Fabius Claudius Gordianus Fulgentius
Born in 468, died in 533. Bishop of Ruspe in the province of Byzacene in Africa, eminent among the Fathers of the Church for saintly life, eloquence and theological learning. His grandfather, Gordianus, a senator of Carthage, was despoiled of his possessions by the invader Genseric, and banished to Italy, his two sons returned after his death, and, though their house in Carthage had been made over to Arian priests, they recovered some property in Byzacene. Fulgentius was born at Telepte in that province. His father, Claudius, soon died, and he was brought up by his mother, Mariana. He studied Greek letters before Latin “quo facilius posset, victurus inter Afros, locutionem Graecam, servatis aspirationibus, tamquam ibi nutritus exprimere“. We learn from these words of his biographer that the Greek aspirates were hard for a Latin to pronounce. We are told thatFulgentius at an early age committed all Homer to memory, and throughout his life his pronunciation of Greek was excellent. He was also well trained in Latin literature. As he grew older, he governed his house wisely in subjection to his mother. He was favored by the provincial authorities, and made procurator of the fiscus. But a desire of religious life came over him: he practiced austerities privately in the world for a time, until he was moved by the of Saint Augustine on Psalm xxxvi to betake himself to a monastery which had been founded by a bishop named Faustus near his episcopal city, from which like other Catholic bishops he had been exiled by the Vandal king, Hunneric. The fervent appeal of the young man won his admission from Faustus, to whom he was already well known. His mother clamored with tears at the door of the monastery to see her son; but he gave no sign of his presence there. He became ill from excessive abstinence, but recovered without renouncing it. His worldly goods he made over to his mother, leaving his younger brother dependent on her.
But Faustus was obliged to fly from renewed persecution, and by his advice Fulgentius sought a small monastery not far off, whose abbot, Felix, had been his friend in the world. Felix insisted upon resigning his office to Fulgentius. A contest of humility ended in the agreement of all that Fulgentius should be co-abbot. Felix cared for the house, and Fulgentius instructed the brethren; Felix showed charity to the guests, Fulgentius edified them with discourse. A raid of Moors made it necessary to remove to a safer spot, and a new retreat was started at Idida in Mauretania, but Fulgentius soon left Felix, having conceived an ardent desire to visit the monasteries of Egypt, for he had been reading the “Institutiones” and “Collationes” of Cassian, and he also hoped to be no longer superior, and to be able to keep yet stricter abstinence. He took ship at Carthage for Alexandria with a companion named Redemptus. On his arrival at Syracuse, the holy bishop of that city, Eulalius, told him. “The lands to which you wish to travel are separated from the communion of Peter by an heretical quarrel”. Fulgentius therefore stopped a few months with Eulalius, and then sought further advice from an exiled bishop of his own province, who was living as a monk on a tiny island off the coast of Sicily. He was recommended to return to his own monastery, but “not to forget the Apostles”. In consequence, he made a pilgrimage to Rome, where he was present at a speech made by Theodoric before the senate, and had an opportunity of despising all the magnificence the court of the Gothic king could show. His return was hailed with joy in Africa, and a nobleman of Byzacene gave him fertile land on which he established a new monastery. But Fulgentius retired from his position as superior in order to live a more hidden life in a large and strict abbey which flourished on a rocky island. Here he worked, read, and contemplated. He was an accomplished scribe, and could make fans of palm leaves. Felix, however, refused to submit to the loss of his brother abbot, and he got Bishop Faustus to claim Fulgentius as his own monk and to order his return to Felix. The bishop ensured his continuance as abbot by ordaining him priest.
