He was a great ornament of the church in the fourth century. He was illustrious by birth, and had been engaged in marriage in the world. His son Dexter was raised to the first dignities in the empire, being high chamberlain to the emperor Theodosius and præfectus-prætorio under Honorius. Saint Pacian having renounced the world, was made bishop in 373. Saint Jerom, who dedicated to him his Catalogue of illustrious men, extols his eloquence and learning, and more particularly the chastity and sanctity of his life. We have his Exortation to Penance, and three letters to Sympronianus, a Novatian nobleman, on Penance, and on the name of Catholic; also a sermon on Baptism.
Appendix on the Writings of Saint Pacian of Barcelona
When he was made bishop of Barcelona, in 373, there lived in the neighbourhood of that city one Sympronian, a man of distinction, whom the bishop calls brother and lord, who was a Donatist, and also engaged in the heresy of the Novatians, who following the severity of the Montanists, denied penance and pardon for certain sins. He sent Saint Pacian a letter by a servant, in which he censured the church for allowing repentance to all crimes, and for taking the title of Catholic. Saint Pacian answers him in three learned letters.
In the first he sums up the principal heresies from Simon Magus to the Novatians, and asks Sympronian which he will choose to stand by: entreats him to examine the true church with docility and candour, laying aside all obstinacy, the enemy to truth. He says the name Catholic comes from God, and is necessary to distinguish the dove, the undivided virgin church from all sects, which are called from their particular founders. This name we learned from the holy doctors, confessors, and martyrs. “My name,” says he, “is Christian, my surname Catholic: the one distinguishes me, the other points me out to others.” “Christianus mibi nomen est; Catholicus vero cognomen: illud me nuncupat, istud ostendit; hoc probor, inde significor.” He says that no name can be more proper to express the church, which is all obedient to Christ, and one and the same through the whole world. “As to penance,” says he, “God grant it be necessary to none of the faithful; that none after baptism fall into the pit of death—but accuse not God’s mercy, who has provided a remedy even for those that are sick. Does the infernal serpent continually carry poison, and has not Christ a remedy? Does the devil kill, and cannot Christ relieve? Fear sin, but not repentance. Be ashamed to be in danger, not to be delivered out of it. Who will snatch a plank from one lost by shipwreck? Who will envy the healing of wounds?” He mentions the parables of the lost drachma, the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the Samaritan, and God’s threats, adding, “God would never threaten the impenitent, if he refused pardon. But you will say, only God can do this. It is true; but what he does by his priests, is his power. What is that he says to his apostles? Whatsoever you shall bind, etc. Mat. xvi. Why this, if it was not given to men to bind and to loosen? Is this given only to the apostles? Then it is only given to them to baptize, to give the Holy Ghost (in confirmation) to cleanse the sins of infidels, because all this was commanded to no other than to the apostles. If, therefore, the power of baptism and of chrism, (confirmation,) which are far greater gifts, descended from the apostles to bishops, the power of binding and loosing also came to them.” He concludes with these words: “I know, brother, this pardon of repentance is not promiscuously to be given to all, nor to be granted before the signs of the divine will, or perchance the last sickness; with great severity and strict scrutiny, after many groans, and shedding of tears; after the prayers of the whole church. But pardon is not denied to true repentance, that no one prevent or put by the judgment of Christ.” Saint Pacian answers his reply by a second letter, that remedies seem often bitter, and says: “How can you be offended at my catalogue of heresies, unless you were a heretic? I congratulate with you for agreeing upon our name Catholic, which if you denied, the thing itself would cry out against you.” Saint Pacian denies that Saint Cyprian’s people were ever called Apostatics or Capitolins, or by any name but that of Catholics, which the Novatians, with all their ambition for it, could never obtain, nor ever be known but by the name of Novatians. He says, the emperors persecuted the Novatians of their own authority, not at the instigation of the church, “You say I am angry,” says he; “God forbid. I am like the bee which sometimes defends its honey with its sting.” He vindicates the martyr Saint Cyprian, and denies that Novatian ever suffered for the faith; adding, that “if he had, he could not have been crowned, because he was out of the church, out of which no one can be a martyr. Etsi occisus, non tamen coronatus: quidni? Extra Ecclesiæ pacem, extra concordiam, extra eam matrem cujus portio debet esse, qui martyr est. Si charitatem non habeam, nibil sum. 1 Cor. xiii.” In his third letter he confutes the Novatian error: that the church could not forgive mortal sin after baptism. “Moses, Saint Paul, Christ, express tender charity for sinners; who then broached this doctrine? Novatian. But when? Immediately from Christ? No; almost three hundred years after him: since Decius’s reign. Had he any prophets to learn it from? any proof of his revelation? Had he the gift of tongues? did he prophesy? could he raise the dead? For he ought to have some of these to introduce a new gospel. Nay, Saint Paul (Galatians 1) forbids a novelty in faith to be received from an angel. You will say, let us dispute our point. But I am secure; content with the succession and tradition of the church, with the communion of the ancient body. I have sought no arguments.” He asserts that the church is holy, and more than Sympronian had given it: but says it cannot perish by receiving sinners. The good have always lived amidst the wicked. It is the heretic who divides it, and tears it, which is Christ’s garment, asunder. The church is diffused over the whole world, and cannot be reduced to one little portion, or as it were chained to a part, as the Novatians, whose history he touches upon. Sympronian objected, that Catholic bishops remitted sin. Saint Pacian answers: “Not I, but only God, who both blots out sin in baptism, and does not reject the tears of penitents. What I do is not in my own name, but in the Lord’s. Wherefore whether we baptize, or draw to penance, or give pardon to penitents, we do it by Christ’s authority. You must see whether Christ can do it, and did it,—Baptism is the sacrament of our Lord’s passion; the pardon of penitents is the merit of confession. All can obtain that, because it is the gratuitous gift of God; but this labour is but of a small number who rise after a fall, and recover by tears, and by destroying the flesh.” The saint shows the Novations encourage sin by throwing men into despair; whereas repentance heals and stops it. Christ does not die a second time indeed for the pardon of sinners, but he is a powerful advocate interceding still to his Father for sinners. Can he forsake those he redeemed at so dear a rate? Can the devil enslave, and Christ not absolve his servants? He alleges Saint Peter denying Christ after he had been baptized, Saint Thomas incredulous, even after the resurrection; yet pardoned by repentance. He answers his objections from scripture, and exhorts him to embrace the Catholic faith; for the true church cannot be confined to a few, nor be new. “If she began before you, if she believed before you, if she never left her foundation, and was never divorced from her body, she must be the spouse; it is the great and rich house of all. God did not purchase with his blood so small a portion, nor is Christ so poor. The church of God dilates its tabernacles from the rising to the setting of the sun.
