Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Paulinus of Nola ~ A Roman plutocrat who became a Christian saint

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Pontius Meropius Anicius Paulinus (AD 354 - 431), otherwise known as Saint Paulinus of Nola, was a remarkable Roman whose feast day is celebrated by Catholics on June 22. Though less well-remembered than his contemporaries Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome, numerous literary works of Paulinus have survived to our time, including letters and poems. A native of Roman Gaul, he was a member of the Roman elite during the waning days of the Western Empire. His family was tremendously wealthy and Paulinus received an outstanding classical education, the poet Ausonius serving as his tutor.

Though certainly among the "1%" of the Roman aristocracy and possessing significant political stature, Paulinus converted to Christianity in his 20s and never looked back. His massive fortune he donated to the poor, or else used it to build churches, charitable institutions, and public works.

Among Paulinus's most notable surviving literary works, the modern reader may find a detailed description of the 4th century basilica that he caused to be erected in modern Cimitile, a short distance from Nola. This was a large structure designed to enhance the existing shrine to Saint Felix of Nola. Here is an excerpt from Paulinus's letter to provide a sense of what the building must have looked like when completed:
Ghostly faces emerge from an ancient
fresco at the basilica complex of
St. Felix in Cimitile. Image detail
borrowed from the Peregrinus blog and
enhanced by me.
The outlook of the basilica is not, after the usual fashion, towards the east, but faces the basilica of the blessed Lord Felix [St. Felix of Nola], looking out upon his tomb. But the apse winds round, extending with two side apses on right and left in the spacious area around. One of these is available to the bishop when making his sacrifices of joy, whilst the other takes the praying congregation in its large recess behind the priest. The whole of this basilica opens on to the basilica of our renowned confessor [St. Felix, as mentioned above], giving great pleasure to the eye; there are three external arches, and the light floods through the lattice by which the buildings and courtyards of the two churches are connected. For because the new church was separated from the older one by the intervening wall of the apse belonging to some tomb, the wall was penetrated on the side of Saint Felix’s church by as many doors as the new church has at its front entrance. So the wall is pierced to provide a view from one church into the other, as is indicated by the inscriptions posted between the doors on each side. So these lines are set at the very entrance to the new church: 
“This beautiful house lies open for you to enter through the triple arch; this threefold door bears witness to devoted faith.”
The above was taken from Walsh: Letters of Paulinus of Nola, Volume 2. Please click the link to access the full description.

Detail of some of the surviving ancient mosaics at the basilica complex of
St. Felix in Cimitile, Italy. 
Amazingly, parts of this basilica still survive in Cimitile to this day. An excellent description of these remains may be found at the Peregrinus blog in the post: Cimitile: Saints Felix, Paulinus and Spreading the Wealth in the Early Church. The fresco detail posted above was borrowed from this post and several other beautiful photos reside there.