At this time the Arian King Thrasimund (496-523), though not so cruel a persecutor as his predecessors, allowed no Catholic bishops to be elected in Africa. It was decided in 508 by such bishops as could manage to meet together that it was necessary to brave this law, and it was decreed that elections should take place quietly and simultaneously in all the vacant sees, before the Government had time to take preventive measures. Fulgentius was nominated in several cities; but he had fled into hiding, and could not be found. When he thought all the appointments had been made, he reappeared, but the seaport of Ruspe, where the election had been delayed through the ambition of a deacon of the place, promptly elected him; and against his will he was consecrated bishop of a town he had never seen. He insisted on retaining his monastic habits. He refused all ease and continued his fasts. He had but one poor tunic for winter and summer; he wore no orarium, but used a leathern girdle like a monk; nor would he wear clerical shoes, but went barefoot or with sandals. He had no precious chasuble (casula), and did not permit his monks to have any. Under his chasuble he wore a grey or buff (?) cloak. The same tunic served day and night, and even for the holy Sacrifice, at which, said he, the heart and not the garment should be changed. His first care at Ruspe was to get the citizens to build him a monastery, of which he made Felix abbot, and he never lived without monks around him. But very soon all the new bishops were exiled. Fulgentius was one of the juniors among the 60 African bishops collected in Sardinia, but in their meetings his opinion was eagerly sought, and the letters sent in the name of all were always drawn up by him. He also frequently composed pastoral letters for individual colleagues to send to their flocks. Fulgentius had brought a few monks with him to Sardinia, and he joined with two other bishops and their companions in a common life, so that their house became the oracle of the city of Calaris, and a centre of peace, consolation, and instruction.
It was perhaps about the year 515 that Thrasimund issued a series of ten questions as a challenge to the Catholic bishops, and the reputation of Fulgentius was now so great that the king sent for him to Carthage to speak in the name of the rest. The saint, during his stay in that city, gave constant instructions in the faith of the Holy Trinity, and reconciled many who had been rebaptized by the Arians. He discussed with many wise persons the replies to be made to the ten questions, and at length submitted to the king a small but able work which we still possess under the title of “Contra Arianos liber unus, ad decem objectiones decem responsiones continens”. The king then proposed further objections, but was anxious to avoid a second reply as effective as the former one. He took the unfair and tyrannical course of having the new questions, which were expressed at great length, read aloud once toFulgentius, who was not allowed to have a copy of them, but was expected to give direct answers; though the public would not know whether he had really replied to the point or not. When the bishop pointed out that he could not even recollect the questions after hearing them but once, the king declared that he showed a want of confidence in his own case.Fulgentius was therefore obliged to write a larger work, , which is a very fine specimen of careful and orthodox theological argument.
Thrasimund seems to have been pleased with this reply. An Arian bishop named Pinta produced an answer which, with Fulgentius’s refutation of it, is lost to us. The work now entitled is spurious. The king wished to keep Fulgentius at Carthage, but the Arian bishops were afraid of his influence and his power of converting, and therefore obtained his exile. He was put on board ship at night, that the people ofCarthage might not know of his departure. But contrary winds obliged the vessel to remain several days in port, and nearly all the city was able to take leave of the holy bishop, and to receive Holy Communion from his hand. To a religious man who was weeping he privately prophesied his speedy return and the liberty of the African Church.
Fulgentius was accompanied to Sardinia by many of his monastic brethren. Instead, therefore, of proceeding to his former abode, he obtained permission from the Bishop of Calaris to build an abbey hard by the Basilica of Saint Saturninus, and there he ruled over forty monks, who observed the strictest renunciation of private property, while the abbot saw to all their wants with great charity and discretion; but if any monk asked for anything, he refused him at once, saying that a monk should be content with what he is given, and that true religious have renounced their own will, “parati nihil velle et nolle”. This severity in a particular point was no doubt tempered by the saint’s sweetness of disposition and charm of manner, with which was associated a peculiarly winning and moving eloquence. He wrote much during his second exile. The Scythian monks, led by John Maxentius at Constantinople, had been trying to get their formula approved at Rome: “One of the Trinity was crucified”. At the same time they were attacking the traces of Semipelagianism in the works of Faustus of Riez. On the latter point they had full sympathy from the exiles in Sardinia, whose support they had asked. Fulgentius wrote them a letter in the name of the other bishops (Ep. 15), and composed a work “Contra Faustum” in seven books, which is now lost. It was just completed when, in 523, Thrasimund died, and his successor, Hilderic, restored liberty to the Church of Africa.
