For All the Saints: Paulinus of Nola

St. Paulinus was born to an aristocratic Roman family in the fourth century after Christ but his saintly life is revered to this day, particularly in southern Italy, where he is remembered for his devotion to the poor.

(Pictured here is La Festa dei Gigli in Nola, where several large statues in honor of the saint, placed on towers, are carried upon the shoulders of the faithful around the city.)

Two aspects of Paulinus’ life intrigue me. First, the writer’s correspondents are a who’s who of fourth century saints : Martin of Tours. Jerome, Ambrose  and, most notably Augustine. Second, my paternal grandparents grew up a stone’s throw from Nola, in a region beset by wrenching poverty and natural disasters. Nola sits outside Naples on the plain between Mount Vesuvius and the Appennines.

It’s a place that for centuries has been overrun by invaders and victimized by natural disasters. Archeological evidence indicates of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed Nola between 1700 and 1600 B.C. The list of foreign occupiers is long: Oscans, Samnites and Romans. Residents defended themselves against Hannibal and Spartacus. Add to the mix destructive earthquakes and you get a sense of what it meant to live in Nola. Tragically, the city now is under the control of the Camorra, the largest and oldest criminal organization in Italy.

Against this backgroup, Paulinus emerges as a  regional folk hero. One story about Paulinus was that in 409 A.D. when the Huns of North African overran the Italian Peninsula, Paulinus fled the city with its children, preventing them from being taken as slaves. A widow whose only son had been captured by the Huns asked Paulinus to find him in North Africa and bring him home. St. Paulinus embarked on the expedition, and when he found the widow’s son, tried to barter with the king for his safe return. The king refused to be swayed until Paulinus offered himself in place of the child. The king accepted, and Paulinus became his personal slave.”

“Known for his ability to portend the future, Paulinus warned the king of impending danger to his kingdom. The king was so grateful that he granted him his freedom. Paulinus accepted with one caveat: he wanted to bring home all of the Nolese men who had been enslaved during the raids. The king acquiesced, and sent Paulinus and the men back to Nola on the boat of a Turkish sultan who had heard about Paulinus’ virtues.”

Upon his return after two years, the people of Nola greeted him with lilies (gigli) in their hands. After his death, they brought boquets of gigli to the church. This grew into the tradition of a towering spire of lilies.

While the historic truth of this particular story is unclear, we know Paulinus began his life wealthy and his wealth doubled when he married a Spanish woman named Theresia. He became governor of  Campania in southern Italy. While there, he was impressed by the devotion to St. Felix of Nola, who had been martyred a century earlier. Paulinus built a hospice for the poor near St. Felix’ shrine and built a road for pilgrims travelling to it. He converted to Christianity at age 35. “The man without Christ is dust and shadow, ” he wrote upon his conversion.  He and his wife moved to estates they owned Spain  After much difficulty conceiving children, Theresia finally bore a son, who died within a week of birth. Paulinus was 36 years old.

Two years later, both Paulinus and Theresia decided to consecrate themselves to God. They gave away all their land and riches. Paulinus became a monk. At age 56, he became a Bishop. His poet’s heart shifted focus “To my mind the only art is the faith, and Christ is my poetry,” he wrote.

Pope Benedict XVI tells us “Paulinus’ poems are songs of faith and love in which the daily history of small and great events is seen as a history of salvation, a history of God with us.” His devotion to the poor was deep. He offered a portion of his monestary so the poor would have homes.

This passage from a letter to Augustine makes me want to read a book of Paulinus’ letters and poetry. “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” 

The kinship Nolans feel for this man continues. Immigrants from this region of Italy carried their traditions with them when they came to the United States. Below is a clip from the Festa dei Gigli  in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, in which men hoist a five-ton spire and process through the city streets, mirroring the festivities in St. Paulinus’ adopted hometown of Nola. Columbia University student Taylor Napolitano, whose account of St. Paulinus’ life I earlier quoted, gives a captivating account of this tradition in Brooklyn, when “against all odds and perhaps their better judgment, that Heaven touches Brooklyn.”

