HOLY MEN AND WOMEN OF THE MIDDLE AGES AND BEYOND
by Pope Benedict XVI
(Ignatius Press, 2012, hardback, 243pp, $33.90. ISBN: 978-1-58617-620-4. Available from Freedom publishing)
This volume is the latest in Benedict XVI's reflections on the lives and ideas of significant Catholic writers and thinkers, which were originally delivered as short addresses in his weekly audiences from January 2010 to 2011. Benedict commences with St Francis of Assisi and concludes with St Thérèse of Lisieux; however, the bulk of the reflections are based on saints of the High Middle Ages.
Each reflection usually links to the previous one; for example, Benedict XVI considers St Gertrude the Great after St Matilda of Hackenborn, because Gertrude was Matilda's pupil. Benedict generally follows the schema established in previous volumes; that is, he commences by surveying the key details of the life of each person being considered, placing them in their historical context, before considering significant aspects of their life and/or thought.
In reading through the reflections, what strikes the reader is the way in which the ideas of the various thinkers complement each other. For example, St Thomas Aquinas explored at length the synthesis between faith and reason. St Albert the Great, a fellow Dominican, viewed science as revealing the handiwork of God, the creator, and thus saw no dispute between faith and science.
St Bonaventure, while recognising the importance of reason in theology, stressed the primacy of love: for him, a human being's ultimate end is to encounter God in love. The centrality of love is also a seminal theme in the writings of St Thérèse of Lisieux.
Other saints considered include St Francis de Sales, who demonstrated that all the faithful were called to grow in holiness according to their station in life.
What is particularly interesting about this volume is the significant number of women saints Benedict surveys, particularly from the High Middle Ages. While some, such as St Joan of Arc, are well known, others such as St Matilda, Marguerite d'Oingt and St Juliana are less familiar.
Another little known female saint, Catherine of Genoa, wrote extensively on her revelations about Purgatory, a timely reflection, given the de-emphasis on the reality of Purgatory in some sections of the Church today.
As with his previous volumes of reflections, Benedict writes in such a way as to make the life and thought of each holy person considered accessible to the average reader and this work does not presume a specialist theological education. Hence, it would be suitable reading in the Year of Faith, so as to deepen one's understanding of the significant contributions made by thinkers to Catholic theology and spirituality. It would also be a good basis for adult formation.
Michael Daniel is a Melbourne secondary school teacher.