Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Paulinus of Nola, Bishop and Confessor

[Saint Paulinus of Nola]Article

A.D. 431.

Pontius Meropius Paulinus was born at Bourdeaux in 353. In his pedigree, both by the father and mother’s side, was displayed a long line of illustrious senators, and his own father, Pontius Paulinus, was præfectus prætorio in Gaul, the first magistrate in the western empire. But the honours and triumphs of his ancestors were eclipsed by his superior virtues, which rendered him the admiration of his own and all succeeding ages, and excited Saint Martin, Saint Sulpicius Severus, Saint Ambrose, Saint Austin, Saint Jerom, Saint Eucherius, Saint Gregory of Tours, Apollinaris, Cassiodorus, and others to vie with each other in celebrating his heroic actions, and to become the publishers of his praises to the corners of the earth. Besides the pre-eminence of his birth and riches, he received from nature a penetrating and elevated understanding, and an elegant genius, with other excellent accomplishments of mind and body, by which he was qualified for the highest attainments, and seemed born for everything that is great. These talents he cultivated from his infancy, by the closest application to the study of all the liberal arts, and he acquired the most extensive compass of useful learning. He had for master in poesy and eloquence the famous Ausonius, the first man of his age in those sciences, whose delicacy and wit would have ranked him among the greatest poets, if industry, evenness of style, and the purity of the Augustan age had not been wanting in his writings. That professor, merely for his literary abilities, was honoured by Valentinian with the dignity of præfectus prætorio, and by Gratian, whose preceptor he was, with that of consul. Under such a master Paulinus fully answered the hopes which his friends had conceived of him, and, whilst young, harangued at the bar with great applause. “Every one,” says Saint Jerom, “admired the purity and eloquence of his diction, the delicacy and loftiness of his thoughts, the strength and sweetness of his style, and the liveliness of his imagination.” Such were the acquirements of Paulinus in his youth, whilst a desire of pleasing men yet divided his heart. Probity, integrity, and other moral virtues were endowments of his soul still more admirable than his learning. His merit was soon distinguished by those who had the administration of the state, and by the emperors themselves, by whom he was raised, yet young, to the first dignities, and declared consul before his master Ausonius; consequently before the year 379. He took to wife a Spanish lady of sincere piety, and one of the most accomplished of her sex; her name was Therasia, and she brought him a great estate in land. The prudence, generosity, affability, and other social and religious virtues of the young statesman attracted veneration and esteem wherever he came, and gained him many friends and clients in Italy, Gaul, and Spain; in all which countries he had displayed his talents during fifteen years in the discharge of various employments and affairs both public and domestic. But God was pleased to open his eyes to see the emptiness of all worldly pursuits, and to inspire him with a more noble and innocent ambition of becoming little for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