  • Anonymous

    I've been enjoying this blog for sometime now. Thank you for making it available to me, fellow Catholics, and those people who are interested in Catholocism. I would like to pose a question to the readership. I have been a member of the congregation of St Mary Star of the Sea in Beverly, MA for over 20 years. Under the leadership of Fr. Hughes, our parish purchased a set of hardbound hymnals of classical Catholic music for the congregation about 10 years ago. Being a protestant convert to Catholicism and from the protestant tradition, I love to sing. I have years of classical training in music theory from the time I was a teenager. I have a loud (but sweet?) voice. I welcomed the addition of the new hymnals (with old hymns).At the farthest possible distance from the alter, in the back, in the rafters of our church, the choir sings at the 10:30AM Mass. From that remote vantage point, it is virtually impossible to see the alter during Mass. Furthermore, the only way that anyone in the choir loft can hear what the priest is saying is through a single speaker on the side of the choir loft. I don't like singing in the choir loft. I don't come to Mass to only sing as a musician; I come to worship as a suplicant with my voice. I worship with my voice when I sing. When I sing in the congregation, only a few people around me join-in. Most everyone else is silent (?) I've had fellow parishiners suggest to me that I join the choir, but not as a compliment. The suggestion is made in almost a hostile manner. I get the distinct impression that my singing as a member of the congregation isn't appreciated nor desired. QUESTION:Why is this? Doesn't the Church expect the congregation to sing? Why did the church, at extravagant expense, purchase these new hymnals? If everyone who can sing is in the choir loft, then what is going to happen in the congregation?

  • Frank

    I like this St. Paulinus! I think I'll call him Paulie if he doesn't mind.

  • Frank

    I don't understand that either. What does Father Barnes say? Afterall, Saint Augustine said, “Those who sing pray twice.” I saw this announcement on a Catholic Parish website from New Hampshire: Singing is an important part of our prayer in church. Even if you can’t sing, or prefer not to, pick up a hymnal anyway and participate by at least reading the words of the hymn as the congregation sings. Sounds like "best practices" to me. And as a Catholic dad, I know I have to lead the way here with my children. My rule us "if I sing, you sing." But in my parish singing is encouraged by all too, not just choir members.

  • Allison

    Frank: Thanks! I had heard about the festival in Brooklyn for years and never understood it. Now I do. I am hoping to take my family in this July to see it. Wouldn't that be amazing? Our faith is so rich.

  • Anonymous

    Anonymous: I hear you. (pun not intended). I'm a cradle Catholic and a member of my parish choir. To answer your question, yes, the congregation is supposed to be singing. But, often, they don't. I don't know why. Perhaps the new hymnals were purchased in the hope that the good ol'hymns would encourage the congregation to sing more. You say " I don't come to Mass to only sing as a musician…I worship with my voice when I sing." You are absolutely right. Or, as I've heard multiple times in presentations for church musicians, it's not about you! One thing that I had to get used to when I started singing in the choir was the feeling that the choir was actually something of a distraction from worship. Not only are you up in the back, away from the rest of the congregation where you can feel kind of cut off (though this is not always the case – more modern churches often have the choir down in front), but you have to think about what you're singing next, which can take your attention away from what's happening down in front. I eventually concluded that, if my role, my ministry, is to sing in the choir, then I have to do what the choir requires for the benefit of all. I'm not sure if my meaning's clear…I would encourage you to think about singing in the choir, as you evidently have many gifts to share. You have the right attitude, a strong voice, and good technical skills. I don't know what your parish choir is like, but most would be thrilled to have you.

  • Anonymous

    Hi anonymous,I've been a member of St. Mary's choir under Fred's wonderful direction for the past five years and in the 90s enjoyed being part of Regina Matthews' choir. In between, I was down below, as you are now. I know exactly what you are talking about! I remember Fr. Hughes, and he had a wonderful voice, as does Fr. Barnes – both enormously supportive of the concept of everyone singing – and equally unsuccessful. I don't have an answer – however, at the daily Mass where there are fewer congregants, a higher percentage does sing. Perhaps because there is no accompaniment and they feel needed?During the summer and occasionally on a Holy Day, I am once again in the pews and I see those times as opportunities – to lend courage to those around me to sing out. You never know – you might be having the same effect, without getting the appropriate feedback!I find that the view from the choir loft and the camaraderie of our wonderful choir family more than make up for some acoustical loss. Think about joining us in September! Sheila