To Hold the Heart of Heaven: St. Paulinus, Bishop

2 Kings 22:8-13; 23:1-3; Matthew 7:15-20

Paulinus was born around the year 354 in France, the son of a Roman governor. Well-educated, eloquent, and from a long line of politicians, it was hardly surprising that he too pursued a political career. He quickly worked his way through the ranks, all the way up to governor of Campagna in Italy, and made a fortune along the way. He married a young lady named Therasia, the daughter of a Spanish nobleman, and soon they were among the wealthiest people in Europe. They seemed to be set for life.

Although politics was bred into Paulinus, the blood of a poet also coursed through his veins. Unlike the high priest and the scribe in 2 Kings who held the holy book yet couldn’t see its value, he seemed to possess the sacramental vision to see behind the things and events of life to their deeper meaning. The patron saint of that area in Italy was named San Felice, and the governor felt himself being drawn toward the saint and the cult of devotion that surrounded him.

When Paulinus became a catechumen, this sacramental sense would soon be severely tested. He watched with great joy as his infant son Celsus was born, only to stand helplessly by as the boy died just ten days later.

We are not given to know the inner workings of grace upon the heart that stir it to conversion. Perhaps Paulinus needed the seeds of his faith to be watered by the tears he shed while burying and mourning the loss of their son. Perhaps he came to understand the futility of eloquence, wealth, and influence when weighed against the value of a single human life. All we know is that, where some would turn in anger away from God in the heat of such a moment, Paulinus drew closer and received the grace of baptism.

That grace was to have a huge effect. The young couple moved to Spain and systematically divested themselves of their enormous wealth to benefit the poor. According to St. Jerome, it was as if both East and West benefited from their huge donations. In Barcelona, Paulinus was so highly regarded that the people insisted he be ordained to the priesthood. Once ordained, he returned to Campagna in Italy, settling in the town of Nola. There he and Therasia embraced a life of strict asceticism. They even chose to live as celibates in a spirit of true poverty, spending more of their wealth to build and maintain a beautiful basilica dedicated to San Felice, along with a hospice and separate quarters for male and female pilgrims.

Over time, Paulinus acquired an almost legendary reputation for self-giving. He was even rumored to have sold himself into slavery to pay off the debts of a local woman. No one knows if this is true, but it speaks to the large heart for which he was renowned and not long after made bishop of Nola, a position he held for many years.

On top of his asceticism and charity, Paulinus developed a deep love for Christ which he expressed in different ways through his poetry. First, although he loved and ministered to all who came to him, in his heart he loved and sought the unity of all people with the church, the Mystical Body, and Christ her head, for he wrote:

It is not surprising if, despite being far apart, we are present to each other and, without being acquainted, know each other, because we are members of one body, we have one head, we are steeped in one grace, we live on one loaf, we walk on one road and we dwell in the same house.

Second, he loved meeting Christ in Sacred Scripture, and his poetry draws us into contemplation to this day. For example, let us take a few moments to contemplate the Crucified One in light of his own words that every good tree bears good fruit, as Bishop Paulinus writes:

Look on thy God, Christ hidden in our flesh.
A bitter word, the cross, and bitter sight:
Hard rind without, to hold the heart of heaven.
Yet sweet it is; for God upon that tree did offer up His life…

St. Paulinus, pray for us.

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