His Holiness paid tribute to her in an address to the general audience in St. Peter’s Square on October 6, 2010 (includes a link to the video).
From the Catholic Encyclopedia:
Saint Gertrude the Great was a Benedictine and mystic writer who received visions and allocutions from Heaven. She was born in Germany on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1256. Nothing is known of her family, not even the name of her parents. It is clear from her life (Legatus, lib. I, xvi) that she was not born in the neighborhood of Eisleben.
When she was but five years of age she entered the alumnate of Helfta. The monastery was at that time governed by the saintly and enlightened Abbess Gertrude of Hackerborn, under whose rule it prospered exceedingly, both in monastic observance and in that intellectual activity which St. Lioba and her Anglo-Saxon nuns had transmitted to their foundations in Germany. All that could aid to sanctity, or favor contemplation and learning, was to be found in this hallowed spot. Here, too, as to the center of all activity and impetus of its life, the work of works – the Opus Dei [note: never to be confused by the conciliar outfit going by the same name] – as St. Benedict termed the Divine Office – was solemnly carried out.
Such was Helfta when its portals opened to receive the child destined to be its brightest glory. Gertrude was confided to the care of St. Mechtilde, mistress of the alumnate and sister of the Abbess Gertrude. From the first she had the gift of winning the hearts, and her biographer gives many details of her exceptional charms, which matured with advancing years. Thus early had been formed betwen Gertrude and Mechtilde the bond of an intimacy which deepened and strengthened with time, and gave the latter saint a prepondering influence over the former.
At the age of twenty five she was favored with celestial visions, and towards the end of her life she received the stigmata. At God’s command she recorded her revelations in her wonderful book called Communications and Sentiments of Love. The mission of this celebrated Benedictine nun in the Thirteenth Century was very similar to that of Margaret Mary Alacoque, which indeed she recognized and foretold in a prophetic showing. Her mystical life was lived in the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus; she is pictured with a flaming heart in her hand. When she spoke of Christ and the mysteries of His adorable life, her words were sweeter than honey and the honey-comb; her spirit was ever serene and radiant. Jesus revealed to her His Heart as a mystery of grace and love, rather than as an abyss of sorrow. She was not called to the special vocation of victim for the sins of the world as was St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.
A member of an order which for more than seven centuries had, been the heir of patristic tradition and in which the Liturgy was almost exclusively the source of spiritual life, Gertrude conceived devotion to the Sacred Heart not as a separate devotion, but as a deeper intelligence of the great all-embracing mystery of Christ living again in the Church by means of the Catholic Liturgy.
On one occasion while listening to the beating of the Heart of Jesus, she asked St. John the Evangelist why he had not made known in his Gospel the treasures of light and mercy revealed to him during his mystic repose on the Savior’s Heart at the Last Supper. John replied that the reality of this touching revelation would be made later when the world had reached the depths of malice, and that in order to rescue it God would employ the last resources of His invincible love.
The Catholic Encyclopedia continues:
Partly in the alumnate, partly in the community, Gertrude had devoted herself to study with the greatest ardor. In her series of visions of which the wonderful sequence ended only with life she gauge in its fullest extent the void of which she had been keenly sensible for some time past, and with this awakening came the realization of the utter emptiness of all transitory things. With characteristic ardor she cultivated the highest spirituality, and, to quote her biographer, “from being a grammarian became a theologian,” abandoning profane studies for the Scriptures, patristic writings, and treatises on theology.
To these she brought the same earnestness which had characterized her former studies, and with indefatigable zeal copied, translated, and wrote for the spiritual benefit of others. Although Gertrude vehemently condemns herself for past negligence (Legatus, II, ii), still to understand her words correctly we must remember that they express the indignant self-condemnation of a soul called to the highest sanctity.
Doubtless her inordinate love of study had proved a hindrance alike to contemplation and interior recollection, yet it had none the less surely safeguarded her from more serious and grievous failings. Her struggle lay in the conquest of a sensitive and impetuous nature.
In St. Gertrude’s life there are no abrupt phases, no sudden conversion from sin to holiness. She passed from alumnate to the community. Outwardly her life was that of the simple Benedictine nun, of which she stands forth preeminently as the type. Her boundless charity embraced rich and poor, learned and simple, the monarch on his throne and the peasant in the field; it was manifested in tender sympathy towards the souls in Purgatory, in a great yearning for the perfection of souls consecrated to God.
