Catholic World – Saint Cathaldus of Taranto, by J F Hogan

Saint Catald of Taranto“Me tulit Hiberne: Solymae traxere. Tarentum
Nunc tenet. Huic-ritus, dogmata, jura dedi.”

About seven hundred years before the birth of Christ a band of Spartan adventurers founded the city of Tarentum. In retaliation for the insults and wrongs that were inflicted on them at home, on account of their Parthenian origin, they conspired against their native government; but, failing to accomplish] their designs, they were driven out of Greece, and condemned, with their leader, Phalanthus, to perpetual exile. They betook themselves, in their misfortune, to the northern part of Magna Graecia, and settled by the shores of the great gulf of the Ionian Sea. After searching for a site that might prove favourable to commerce, they fixed on the isthmus that separated the large bay from the little harbour now known as the “Mare Piccolo.” There were some scattered houses already there, and as these were steadily growing into a town, the place was called after Taras the Giant, a fabulous son of Neptune, who, according to superstitious traditions, had banished fever and pestilence from the marshes around. The Parthenians took possession of the settlement, and, by their enterprise and intelligence, laid the foundations of a city which grew, in after years, to splendid proportions.

We know not how long Tarentum Lacedemonian Tarentum, as it was called by Horace preserved the simplicity of its Spartan manners; but we know that, like Sybaris, Metapontum, and the other cities of the great Grecian colony, it became famous in history for its luxury and corruption. The country around it was uncommonly fertile. The fleeces of the sheep that grazed on the banks of the Galaesus, which flows into its harbour, were of a finer texture than those of Apulia; and the “murex,” which gave to its wool the famous red-purple dye, abounded in the seas around. Its honey rivalled that of the mountain of Hymettus; and it was in the midst of the vineyards of Aulon, which rose in fertile slopes behind it, that was to be found that spot of earth that was so dear to Horace:

“Ille terrarum mlhi praeter omnes
Angulus ridet.”

These, and many other resources on sea and land, became, in the hands of the sturdy Greeks, the materials of an extensive trade, which brought with it, in the course of a century or two, a tide of wealth and prosperity that was scarcely surpassed by any other city in Southern Italy. It reached the summit of its splendour under Archytas, its famous philosopher and lawgiver, and under his wise rule assumed the proportions of a vast and magnificent city. It had its temples, its schools, its theatres, its baths, its palaces. When Plato came from Athens to visit it, its buildings displayed the classic symmetry so pleasing to the eye of the great philosopher, the ideal line of Grecian architecture, the line that evokes life, and gives a form which Plato and his disciples regarded as eternal.

The lives of the people accorded well with these outward evidences of prosperity. But from prosperity to vice the road is wide and the distance short. That road the people of Tarentum travelled, till they vied with their neighbours of Sybaris in luxury and crime. Then trouble came upon them, and they had good reason to regret the departed virtues of the race from which they sprung. In their extremity they sought the aid of the King of Epirus; but, in spite of his daring and bravery, Pyrrhus was driven back to Greece. And now one of those strange developments of fortune which sometimes mark with a touch of irony the vicissitudes of history occurred to the Greeks of Tarentum. Its foremost citizens were banished by the inexorable Consul Pacuvius, and compelled to take refuge in the very land from which their forefathers had been expelled. As unwilling as were the original Spartans to leave their native Lacedemonia, just as unwilling were their descendants to return to it. Indeed they felt this exile more keenly than if they had been driven to any other country. The poet Leonidas gave expression to the general sentiment of the exiles when he said: “I languish far from the land of Italy, and from Tarentum my country and this banishment is more bitter to me than death.”

After the defeat of Pyrrhus, the Tarentines next put their trust in Hannibal; but Hannibal, who at one time seemed to have secured the whole of Southern Italy against Home, was obliged to return to Carthage, and old Fabius “Cunctator” was entrusted with the task of chastising the Tarentines.

The city was now subjected to one of those systematic forms of pillage peculiar to the old Eoman Eepublic. Thirty thousand of its citizens were sold as slaves. Its treasures of gold and silver were transferred to Rome, where they exercised an immediate effect on the currency and money-market ‘of the empire. Its temples and theatres were despoiled of their statues and of their paintings. The superstitious old general respected only the figures of those divinities that were represented in an attitude of anger Jupiter, launching his thunderbolts against some rebel of earth or of Olympus; Apollo, piercing with his darts the children of Niobe; Perseus, despatching the Gorgon with his dagger; Hercules, trampling on the Amazon; Minerva, threatening Medusa with her spear, or changing Arachne into a spider. He gave expression in. a few pregnant but tragic words to the dispositions of Pagan Borne towards her vanquished rebels, when he said: “Let us leave to the Tarentines their irritated gods.”