One of the more colorful narratives about Paulinus may be found in the Dialogues of Saint Gregory the Great. dating from about 150 years after Paulinus's death. Here, Pope Saint Gregory details a legendary story exemplifying the great generosity of the holy man from Nola, and his willingness to sacrifice all for the sake of his spiritual children:
When as in the time of the cruel Vandals, that part of Italy which is called Campania was overrun and sacked, and many were from thence carried captive into Africa: then the servant of God, Paulinus, bestowed all the wealth of his Bishopric upon prisoners and poor people. And not having now anything more left, a certain widow came unto him, lamenting how her son was taken prisoner by one that was son-in-law to the king of the Vandals, and by him carried away to be his slave: and therefore she besought him, that he would vouchsafe to help her with a ransom for the redeeming of her son. But the man of God, seeking what he had to give the poor woman, found nothing left but himself alone, and therefore he answered her in this manner: 
"Good woman, nothing have I to help thee withal but myself, and therefore take me, and a God's name say that I am your servant, and see whether he will receive me for his slave, and so set your son at liberty."...
Whereupon away they traveled both into Africa. And when the king's son-in-law came abroad, the widow put up her petition concerning her son...: 
"Behold, I give you here this man instead of him, only take compassion on me, and restore to me mine only son."
At which words he, casting his eyes upon Paulinus, and seeing him to have an honest and good face, asked him of what occupation he was: to whom the man of God answered: "Trade or occupation I can none, but some skill I have in keeping of a garden."
This pleased the Pagan very well, whereupon he admitted him for his servant, and restored the widow her son, with whom she departed out of Africa, and Paulinus took charge of the garden. 
The king's son-in-law coming often into the garden, demanded certain questions of his new man, and perceiving him to be very wise and of good judgment, he began to give over the company of his old familiar friends, and conversed much with his gardener, taking great pleasure in his talk. Every day Paulinus brought him to his table divers sorts of green herbs, and after dinner returned to his garden.
After he had used this a long time, upon a day, as his master and he were in secret talk together, Paulinus spake unto him in this manner: "Consider, my Lord, what is your best course, and how the kingdom of the Vandals shall be disposed of, for the king is to die shortly".
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This news, because he was in special grace with the king, he gave him to understand, adding that his gardener, who was a passing wise man, had told him so much. The king, hearing this, was desirous to see the man he spake of: "Your Majesty," quoth he, "shall see him, for his manner is to bring me in daily fresh herbs for my dinner, and I will give orders that he shall do it in your presence": which direction being given, as the king sat at dinner, Paulinus came in, bringing with him divers sallettes and fresh herbs: whom so soon as the king beheld, he fell a trembling, and sending for Paulinus' master (who by the marriage of his daughter was so near allied unto him), acquainted him with that secret which before he had concealed, saying:
"It is very true that which you have heard, for the last night, in a dream, I saw certain judges in their seats sitting upon me, amongst whom this man also sat for one: and by their sentence that whip was taken from me, which for the punishment of others some time I had. But inquire, I pray you, what he is, for I do not think one of so great merit to be an ordinary man, as he outwardly seemeth."
Then the king's son-in-law took Paulinus in secret, and asked him what he was: to whom the man of God answered: "Your servant I am," quoth he, "whom you took for the ransom of the widow's son."
But when he would not be satisfied with that answer, but did instantly press him to tell, not what he was now, but what he had been in his own country, and did urge him very often to answer to this point: the man of God, adjured so strictly, not being able any longer to deny his request, told him that he was a Bishop; which his master and lord hearing became wonderfully afraid, and humbly offered him, saying: "Demand what you will, that you may be well rewarded of me, and so return home to your country."
To whom the man of God, Paulinus, said: "One thing there is wherein you may much pleasure me, and that is, to set at liberty all those that be of my city": which suit he obtained, for straightways throughout Africa all were sought out, their ships laden with wheat, and to give venerable Paulinus satisfaction, they were all discharged, and in his company sent home.
And not long after the king of the Vandals died, and so he lost that whip and severe government, which to his own destruction and the punishment of Christians by God's providence he had before received. And thus it came to pass that Paulinus, the servant of almighty God, told truth, and he that voluntarily alone made himself a bondman, returned not back alone, but with many from captivity: imitating him who took upon him the form of a servant, that we should not be servants to sin: for Paulinus, following his example, became himself for a time a servant alone, that afterward he might be made free with many.
Granted, this story features numerous historical inaccuracies, the most obvious of which is that Paulinus died in AD 431, while the Vandal king who conquered Africa, Gaiseric, did not perish until AD 477. That said, if one substitutes Gunderic (the Vandal king who died in AD 428) for Gaiseric and Spain for Africa, the kernel of the story could indeed be true.

Paulinus's life was important enough for him to be called out as an example by Pope Benedict XVI in a general audience in December 2007. In this lecture, Pope Benedict said the following about Paulinus:
"While he was doing his best to build the city on earth, he continued discovering the way to the city in Heaven. The encounter with Christ was the destination of a laborious journey, strewn with ordeals. Difficult circumstances which resulted from his loss of favour with the political authorities made the transience of things tangible to him. Once he had arrived at faith, he was to write: "The man without Christ is dust and shadow." (Carm. X, 289). [Click here to read the entire lecture.]
As powerful as those words sound in our day, they must have been so much moreso during the time when the great empire built by earthy glory was crumbing to the ground.

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