The conversation of Saint Ambrose at Milan, of Saint Martin whom he had met at Vienne, and of Saint Delphinus bishop of Bourdeaux gave him a relish for retirement, and strong sentiments of a more perfect virtue. The last-mentioned holy prelate being bishop of the native city and most ordinary residence of Paulinus whilst he remained in the world, made good use of the opportunity which his situation gave him, and being charmed with the saint’s happy dispositions, often spoke to him on the necessity and happiness of giving himself to God without reserve. Paulinus had made some advances in virtue; but was not yet perfect. He was always an enemy to vanity or the love of human applause, than which passion nothing can be more unworthy of virtue, or more beneath a generous soul: though all the heathen philosophers shamefully disgraced their attainments by this base weakness. Tully was not ashamed to boast of it, and Demosthenes was delighted to hear a poor old woman whisper, “This is the great Demosthenes.” Paulinus seemed always raised by his own greatness of soul above this abject passion, and showed that geniuses which are truly great, are superior to their own abilities. But still he found how difficult a task it is for a man to preserve a perfect disengagement and purity of heart in the midst of worldly honours and blandishments, and to stand his ground against the incitements of the softer passions. Whilst every thing goads him on, and his senses and his own heart betray him, to shield his soul from the penetrating caresses of pleasure must be little short of a continued miracle. Moreover, by serious meditation on the vanities of the world, Paulinus had possessed his mind with a sincere conviction that its pleasures are empty, treacherous, and fraught with deadly poison. Certain shocks which he felt in his fortune through revolutions that happened in the empire, contributed to give him a more feeling sense of the instability of earthly things, and that bitterness which is inseparable from worldly affairs in high life, helped to increase this disgust and contempt of the world, and to discover to him the falsehood of its gilded bubbles which dazzle the eye of men at a distance. His wife, though yet young, and in a condition to enjoy the world, was the first to excite him to a contempt of whatever is not God; and they mutually encouraged one another to forsake all, that they might more perfectly follow Christ. In this resolution they retired first into Spain, and passed four years in a little country solitude, from 390 to 394, in exercises of penance and devotion. There they lost their only son an infant whom Paulinus calls a holy offspring, because he had been purified by baptism. They buried him at Alcala near the bodies of the martyrs Justus and Pastor. The holy couple lived from that time, by mutual consent, in perpetual chastity; and Paulinus soon after changed his dress, to signify to the world his resolution of forsaking it, and he determined to renounce the senate, his country, estate, and house, and to bury himself in some monastery or wilderness. He was very rich, and Ausonius grieved to see the kingdoms of Paulinus the father, as he calls his vast estates, divided among a hundred possessors. The saint sold all his estates, and distributed the price among the poor; as he did also the estate of his wife, with her consent, who aspired with no less fervour to Christian perfection. This action was much extolled by all true servants of God, but severely condemned by the slaves of the world; who called his piety folly, hating God in the works of his servant, because contrary to theirs. The rich forsook him; his own slaves, his relations, and brothers refused to pay him the common duties of humanity and charity, and rose up against him, so that he became as one unknown to his brothers, “and as a stranger to the children of his mother.” God permitted this persecution to befal him that by it he might be more perfectly weaned from the world, and might learn to contemn its frowns. If I please men, says the apostle, I should not be a servant of Christ. And Christ himself assures us that no man is worthy to be called his disciple, who hath not courage to despise human respects. Paulinus, instructed in this school, rejoiced to hear men bark at him, and all his own friends conspire to tear him to pieces, and to accuse his retreat of melancholy, hypocrisy, and every other sinister motive. His short, but golden answer to their invectives was comprised in five words: “O happy affront to displease you with Christ;” as he wrote to Saint Aper to comfort and encourage him under a like persecution of the world, because though a person who by his eloquence, learning, and dignity of judgment, held an eminent rank among the first magistrates of the empire in Gaul, he preferred to these advantages the obscurity of a religious state, which he and his wife embraced by mutual consent, soon after which he was promoted to priest’s orders. Paulinus’s old master Ausonius, who had always the most tender love and the greatest esteem for him, regretted exceedingly that he should lose a nobleman whom he knew capable of being an honour to the greatest dignities; and in verses and letters yet extant, which discover how deeply his heart was rooted in a worldly spirit, reproached him in the most bitter terms, arraigning his action of madness and extravagance. He employed the most tender entreaties, and the harshest invectives in hopes to overcome his resolution, and complains that Bilboa or Calahorra should possess and bury the glory and pillar of the Roman senate and empire. The saint, without the least emotion, wrote him back in beautiful verse, a mild and elegant answer, in which he testifies, that it was to him the highest pleasure to meet with reproaches for serving Christ: and that he regarded not the opinion or railleries of men, who pursue opposite views, provided his actions might gain the approbation of the Eternal King whom alone he desired to please. 9 Thus whilst the world despised him, he justly and courageously despised it again, and gloriously trampled it under his feet. His persecutors and upbraiders, seeing him regardless of the censures of a world to which they were themselves enslaved, became in a short time their admirers, and loudly extolled his modesty and meekness no less than his greatness of soul and the purity of his intention. In his poverty and obscurity he became the admiration of the universe, and persons of the first rank travelled from the remotest boundaries of the empire to see Paulinus in his little cottage, as Saint Austin and Saint Jerom witness. Therasia confirmed him in these good resolutions, and was not inferior to him in virtue. Having joined with him in selling her estate, she was not ashamed to appear in mean clothes, being persuaded that an humble dress suits penitent minds, and that humility is not easily to be preserved under rich attire.