From its capture by Fabius down to the early days of Christianity, Tarentum dwindled into comparative insignificance. As a part of its punishment, Brundusium was substituted for it as a port of embarcation for the East. Its trade was ruined by this unfortunate change, and it has never since recovered from the blow which shattered the very foundation of its mercantile prosperity.

Who was the first to preach Christianity to the citizens of Tarentum? At what period were they converted? Did they remain steadfast after their first conversion, or did they fall back again into paganism, and require to be rescued a second time? These are questions which are involved in great obscurity, and have given rise to a great amount of research and speculation among the native historians of Calabria. We can only give what appears to be the general conclusion at which they have arrived.

A tradition of immemorial standing seems to ascribe the first conversion of Tarentum to Saint Peter and his disciple and companion, Saint Mark. Seeing that it is held by many writers that Saint Peter paid two visits to Rome, during the second of which he suffered martyrdom, it is natural enough to suppose that, on his way to or from the East, he may have passed through Tarentum, and have preached the good tidings of Christianity to its people. However this may be, it is certain that the seeds of Christian life did not take deep root there on its first sowing, and that in the political turmoil which followed the transfer of the seat of Empire to Constantinople, its young shoots were almost completely smothered. In these disturbances Tarentum passed from Romans to Greeks, and from Greeks to Romans. It was handed about to all kinds of freebooters. For a time it was held by Belisarius for Justinian; then it was occupied by Totila and his Goths. These in their turn were expelled by the Imperial arms, and the citadel was held for the empire until the arrival of the Longobardi, whose commander, Romoald (Duke of Beneventum) got possession of the town and province.

It must be acknowledged that such stormy conditions of life were not very favourable to the spread of Christianity. No wonder, therefore, that little trace should have been found of the Christian settlement that had once been established at Tarentum when Saint Cathaldus first appeared within its walls.

That Saint Cathaldus was a native of Ireland, is a fact which cannot be seriously questioned. Indeed it is not denied by anybody worthy of a moment’s notice. It has been the constant tradition of the Church of Tarentum; and in every history of the city or of its apostle that is of Italian origin, there is but one voice as to the country from which Saint Cathaldus came. The most valuable biography of the saiat which we possess was written in the seventeenth century by an Italian Franciscan named Bartolomeo Moroni, As this work professes to be based on very ancient codices and manuscripts of the Church of Taranto, we must conclude that it contains a good deal that is accurate and trustworthy, whilst a very cursory examination is sufficient to convince us that fable and fiction have entered not a little into its composition. It tells us, at all events, that Cathaldus was a native of Ireland; that he was born at a place called Kachau according to some, at Cathandum according to others; that as a happy augury of his future mission to the half Greek, half Italian city of Taranto, his father’s name was Euchus, and his mother’s Achlena or Athena.

A good deal of discussion has been indulged in as to the identity of his birthplace. The general opinion seems to be that Kachau was the place from which he took his title as bishop, and that Cathandum was the place of his birth. This Cathandum is supposed to be identified either with “Ballycahill,” in the Ormond district of North Tipperary, and in the diocese of Killaloe, or with a place of the same name not far from Thurles, in the diocese of Cashel. As for Rachau, it is believed to be intended either for Eahan in the King’s County, where Saint Carthage had his famous monastery, and where he ruled as a bishop before his expulsion by the Hy Niall of Meath, or for one of the numerous places called Kath in the immediate neighbourhood of Lismore; or, finally, as Lanigan thinks probable, the place now called Shanraghan in Southern Tipperary and on the confines of Waterford. It is distinctly stated that the place was, at all events, in the province of Munster, and not far from Lismore. Nothing more precise can be laid down with certainty.

What does not, however, admit of the slightest doubt, is the fact that Saint Cathaldus was surrounded by spiritual and religious influences of a very special kind from his infancy upwards. These influences found in his soul a most sympathetic response, and when they had lifted the thoughts and aspirations of this fair youth above earthly things, he was sent by his parents to the neighbouring school of Lismore. This school, although it had been established only for a very short time, had already acquired widespread fame, and had attracted students from all parts of England and Scotland, and from several continental countries besides.