Next to these three letters we have his excellent Parænesis, or exhortation to penance. In the first part he reduces the sins subjected to courses of severe public penance by the canons to three—idolatry, murder, and impurity; and shows the enormity of each. In the second he addresses himself to those sinners, who out of shame, or for fear of the penances to be enjoined, did not confess their crimes. He calls them shamefully timorous and bashful to do good, after having been bold and impudent to sin; and says: “And you do not tremble to touch the holy mysteries, and to thrust your defiled soul into the holy place, in the sight of the angels, and before God himself, as if you were innocent.” He mentions Oza slain for touching the ark, (2 Kings 6) and the words of the apostle, (1 Corinthians 11) adding: “Do not you tremble when you hear, he shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord? One guilty of the blood of a man would not rest, and can he escape who has profaned the body of the Lord? What do you do by deceiving the priest, or hiding part of your load? I beseech you no longer to cover your wounded conscience. Rogo vos etiam pro periculo meo, per ilium Dominum quem occulta non fallunt, desinite vulneratam tegere conscientiam. Men sick are not backward to show their sores to physicians, and shall the sinner be afraid or ashamed to purchase eternal life by a momentary confusion? Will he draw back his wounds from the Lord, who is offering his hand to heal them? Peccator timebit? peccator erubescet perpetuam vitam præsenti pudore mercari? et offerenti manus Domino vulnera male tecta subducet?”
In his third part he speaks to those who confessed their sins entirely, but feared the severity of the penance. He compares these to dying men who should not have the courage to take a dose which would restore their health, and says, “This is to cry out, behold I am sick, I am wounded; but I will not be cured.” He deplores their delicacy, and proposes to them King David’s austere penance. He describes thus the life of a penitent: “He is to weep in the sight of the church, to go meanly clad, to mourn, to fast, to prostrate himself, to renounce the bath, and such delights: if invited to a banquet he he is to say, such things are for those who have not had the misfortune to have sinned; I have offended the Lord, and am in danger of perishing for ever—what have I to do with feasts? Ista felicibus: ego deliqui in Dominum, et periclitor in æternum perire: quo mihi epulas qui Dominum læsi? You must moreover sue for the prayers of the poor, of the widows, of the priests, prostrating yourself before them, and of the whole church; to do everything rather than to perish. Omnia prius tentare ne pereas.” He presses sinners to severe penance, for fear of hell, and paints a frightful image of it from the fires of Vesuvius and Ætna. His treatise or sermon on Baptism, is an instruction on original sin, and the effects of this sacrament, by which we are reborn, as by chrism, or confirmation we receive the Holy Ghost by the hands of the bishop. He adds a moving exhortation that, being delivered from sin, and having renounced the devil, we no more return to sin; such a relapse after baptism being much worse. “Hold therefore, strenuously,” says he, “what you have received, preserve it faithfully; sin no more; keep yourselves pure and spotless for the day of our Lord.” Besides these three books, he wrote one against the play of the stag, commended by Saint Jerom, but now lost. The heathens had certain infamous diversions with a little stag at the beginning of every year, mentioned by Saint Ambrose, and by Nilus. It seems from the sermons, 129, 130, in the appendix to Saint Augustine’s, that it consisted of masquerades, dressed in the figures of wild beasts. Some Christians probably joined in them. Saint Pacian’s seal dictated that book against it, but the effect it produced at that time, seemed chiefly to make many more curious and more eager to see that wicked play, as Saint Pacian himself says in the beginning of his exhortation to penance. The beauty of this holy doctor’s writings can only be discovered by reading them. His diction is elegant, his reasoning just and close, and his thoughts beautiful: he is full of unction, when he exhorts to virtue, and of strength when he attacks vice.
- Father Alban Butler. “Saint Pacian, Bishop of Barcelona, Confessor”. , 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 8 March 2013. Web. 25 October 2016. <>