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.”