What a busy place this famous southern university must have been in the days of its prosperity ! When we read the account of it that has come down to us, glorified though it may be, and exaggerated, as no doubt it is, by the imaginations of its admirers, writing, some of them, centuries after its decay, and seeing it chiefly through the scholars and apostles that it produced, we cannot help being struck by the features of resemblance, and yet the strong contrast, it presents with those Grecian cities that, in far-off times, gathered to their academies and their market-places the elite of the world orators, poets, artists, grammarians, philosophers, all who valued culture or knew the price of intellectual superiority. Lismore had no spacious halls, no classic colonnades, no statues, or fountains, or stately temples. Its houses of residence were of the simplest and most primitive description, and its halls were in keeping with these, mere wooden structures, intended only to shut off the elements, but without any claim or pretense to artistic design. And yet Lismore had something more valuable than the attractions of either architecture or luxury. It possessed that which has ever proved the magnet of the philosopher and the theologian truth, namely, and truth illumined by the halo of religion. It sheltered also in its humble halls whatever knowledge remained in a barbarous age of those rules of art that had already shed such lustre on Greece and Borne., or had been fostered in Ireland itself according to principles and a system of native conception. Hence it drew around it a crowd of foreigners Saxons and Britons, Franks and Teutons, Sicambrians and Helvetians, Arvernians and Bohemians:

“Undique conveniunt proceres quos dulce trahebat
Discendi stadium, major num cognita virtus
An laudata foret. Celeres vastissima Eheni
Jam vada Teutonici, jam deseruere Sicambri.
Mittit ah extreme gelidos Aquilone Boemos
Albis, et Arverni coeunt, Batavique frequentes,
Et quicumque colunt alta sub rape Gehennas.
Non omnes prospectat Arar, Ehodanique fluenta
Helvetica; multos desiderat ultima Thule.
Certatim hi properant, diverse tramite ad urbem
Lesmoriam, juvenis primes ubi transigit annos.”

At Lismore Cathaldus edified his brethren by his extraordinary piety as well as by his great love of study. In due time he passed from the student’s bench to the master’s chair, and whilst he taught in the schools, he was not unmindful of the world’s needs. He raised a church at Lismore to the glory of God and the perpetual memory of His Virgin Mother. Frequent miracles bore testimony at this period to the interior sanctity of the young professor. So great was the admiration of the people for him that one of the princes in the neighbourhood grew jealous of his influence, and denounced him to the King of Munster as a magician, who aimed at subverting established authority and setting up his own in its place. The King accordingly sent his fleet to Lismore, where Cathaldus was taken prisoner and confined in a dungeon until some favourable opportunity should offer to have him conveyed into perpetual exile. The King, however, soon found what a mistake he had committed, and, instead of banishing Cathaldus, he offered him the territory of Rachau, which belonged to Meltridis, the Prince who had denounced him, and who was now overtaken by death in the midst of his intrigues. Cathaldus refused the temporal honours which the King was anxious to confer upon him, and proclaimed that he vowed his life to religion, and sought no other honours. He was, therefore, raised to the episcopate, and constituted the chief spiritual ruler of the extensive territory of the deceased Meltridis, whose tanist rights were made over on the church.

After Cathaldus had ruled the see of Kachau for some years, he resolved to set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He committed the care of his diocese to his neighbouring bishops, and set sail, without any retinue, for the Holy Land. It is probable that he was accompanied by hisbrother, Donatus, who afterwards became Bishop of Lupiaer now Lecce, in Calabria. In due course he reached his destination, and had the supreme happiness of kneeling at the great sepulchre, or as Tasso expresses it:

“D’adorar la Gran Tomba e sciorre il voto.”

With all the love and reverence of a pilgrim he sought out the holy places that had been sanctified by the presence of his Heavenly Master; and so great was his joy to live in these solitudes, and dwell on the mysteries of man’s salvation, amidst the very scenes in which it had been accomplished, that he earnestly desired and prayed to be relieved of his episcopal burden, and allowed to live and die in the desert in which our Lord had fasted, or in some one of the retreats that had been made sacred for ever by His earthly presence. Whilst engaged in earnest prayer on these thoughts, his soul was invaded by a supernatural light, which made clear to him that Providence had other designs about him. He accordingly started on the journey that Heaven had marked out for him; and, having been shipwrecked in the Gulf of Taranto, he was cast ashore not far from the city of which he was to become the apostle and the bishop. The cave in which he first took refuge is still to be seen in the neighbourhood of Otranto, not far from the point of the Japygian promontory.