Saint Ambrose, Saint Austin, Saint Jerom, and Saint Martin, gave due praise to this heroic virtue of Saint Paulinus, knowing they might safely do it to one dead to the applause no less than to the censures of others. Saint Austin being then only priest, in 392, commended his generous resolution, calling it, The glory of Jesus Christ. 10 And exhorting Licentius, a young nobleman who had formerly been his scholar, to a contempt of the world, he wrote thus to him, “Go into Campania; see Paulinus, that man so great by his birth, by his genius, and by his riches. See with what generosity this servant of Christ has stript himself of all to possess only God. See how he has renounced the pride of the world to embrace the humility of the cross. See how he now employs in the praises of God those riches of science, which unless they are consecrated to him who gave them, are lost.” Our saint could not bear applause. Greater by his humility than by all his other virtues, he sincerely desired to be forgotten by men, and begged his friends to refrain from their compliments, and not add to the load of his sins by praises which were not his due. “It surprised me,” said he, “that any one should look upon it as a great action for a man to purchase eternal salvation, the only solid good, with perishable pelf, and to sell the earth to buy heaven.” Others called him perfect in virtue; but his answer was, “A man that is going to pass a river by swimming is not got on the other side when he has but just put off his clothes. His whole body must be in action, and his limbs all put in motion; he must exert his utmost strength, and make great efforts to master the current.” The saint had, indeed, for the sake of virtue, forsaken all that the world could give; he had despised its riches, honours, and seducing pleasures, and had trampled upon its frowns, and all human respects. Courted in the world by all who would be thought men of genius, and caressed by all who valued themselves upon a fine taste, he had courage to renounce those flattering advantages; and with honours and riches he had made a sacrifice also of his learning and great attainments only that he might consecrate himself to the divine service. Yet this was only the preparation to the conflict. Wherefore not to lose by sloth the advantages which he had procured to himself, he laboured with all his strength to improve them to his advancement in virtue. He made it his first endeavour to subdue himself, to kill the very seeds of pride, impatience, and other passions in his heart, and to ground himself in the most profound humility, meekness, and patience. If any one seemed to admire the sacrifice he had made in renouncing so great riches and honours, in the number of captives he had ransomed, of debtors whom he had freed from prison by discharging their debts, of hospitals he had founded, and of churches he had built, he replied that the only sacrifice which God accepted was that of the heart, which he had not yet begun to make as he ought; that if others had not given so much to the poor, they excelled in more heroic virtues; for the gifts of grace are various; that his sacrifice was too defective in itself, and only exterior, consequently of no value, but rather hypocrisy. These and the like sentiments he so expresses, as to show how perfectly he considered himself as the most unprofitable and unworthy of servants in the house of God, and saw nothing in himself but what was matter of compunction, and a subject of the most profound humiliation. To the practice of interior self-denial, by which he bent his will, he added exterior mortification. And so great was the poverty in which he lived, that he often was not able to procure a little salt to his herbs or bread, which the most austere hermits usually allowed themselves. Yet the holy cheerfulness of his pious soul was remarkable to all who had the happiness to enjoy his acquaintance; and we sensibly discern it in a constant vein of gaiety which runs through all his writings.

Paulinus would not choose a retreat at Jerusalem or Rome, because he desired to live unknown to the world. His love of solitude and his devotion to Saint Felix determined him to prefer a lonely cottage near Nola, a small city in Campania, that he might serve Christ near the tomb of that glorious confessor, which was without the walls of the town. He would be the porter of his church, to sweep the floor every morning, and to watch the night as keeper of the porch; and he desired to end his life in that humble employment. 13 But he was promoted to holy orders before he left Spain. The people of Barcelona seized him in the church on Christmas day in 393, and demanded with great earnestness that he should be made priest. He resolutely opposed their desire, and only at length consented on condition that he should be at liberty to go wherever he pleased. This being agreed to, he received holy orders from the hands of the bishop. The citizens of Barcelona were indeed in hopes to fix him among them; but the next year, 394, after Easter, he left Spain to go into Italy. He saw Saint Ambrose at Milan, or rather at Florence, who received him with great honour, and adopted him into his clergy, but without any obligation of residing in his diocess. The saint went to Rome, and met with great civilities from Domnio, a holy priest of that church, from Saint Pammachius, and many others. But Pope Siricius did not appear equally gracious, and the saint made no stay in that capital, being in haste to arrive at Nola, the place of his retirement. There stood a church over the tomb of Felix, half a mile from the walls of the city, and to it was contiguous a long building of two stories, with a gallery divided into cells, in which Paulinus lodged the clergymen who came to see him. On the other side was a lodging for secular persons, who sometimes visited him; and he had a little garden. Several pious persons lived with him, whom he calls a company of monks, and he practised with them all the rules and austerities of a monastic state. They celebrated the divine office, were clad with sackcloth, and abstained for the most part from wine, though Paulinus himself, on account of his infirmities, drank sometimes a little diluted with a great quantity of water: they fasted and watched much, and their ordinary diet was herbs; but they never ate or drank so much as to satisfy hunger or thirst. Saint Paulinus says, 16 that every day he laboured to render to Saint Felix all the honour he was able; yet he strove to outdo himself on the day of his festival: to which he added every year a birth-day poem in his honour as a tribute of his voluntary service, as he styles it. We have fourteen, or as others count them, fifteen of these birth-day poems of Saint Felix, composed by Saint Paulinus, still extant.

