Saint Paulinus was to the manor born. And it was a very nice manor. He was raised on an aristocratic estate near Bordeaux, France, in an elite Roman family replete with senators and other high officials of empire. Paulinus received a superior education from a well-known tutor and served, while still in his twenties, as Consul of Rome and Governor of Campania in Southern Italy. He was humble, sage, gentle, well read, and intellectually curious. Paulinus represented, in short, the very best of Rome. He would, in time, represent the very best of the Church.
While serving as Governor of Campania, Paulinus witnessed the simple but sincere piety of the common people who went on pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint Felix of Nola, who had suffered for the faith around 250 A.D. The people’s faith moved Paulinus to his core and planted a seed in the soil of his soul. Paulinus suffered personal setbacks due to the political machinations inherent to empires, which awakened him to the fleeting nature of power and prestige. He moved to Milan and studied in the school of Saint Ambrose. When Paulinus returned to Bordeaux, he was baptized by the Bishop. The seed of faith planted in Campania had germinated in Milan and flowered in Bordeaux. It would bear fruit for decades to come.
Paulinus married a holy Christian woman from Barcelona, and the two soon became three. But their son died after only a few days. Paulinus and his wife were thunderstruck. Another turning point. Face to face with the mystery of suffering in its crudest form, they threw their lives at God’s feet. They abandoned their considerable material wealth and began to lead lives of continual prayer and asceticism. Paulinus rightly noted that poverty was not the goal, but the means to a closer bond with Christ: “…the athlete does not win because he strips himself, for he undresses precisely in order to begin the contest, whereas he only deserves to be crowned as victorious when he has fought properly.”
Paulinus, though married, was ordained a priest around 394 and then returned to the land that had first nourished his faith—Nola, in Compania. He would never leave it. After his wife’s death around 410, Paulinus received episcopal ordination and served as Bishop of Nola until his death. He was part of a broader tradition of educated Roman men of the fourth and fifth century who served the Church as bishops rather than the empire as governors. As Bishop, Paulinus’ greatness revealed itself. Although he never wrote theological treatises or scholarly works like Saint Jerome, he maintained a steady correspondence with this great biblical scholar and many others, including Saint Martin of Tours. Paulinus wrote to a North African bishop whose close friend had just had a powerful conversion. Paulinus was curious and asked the bishop for more information. The friend’s name was Augustine, and his response to Paulinus was the “Confessions.” History has Paulinus of Nola to thank for the world’s first autobiography, the groundbreaking work of the great Saint Augustine. Paulinus and Augustine became close friends, although they probably never physically met. Saint Augustine even wrote: “Go to Campania…there study Paulinus, that choice servant of God.” If a man is known by the caliber of friends he keeps, Paulinus’ many impressive friends speak powerfully to his sterling character and reputation.
Saint Paulinus was a master of the art of friendship, particularly spiritual friendship. He understood the Church, the Body of Christ, as a forum where true friendship flourishes. He wrote to Saint Augustine: “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.” Beautiful! The Church is a communion of souls, a theological and sacramental family where deeper relationships take root and flower. Saint Paulinus is still venerated in Nola and its environs, where on his Feast Day the faithful carry in procession enormous lily-adorned towers in which stand large statues of Saint Paulinus.
Saint Paulinus of Nola, may your humility, education, and serenity be an example to all who are searching for God. May they imitate you in finding Him, in loving Him, and in dedicating your life to Him amidst a large circle of like-minded friends.