The shipwrecked pilgrim, henceforward an apostle, soon made his way to the eastern gate of Tarentum. At the entrance of the city a blind man was to be seen, asking for assistance from those who passed by. His condition was symbolical of the darkness that prevailed within. Cathaldus addressed him, spoke to him of Christ and of the Blessed Trinity, and, as he found him amenable to Christian teaching, he instructed him in the mysteries of salvation; and whilst he imparted to him the light of grace through the Sacrament of Baptism he restored to him the light of natural vision through that supernatural power that had been vouchsafed to him. This whole circumstance was regarded as a happy omen, and as a symbol of the change to be wrought by the apostle within the city.

A parallel has sometimes been drawn between tbe condition of Taranto, when Saint Cathaldus first entered its gates, with that of Athens when it was first visited by Saint Paul. The parallel holds good in some respects, but not in all. Taranto was, to all intents and purposes, as deeply plunged in paganism as Athens was. There was scarcely a vestige left of the early religious settlement that had been made there by Saint Peter and Saint Mark, or by whoever had preached the Gospel to its people in early times. Paganism reigned supreme; but, in so far as it constituted a religion at all, it was paganism in its most corrupt and repellent form. The days of Archytas and of Pythagoras were now left far behind. The artistic splendour which had never entirely disappeared from Athens, had long since vanished from Taranto. There was no culture now, but ignorance and barbarism, the result of centuries of war and strife. With minds thus steeped in ignorance, with hearts corrupted by licence and perverted by superstition, the people of this neglected city did not offer a very encouraging prospect to the new missionary who appeared among them. His success, nevertheless, was greater than that of St. Paul at the capital of Greece. He won his way to the hearts of the people by his eloquence, his zeal, his power of working miracles; and when the prejudice entertained against his person and speech was once removed, the divine origin of the Gospel that he preached was acknowledged readily enough. We have, unfortunately, but very meagre details as to the methods of his apostolate; but we are assured, at all events, that they were so effective as to win over the whole city in a few years. Certain it is that Cathaldus was acknowledged without dispute, during his own lifetime, as Bishop of Tarentum, and that he has ever since been revered as the founder of the Tarentine Church and the patron saint of the converted city.

It is said that when the saint felt that his death was at hand, he called around him his priests and deacons and the chief men of the city, and earnestly exhorted them to remain faithful to his teaching.

“I know [he said], that when I am gone dreadful and relentless enemies shall rise up against you, and endeavour, by heretical sophistry, to tear asunder the members of the Catholic Church, and lead astray the flock which I brought together with such pains. Against these enemies of your faith and of the Christian religion, I entreat you to strengthen the minds of the people by your own firmness, ever mindful of my labours and vigils.”

The remains of the holy Bishop were committed, at his own request, to their native earth in his Cathedral Church. They were enclosed in a marble tomb, portion of which is still preserved. For some time the exact position of this tomb was unknown, but when Archbishop Drogonus of Tarentum was restoring the cathedral, in the eleventh century, the tomb was discovered. It was opened by the Archbishop, and the body of the saint was found well preserved. A golden cross had been attached to the body of the saint at the time of his burial. This also was discovered, and found to bear upon it the name of Cathaldus. The relics of the saint were then encased and preserved in the high altar of the cathedral. During the; pontificate of Eugenius III they were transferred to a beautiful silver shrine adorned with gems and precious stones. A silver statue of Cathaldus was also cast, and erected in the church. These and many other memorials of the saint are still to be seen, and are held in great veneration by the people of Taranto.

The miracles attributed to the saints of the Church are often spoken of with derision by those who regard themselves as the children of light. These, whilst they minister to their own vanity, and fancy that nature has taken them specially into her confidence, revealing her inmost secrets to their ardent gaze, sometimes succeed in deceiving others: but they deceive themselves more than all. Indeed it is almost impossible to conceive how those early saints could have succeeded in winning over to Christianity, in the space of a few years, whole cities and districts that had hitherto been steeped in vice and superstition, without the power of working miracles. When that power is once granted, the explanation of wholesale conversion becomes easy and plain. Something is necessary to strike and astonish the multitude, and when wonder and alarm have become general, half the battle is already gained.