The exiles returned, and new consecrations took place for all the vacant sees. When the bishops landed at Carthage, Fulgentius had an enthusiastic reception, and his journey to Ruspe was a triumphal progress. He returned to his beloved monastery, but insisted on Felix being sole superior; and he, who was consulted first among all the bishops of the province, asked leave in the monastery for the least things from the abbot Felix. He delivered in writing to the abbey a deed by which it was perpetually exempted from the jurisdiction of the bishops of Ruspe. This document was read in the Council of Carthage of 534. It was in fact the custom in Africa that monasteries should not of necessity be subject to the local bishop, but might choose any bishop at a distance as their ecclesiastical superior. Fulgentius now gave himself to the care of his diocese. He was careful that his clergy should not wear fine clothes, nor devote themselves to secular occupations. They were to have houses near the church, to cultivate their gardens with their own hands, and to be particular about correct pronunciation and sweetness in singing the psalms. He corrected some with words, others with scourging. He ordered fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays for all clergy and widows, and for those of the laity that were able. In this last period of Saint Fulgentius’s life he published some sermons, and ten books against the Arian Fabianus, of which only fragments remain. A year before his death he was moved to great compunction of heart; he suddenly quitted all his work, and even his monastery, and sailed with a few companions to the island of Circe, where he gave himself to reading, prayer, and fasting in a monastery which he had previously caused to be constructed on a small rock. There he mortified his members and wept in the presence of God alone, as though he anticipated a speedy death. But complaints were made of his absence, and he returned to his labors. He shortly fell into a grievous sickness. In his sufferings he said ceaselessly: “O Lord, give me patience here, and forgiveness hereafter.” He refused, as too luxurious, the warm bath which the physicians recommended. He summoned his clergy and in the presence of the monks asked pardon for any want of sympathy or any undue severity he might have shown. He was sick for seventy days, continuing in prayer and retaining all his faculties to the last. His possessions he gave to the poor, and to those of his clergy who were in need. He died on 1 January 533, in the sixty-fifth year of his life and the twenty-fifth of his episcopate.
Besides the works already mentioned, we still possess of Saint Fulgentius some fine treatises, sermons, and letters. The best known is the book , a description of the true Faith, written for a certain Peter, who was going on a pilgrimage to the schismatic East. The three books , written in Sardinia, are addressed to a friend who understood Saint Augustine to teach that God predestinates evil. Saint Fulgentius is saturated with Saint Augustine’s writings and way of thinking, and he defends him from the charge of making God predestinate evil. He himself makes it a matter of faith that unbaptized infants are punished with eternal fire for original sin. No one can by any means be saved outside the Church; all pagans and heretics are infallibly damned. “It is to think unworthily of grace, to suppose that it is given to all men”, since not only not all have faith, but there are still some nations which the preaching of the Faith has not yet reached. These harsh doctrines seem to have suited the African temperament. His last work against Semipelagianism was written at Ruspe and addressed to the leaders of the Scythian monks, John and Venerius: “De veritate praedestinationis et gratiae Dei”, in three books. To these we may add the two books, “De remissione peccatorum”. He wrote much on the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation: “Liber contra Arianos”, “Liber ad Victorem”, “Liber ad Scarilam de Incarnatione”. To Saint Augustine’s doctrine of the Trinity, Fulgentius adds a thorough grasp of the doctrine of the Person of Christ as defined against Nestorianism and Eutychianism. His thought is always logical and his exposition clear, and he is the principal theologian of the sixth century, if we do not count Saint Gregory. His letters have no biographical interest, but are theological treatises on chastity, virginity, penance, etc. His sermons are eloquent and full of fervour, but are few in number.