s work was divinely inspired, served to disarm potential critics, and allowed Hildegard a good deal of freedom to criticize the shortcomings of her spiritual superiors.  She saw herself as continuing the works of the prophets in proclaiming the truths that God wished humanity to know.” 15  It is doubtful that the clergy of the day welcomed many of those truths.  Wilson provides a sample of her preaching to clergy in Cologne, showing Hildegard as a transformative preacher of heroic proportions:

Oh, my dear sons, who feed my flocks … I have placed you like the sun, and other luminaries, that you may give light to men through the fire of teaching … But you are prostrate and do not sustain the Church.  You flee to the cavern of your delight and, because of the tedium of riches and the avarice of other vanities, you do not fill those under you, nor allow them to seek teaching from you. 16

Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney was a transformative preacher also. But he accomplished change less dramatically than Hildegard, through his humility and perseverance, bringing Christian joy to a listless and sinful congregation.  Today, there are 85 of his sermons extant. “These sermons were written for a lax parish, one that had been without a priest for some time.  They are phrased to jar a spiritually complacent people from their lethargy—to blast them into consciousness about the reality of their situation.  Therefore, they are strong—strongly worded, penetratingly pointed, at man’s own spiritual deception.” 17

Trochu indicates Vianney preached plainly, principally on morality, the sinfulness of a peasant community, where the hardships of life lead to heavy drinking, and promiscuity, at local cabarets.  Reading these sermons today, one is struck by their severity, their seeming lack of compassion.  He was a very direct preacher, giving practical solutions from the pulpit.  This aligns Vianney with “plain style” preachers, which came about as a negative reaction to the Metaphysical School predominate in the early Reformation Period.  A short sample of one of Vianney’s sermons follows.  This particular work is entitled Follow One Master Only.

Let me put it even more clearly: you would like it if your conscience, if your heart, would allow you to go to the altar in the morning, and dance in the evening; to spend part of the day in church, and the remainder in the cabarets, or other places of amusement; to talk to God at one moment, and the next, to tell obscene stories, or utter calumnies about your neighbor.  Dear friends, you cannot follow the world, and the pleasures of the world, and Jesus Christ with the Cross. 18

Imagine being in the Ars congregation, and hearing these words directed to you by a man people are calling a “living saint!”  These are not words that would make you feel comfortable.  These are the words of a transformative preacher.

We preachers of the 21st century have much to learn from our forebears—men and women like St. Hildegard of Bingen. and St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney.  Studying them helps one come to a decision point.  At the next preaching event, is Jesus calling me to be a preacher of the status quo, or be a transformative preacher?  Craddock puts it another way:

All of us know that it is in being kind that we become kind, in behaving as Christians that we become Christians.  Is it unreasonable to believe, then, that it is in listening to our own sermons that we become more passionately convinced?  If this is our conviction, then re-experiencing the message as we deliver it cannot fail to be a time of speaking from passion to passion. 19

Hildegard of Bingen and Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney were speaking passion to passion.  They were transformative preachers.

  1. O.C. Edwards Jr., A History of Preaching (Nashville: Abington Press, 2004), 198.
  2. Ibid., 198.
  3. See Abbe Francis Trochu, The Cure D’Ars: St Jean-Marie Baptists Vianney (1786-1859): according to the Acts of the Process of Canonization and numerous hitherto unpublished documents, trans. Dom Ernest Graf, O.S.B. (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne LTD., 1927) .  This work remains as the premier biography of Vianney.  Trochu’s Chapter XXVIII, “The Great Mystical Experiences of the Cure D’Ars” refers to his visions, all of which take place following his ordination and installation as chaplain and later pastor at Ars.
  4. Milton Lomask, The Cure of Ars (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1958), 20-30.
  5. George William Rutler, The Cure D’Ars Today: Saint John Vianney (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 67.
  6. Ibid., 82-88.
  7. Ibid., 70.
  8. Michael Pasquarello, We Speak Because We Have First Been Spoken: A Grammar of the Preaching Life, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 68.
  9. Paul Scott Wilson, A Concise History of Preaching, (Nashville: Abington Press, 1992), 73-77.
  10. Catholic Encyclopedia, “St. Jean-Baptiste-Marie Vianney,”  (accessed February 27, 2012).
  11. Rutler, The Cure D’Ars Today, 122.
  12. Pasquarello, We Speak Because We Have First Been Spoken: A Grammar of the Preaching Life, 144.
  13. Sabina Flanagan, “Hildegard von Bingen,” Dictionary of Literary Biography, ed. James Hardin and Will Hasty (Detroit: Gale Research, 1995), 70-71.
  14. Elizabeth A. Dryer, Hildegard of Bingen and Hadewijch of Brabant (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 2005), 93.
  15. Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179: A Visionary Life (London: Routledge, 1989) 59.
  16. Wilson, A Concise History of Preaching, 76.
  17. Thomas A. Nelson, “Publisher’s Preface,” in The Sermons of the Cure of Ars, trans. Una Morrissy (Charlotte: Tan Books, 1995), x.
  18. St. Jean Marie Baptiste Vianney, The Sermons of the Cure of Ars, tr. by Una Morrissy (Charlotte: Tan Books, 1995), 25.
  19. Fred B. Craddock, Preaching, 222.
Deacon Bill Smith About Deacon Bill Smith

Bill Smith is a Permanent Deacon of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles assigned to Father Michael Kennedy, SJ. Father Kennedy is the founder and Executive Director of the Jesuit Restorative Justice Initiative which provides Ignatian retreats to the thousand of men and women incarcerated in California State Prisons. Bill holds a Doctor of Ministry degree (Preaching) from Aquinas Institute of Theology as well as three master's degrees. He loves Chaplains!


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