Her humility was so profound that she wondered how the earth could support so sinful a creature as herself. Her raptures were frequent and so absorbed her faculties as to render her insensible to what passed around her. She therefore begged, for the sake of others, that there might be no outward manifestations of the spiritual wonders with which her life was filled. She had the gift of miracles as well as that of prophecy.
When the call came for her spirit to leave the worn and pain-stricken body, Gertude was in her forty-fifth or forty-sixth year, and in turn assisted at the death-bed and mourned for the loss of the holy Sister Mechtilde (1281), her illustrious Abbess Gertrude of Hackeborn (1291), and her chosen guide and confidante, St. Mechtilde (1298). Gertrude of Helfta ruled over the Benedictine Convent at Rodalsdorf for forty years as Abbess. The Roman Breviary states that she died at Helfta, near Eisleben, Saxony, on this date in either 1301 or 1302 “consumed rather by the ardor of her love than by disease.”
When the community was transferred in 1346 to the monastery of New Helfta, the present Trud-Kloster, within the walls of Eisleben, they still retained possession of their old home, where doubtless the bodies of St. Gertrude and St. Mechtilde still buried, though their place of sepulture remains unknown. There is, at least, no record of their translation. Old Helfta is now crown-property, while New Helfta has lately passed into the hands of the local municipality.
It was not till 1677 that the name of Gertrude was inscribed in the Roman Martyrology and her feast was extended to the universal church, which now keeps it on November 16, the day of her death, on which it is still celebrated by her own order. In compliance with a petition from the King of Spain she was declared Patroness of the West Indies. in Peru her feast is celebrated with great pomp, and in New Mexico a town was built in her honor and bears her name.
Many of the writings of St. Gertrude have unfortunately perished. Those now extant are:
- The “Legatus Divinae Pietatis“,
- The “Exercises of St. Gertrude“, and
- The “Liber Specialis Gratiae” of St. Mechtilde.
The works of St. Gertrude were all written in Latin, which she used with facility and grace. The “Legatus Divinae Pietatis” (Herald of Divine Love) comprises five books containing the life of St. Gertrude, and recording many of the favors granted her by God. Book II alone is the work of the saint, the rest being compiled by members of the Helfta community. They were written for her Sisters in religion, and it can be seen that she felt she had here a free hand unhampered by the deep humility which made it so repugnant for her to disclose favors personal to herself.
The “Exercises”, which are seven in number, embrace the work of the reception of baptismal grace to the preparation for death. Her glowing language deeply impregnated with the liturgy and scriptures exalts the soul imperceptibly to the heights of contemplation. When the “Legatus Divinae Pietatis” is compared with the “Liber Specialis Gratiae” of St. Mechtilde, it is evident that Gertrude is the chief, if not the only author of the latter book. Her writings are also colored by the glowing richness of that Teutonic genius which found its most congenial expression in symbolism and allegory.
The spirit of St. Gertrude, which is marked by freedom, breadth, and vigor, is based on the Rule of St. Benedict. Her mysticism is that of all the great contemplative workers of the Benedictine Order from St. Gregory to Blosius. Hers, in a word, is that ancient Benedictine spirituality which Father Frederick Faber has so well depicted (All for Jesus, viii).
The characteristic of St. Gertrude’s piety is her devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the symbol of that immense charity which urged the Word to take flesh, to institute the Holy Eucharist, to take on Himself our sins, and, dying on the Cross, to offer Himself as a victim and a sacrifice to the Eternal Father (Congregation of Rites, April 3, 1825). Faithful to the mission entrusted to them, the superiors of Helfta appointed renowned theologians, chosen from the Dominican and Franciscan friars, to examine the works of the saint. These approved and commented them throughout.
In the sixteenth century Lanspergius and Blosius propagated her writings. The former, who with his confrere Loher spared no pains in editing her works, also wrote a preface to them. The writings were warmly received especially in Spain, and among the long list of holy and learned authorities who used and recommended her works may be mentioned :
- St. Teresa of Avila, who chose her as her model and guide
- the illustrious Francisco Suárez
- the Discalced Carmelite Friars of France
- St. Francis de Sales
- M. Oliver
- Fr. Frederick Faber
- Abbe Dom Prosper Guéranger
The Church has inserted the name of Gertrude in the Roman Martyrology with this eulogy: “On the 17th of November, in Germany (the Feast) of St. Gertrude Virgin, of the Order of St. Benedict, who was illustrious for the gift of revelations.”