Meet St. Paulinus, the Poet Saint Who Was Friends With the Greats

St. Paulinus of Nola is the most consequential, accomplished and well-connected saint you’ve never heard of. The fact that he shares a feast day with Sts. Thomas More and John Fisher makes him even less likely for him to become well-known in a former British colony.

He was friends with St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Martin of Tours, St. Melania, and St. Augustine — it is even said that Augustine wrote his Confession because of a suggestion from St. Paulinus.  He is a poet and a bishop, and he wrote the earliest existing wedding song.

Even St. Elizabeth Ann Seton mentioned how he inspired the spirituality of her religious order. His own story and work illuminate the hardest things she faced.

St. Paulinus was born in southeastern France into a family of wealth and position.

Born in 324 to a noble Roman family that appears to have been at least nominally Catholic, Paulinus followed in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a career in Roman government. Even then, his faith influenced his work.

At some point in his childhood, he became a devotee St. Felix, a martyr who would not be widely known if St. Paulinus hadn’t spent his own life celebrating him. As a Roman official, Paulinus directed a road project to make travel to St. Felix’s shrine easier for pilgrims, and had a hospice home built for guests at the shrine. Later, he wrote annual poems about the saint.

Paulinus married a Hispanic woman from Barcelona and together they had a child who died eight days after birth. This event changed the trajectory of their lives, and both husband and wife dedicated themselves to a more serious religious life after that. St. Paulinus was ordained a priest — unexpectedly, on orders of his bishop — and later became a bishop himself, after his wife died. He served for 20 years as bishop in Nola, near Naples.

Pope Benedict retold the same story about St. Paulinus that inspired Elizabeth Seton.

St. Gregory the Great shared the story about how a poor widow came to St. Paulinus saying that the Vandals had taken her son captive. She hoped that he could ransom her son as he had done so many others.

Paulinus couldn’t afford more ransoms, but he said, “Such as I have, I will give,” and ransomed the child by offering himself in his place. He went to Africa in place of the widow’s son. When the Vandals’ king discovered what happened, he freed Paulinus and every other person from Nola. “The historical truth of this episode is disputed,” said Benedict, “but the figure of a Bishop with a great heart” lives on.

In describing the rule of her own religious congregation’s spirituality, Elizabeth Ann Seton said that St. Vincent de Paul “exposed his life for saving his neighbors … pushed by the zeal of St. Paulinus.”

St. Paulinus also had great compassion for the sick.

St. Paulinus composed a poetic prayer about the spiritual power of physical sickness.

“Open a path to bear me aloft, so that I may leave behind the bonds of my sick body,” he prayed. “The Milky Way sits above the moon and the clouds. The prophets of old passed that way, Elijah in his chariot and Enoch in his flesh. Carry me in their path.”

St. Paulinus had important fans in his own lifetime, including one of the greats: St. Augutine. The two knew each other exclusively through letters throughout much of their adult lives, with St. Paulinus helping get St. Augustine’s works published in Europe while St. Augustine was in Africa.

From his letters, Augustine described “that devout seriousness of spirit that so eminently distinguishes you,” and said, “I have come to know you as my brother and friend, and as one so eminent as a Christian, so noble as a man.”

One achievement of St. Paulinus had a direct effect on your faith and mine.

For years, the use of bells at Mass was attributed to St. Paulinus. Now it appears that St. Paulinus doesn’t  deserve exclusive credit for that. Nor was he the only bishop who promoted using Christian art in churches. Nonetheless, St. Paulinus, a great patron of the arts, was a very important “early adopter” of using paintings in churches for catechesis.

“I now want you to contemplate the paintings that unfold in a long series on the walls of the painted porticos,” he wrote, describing his Shrine to St. Felix. “It seemed to us useful to portray sacred themes in painting throughout the house of Felix, in the hope that when the peasants see the painted figure, these images will awaken interest in their astonished minds.”

The strategy worked in the 300s, and it worked 1500 years later when Elizabeth Anne Seton was moved by the Catholic art the Filicchi family exposed her to.

She told the Filicchis how moved she was by a picture of the descent from the cross. In the painting, she said Mary’s “agonized countenance so strongly contrasted the heavenly peace of the dear Redeemer’s that it seems as if his pains had fallen on her,” she said. “How hard it was to leave that picture and how often even in the few hours interval since I have seen it, I shut my eyes and recall it in imagination.”

St. Paulinus committed much of his wealth to art collections — not for himself but for his followers. “Let the riches enjoy their riches, let the kings enjoy their kingdoms,” he said. “You, O Christ, are my treasure and my kingdom.”

This appeared at Seton Shrine.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.