That Saint Cathaldus possessed this power in a high degree, is testified not only in the records of his life, but still more authentically in the wholesale nature of the (Conversions that he wrought, and the unfading memory he left impressed on the city to which he ministered. The veneration for Cathaldus was not confined to Tarentum alone. It spread far and wide through Italy, Greece, and the Ionian islands. The village of Castello San Cataldo on the Ionian coast, midway between Brindisi and Otranto, perpetuates his name. Chapels dedicated to the saint, or statues erected in his honour, may be seen in many of the neighbouring towns of Calabria. The Cathedral of Taranto itself is, however, his greatest monument. M. Paul Bourget, the famous French Academician, who recently visited these southern shores, speaks of it as “la belle cathedrale Normande vouee a San Cataldo, l’apotre irlandais du pays.” It is a Norman cathedral, but many of the distinctive features of Norman architecture have given way to new designs, which make of it a curious mixture of many styles. The interior of the church, however, is very rich, many of the chapels being profusely inlaid with “pietra dura.” The shrine and statue of the saint are particularly fine. Notwithstanding the series of successive influences, and of rival civilizations that have passed over these southern lands, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Saracen, Norman, Teuton, and later Italian, M. Bourget is impressed, and not without reason, at the indelible impress that was made upon them by his Norman countrymen.

The Cathedral of Otranto, built by Eoger Duke of Calabria, son of Robert Guiscard, still maintaining its noble severity in the midst of ruin and decay, is a proof of this time-defying impress. There is scarcely a trace to be found in any of these towns of the old Grecian or Roman monuments. They have been utterly swept away; but the Norman tower still lifts it head, defying the centuries and resting on the faultless arch that time seems powerless to disturb. To the onlooker it conveys something of the austere but truthful lesson that is inscribed within on the tomb of one of its bishops:


This same endurance of the Norman buildings is noticed all over the province from Brindisi to Reggio. M. Bourget was particularly struck with it at Lecce, the modern capital of the “Terra di Otranto.” There, a little outside the city, Tancred had built a church, which was dedicated to Saint Nicholas and Saint Cathaldus. It is now surrounded by a large cemetery, for which it serves as a mortuary chapel. In speaking of this interesting building M. Bourget says:

“If ever I regretted not having received that special education which enables one to discern at first sight the technical value of a piece of architecture, it was long ago in England, in face of one of those great cathedrals, like Canterbury, and it was here, in view of this Norman facade. I felt that it was really fine. But such sensations, when not supported by some exact idea of their cause, remain incomplete, as when one listens to music without a knowledge of harmony, or reads verses without possessing the secret of metre. And yet I was fascinated by these two doors one in front, the other at the side; by the noble simplicity of the arch, and the elegance, still intact, of the arabesques. It is possible that I may not have been so vividly impressed, were it not that the church arose, solitary and silent, in the midst of this ‘Campo Santo,’ and that the memory of its founder, Tancred, had been inscribed on its architrave in leonine verse.”

As for Taranto itself, M. Bourget tells us that, notwithstanding some remnants of its Norman pride, it has fallen, at the present day, into utter and almost absolute decay:

“Fallen, indeed, it is [he writes]; for this modern Taranto, to which I have just paid a lengthened visit, has not even the charm of unconsoled decay, which makes of Otranto’s lonely pile something greater and more splendid than a ruin. Those who have gone to that point of Sicily which looks across towards Carthage, may remember that little hill of Selinonte, and how much more majestic its temples, shattered by an earthquake, appear now, in their total wreck, than they did when their colonnades looked out in defiance over that African sea in which the Punic galleys were arrayed. The worst decline is that which survives itself in mediocrity. Confined almost exclusively to the island that served merely as an acropolis to the ancient city, modern Taranto is built of sordid houses, which are divided by streets that seem narrower than even the narrowest calle in Venice. The people who dwell in these houses, and circulate through these oppressive passages, look pale and sickly. Living almost exclusively on fish, they are subject to many diseases, and one would look in vain among them for a single type of that grace which they know so well how to impart to the little statues in terra-cotta in which they deal so largely.”

The misery of the city itself contrasts rather strangely with the scenery of the country that stretches away towards the east. As one approaches Otranto the plain becomes a vast field of olives and of orange-trees. It reminds M. Bourget of the valley between Malaga and Bobadilla, in Spain, one of the most picturesque sights in Europe. But, through good or ill, the faith of the people of Taranto has never varied since their final conversion. They have seen many changes, from the days of Robert Guiscard to those of Napoleon; but they still adhere to the creed of the Koman Church, and of the Church of Saint Patrick and Saint Cathaldus.