January 23, 2016

Saint Paulinus the Merciful, Bishop of Nola (+ 431)

St. Paulinus of Nola (Feast Day - January 23)

Pontius Meropius Paulinus was born c. 352 at Bordeaux, in southwestern France. He was from a notable senatorial family with estates in the Aquitaine province of France, northern Spain, and southern Italy. He was educated in Bordeaux, where his teacher, the poet Ausonius, also became his friend. At some time during his boyhood he made a visit to the shrine of St Felix at Nola near Naples.

His normal career as a young member of the senatorial class did not last long. In 375, the Emperor Gratian succeeded his father Valentinian. Gratian made Paulinus suffect consul at Rome c. 377, and appointed him governor of the southern Italian province of Campania c. 380-1, but in 383 Gratian was assassinated at Lyon, France, and c. 384 Paulinus returned to Bordeaux. There he married a Spanish Christian woman named Therasia. Paulinus himself became a Christian and was baptized c. 389 by Bishop Delphinus of Bordeaux. Shortly afterwards, his wife and he moved to their estates in Spain. When they lost their first child, a boy, only eight days after birth, the couple decided to live a secluded religious life.

It was in Spain that Paulinus' former tutor Ausonius dispatched a letter composed with a measure of sarcasm. Those who have come to love Christ, who have left behind their ordinary milieu, are familiar with mocking inquiries by former friends, with invitations to come in and "sit as we had before, and overall to drop these eccentricities...". It is often very difficult to find the words needed to answer honestly without offending the inquirer. For Paulinus, it was even more difficult, for the one mocking him and calling for him to return was his teacher, to whom he owed a great deal.

The pupil's response to the one who "had raised, elevated, and taught [him] word and letter," is quite resolute: a Christian must not give himself over to "insignificant matters and absurd compositions." Yet, this is not a rebuke, but an honest attempt at explanation, an attempt to impart to his teacher the sense that the One True God, the Creator of the Universe, calls us to "change our life and leave behind our former ways."

The Saint demonstrated his respect for his instructor by the fact that his reply was in verse, and conformed to all of the rules of rhetoric and poetic art that had been taught him by Ausonius. Paulinus simply employed all of this art in a hymn to the Savior. The entire letter is a remarkable combination of love with honest, sincere disagreement, humility before his former teacher, and a zealous preaching of Christ. Faith, talent, love, impassioned nature, and yet again, love: this is the bouquet of which the reply to Ausonius was comprised.

In 393 or 394, after some resistance from Paulinus, he was ordained a presbyter on Christmas day by Lampius, Bishop of Barcelona. However, there is some debate as to whether the ordination was canonical, since Paulinus received ordination "at a leap" (per saltum), without receiving minor orders first.

Paulinus refused to remain in Barcelona, and in late spring of 395 he and his wife moved from Spain to Nola in Campania where he remained until his death. Paulinus credited his conversion to St. Felix, who was buried in Nola, and each year would write a poem in honor of the saint. He and Therasia also rebuilt a church commemorating St. Felix. During these years Paulinus engaged in considerable epistolary dialogue with St. Jerome among others about monastic topics. Therasia died some time between 408 and 413, and shortly afterwards Paulinus received episcopal ordination.

As bishop of Nola, Paulinus is traditionally credited with the introduction of the use of bells in Christian ritual. One form of medieval handbell was known as the nola and medieval steeple bells were known as campanas from this supposed origin. Once, exhausted, he lay down to sleep in a certain field in bloom, but soon was awakened by the melodious ringing of little bells being carried by angels. This inspired the Holy Hierarch to employ in Divine Services the already existing means of signaling, but in the form of the bluebell flower.

St. Gregory the Great tells the following story about Paulinus the Merciful. In 409, Italy was attacked by a wild African tribe of Vandals, and many residents of Campania were forced into slavery. Blessed Paulinus would use everything he had in the episcopate to ransom prisoners of war and to help victims of the enemy onslaught. After all of his resources were exhausted, a certain poor widow came to him, pleading for help. Her only son had been imprisoned, and she had nothing with which to ransom him. The Holy Hierarch said to her, "I have nothing but myself. Sell me, and ransom your son. Or trade me into slavery for him."

On hearing this from her bishop, the old woman thought he was making fun of her. However, the wise and oratorically gifted bishop was able to convince her that he was serious, and together they went off to Africa, to see the prince by whom the widow's son was enslaved.

Upon arriving at the prince's home, they stopped at the gates to wait for the master. When the prince came out, the widow fell to her knees before him, and tearfully pleaded for her son's release. She said, "Here, I give you this man in exchange for my son. Only release my son to me, for he is my only son."

The prince, attentively examining Bishop Paulinus, asked him, "What trade do you know?"

He responded that he was good at tending gardens. The prince, who was in need of a gardener, gave the widow back her son, and the mother and son returned home, while Bishop Paulinus remained. The Vandal king soon recognized the gardener's noble birth and his wisdom, and would often converse with him.

It happened that the gardener said to his lord, "Very soon your king will die. Before that happens, you need to consider what to do, and how to manage the kingdom." The prince whom the Saint served was the Vandal king's son-in-law. As a loyal citizen, he hurried to tell everything to the king. The king wanted to see this gardener-seer for himself, and it was decided that Paulinus would be sent to bring fresh vegetables to the royal palace. So it was done. On seeing Paulinus, the king turned pale, and calling his son-in-law, confessed, "Last night I dreamed that I was being judged, and in the courtroom one of the accusers was this man. After the conviction, they took away from me the flail of office that had been entrusted to me. Surely, your gardener is no ordinary man; he needs to be more closely questioned as to who he really is."

After the bishop was forced to identify himself, they offered that he take whatever he wanted, and return to his homeland. Paulinus asked but one thing: that all of the prisoners taken in Campania be released with him. His wish was granted, and he and his entire flock were sent by ships heavily laden with grain to their homeland. Several days later, the Vandal king died, and, as St. Gregory writes, "the flail of office entrusted to him…was passed from him to another."

Saint Paulinus is known both as a builder of churches and as a Christian poet. Among his many virtues, his love for mankind and his compassion for the poor and needy deserve special mention. In later life Paulinus, by then a highly respected church authority, participated in multiple church synods investigating various ecclesiastical controversies of the time, including Pelagianism. He died at seventy-eight years of age on June 22, 431. The following year the presbyter Uranus wrote his "On the Death of Paulinus" (De Obitu Paulini), an account of the death and character of the Saint. Thirty-two of his poems and fifty-one of his letters survive. They contain various moral discourses filled with deep piety.

Paulinus may have been indirectly responsible for Augustine's Confessions: Paulinus wrote to Alypius, Bishop of Thagaste and a close friend of St. Augustine, asking about his conversion and taking up of the ascetic life. Alypius's autobiographical response does not survive; St. Augustine's ostensible answer to that query is the Confessions.

About 800 Prince Grimoald III of Benevento removed Paulinus's bones as relics. From the 11th century they rested at the Church of Saint Adalbert, now Saint Bartholomew, on the island in the Tiber in Rome. In 1908 Pope Pius X permitted them to be translated to the new cathedral at Nola, where they were reinterred on 15 May 1909. The bones are now found in the small Sicilian city of Sutera, where they dedicate a feast day, and conduct a procession for the Saint at Easter each year.