The saint testifies that no motive so strongly excited him to the greatest fervour in the divine service as the consideration of the infinite goodness of God, who, though we owe him so much, demands only our love to pay off all debts, and to cancel our offences. Poor and insolvent as we are, if we love, this clears off all the score. And in this no man can allege the difficulty, because no man can say he has not a heart. We are masters of our love; if we give this to the Lord, we are quit. The excess of his goodness carries him still further, for he is pleased that by paying him our poor love, we should be moreover entitled to his greatest favours, and of our creditor should make him our debtor. 18 Saint Paulinus had spent fifteen years in his retirement, when upon the death of Paul the bishop of Nola, about the end of the year 409, he was chosen to fill the episcopal chair. Uranius, a priest of that church under our saint, who has given us a short relation of his death, to which he was an eye-witness, testifies that the holy prelate in the discharge of his pastoral duties, sought to be beloved by all rather than feared by any. No provocations were ever able to move him to anger, and in his tribunal he always joined mildness with severity. No one ever had recourse to him who did not receive from him every kind of comfort of which he stood in need. Every one received a share in his liberalities, in his counsels, or in his alms. He looked upon only those as true riches which Christ hath promised to his saints, saying that the chief use of gold and silver consists in affording means to assist the indigent. By his liberality in relieving others he reduced himself to the last degree of penury. 19 The Goths in their plunder of Italy in 410, besieged Nola, and, among others, Paulinus was taken prisoner. In this extremity he said to God with confidence, “Suffer me not to be tortured for gold and silver; for you know where I have placed all that you gave me.” And not one of those who had forsaken all for Christ was tormented by the barbarians. This is related by Saint Austin. 20 A virtuous lady called Flora having buried her son Cynegius in the church of Saint Felix, consulted Saint Paulinus, what advantage the dead receive by being buried near the tombs of saints. Paulinus put the question to Saint Austin, who answered it by his book, On the Care for the Dead, in which he shows that pomp of funerals and the like honours are only comforts of the living friends, not succours of the deceased; but that a burial in a holy place proceeds from a devotion which recommends the soul of the deceased to the divine mercy, and to the saint’s intercession. Saint Paulinus lived to the year 431. Three days before his death he was visited in his last sickness by Symmachus and Acyndinus, two bishops, with whom he entertained himself on spiritual things, as if he had been in perfect health. The joy of seeing them made him forget his distemper. With them he offered the tremendous sacrifice, causing the holy vessels to be brought to his bedside. Soon after the priest Posthumian coming in, told him that forty pieces of silver were owing for clothes for the poor. The saint smiling, said some one would pay the debt of the poor. A little after arrived a priest of Lucania, who brought him fifty pieces of silver, sent him for a present from a certain bishop and a layman. Saint Paulinus gave thanks to God, gave two pieces to the bearer, and paid the merchants for the clothes. He slept a little at night, but awaked his clergy to matins according to his custom, and made them an exhortation to unanimity and fervour. After this he lay silent till the hour of vespers, when stretching out his hands, he said in a low voice,—I have prepared a lamp for my Christ, Psalm, xxxi. The lamps in the church were then lighting. Between ten and eleven at night, all who were in his chamber felt a sudden trembling as by some shock of an earthquake, and that moment he gave up his soul to God. He was buried in the church he had built in honour of Saint Felix. His body was afterwards removed to Rome, and lies in the church of Saint Bartholomew beyond the Tiber.

The world by persecuting Saint Paulinus served only to enhance the glory of his victory, and to prepare him a double crown. This enemy is much less dangerous if it condemn than if it applaud us. To fear its impotent darts is to start at shadows. Itself will in the end admire those who for the sake of virtue have dared to despise its frowns. To serve men for God as far as it lies in our power is a noble part of charity; but to enslave our conscience to the mad caprice of the world is a baseness, a pusillanimity, and a wickedness, for which we cannot find a name. In other things we serve you, said the Hebrews to king Pharaoh, when his slaves in Egypt; but we must be free to go into the wilderness to sacrifice to the God of Israel. In the indispensable duties of religion, in the service of God, in the affair of eternity, we are essentially free; the dignity of our nature, and our allegiance to God, forbid us in this ever to become slaves. Here we must always exert an heroic courage, and boldly profess, by our conduct, with all the saints, that we know no other glory but what is placed in the service of God, and that we look upon ignominies suffered for the sake of virtue as our greatest gain and honour. We are his disciples who hath told us, If the world hateth you, know that it hated me first, John 15:18.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Paulinus of Nola, Bishop and Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. CatholicSaints.Info. 25 June 2013. Web. 19 August 2017. <>