Through the Eye of a Needle with St. Paulinus and Mother Seton - Seton Shrine

Through the Eye of a Needle with St. Paulinus and Mother Seton

St. Paulinus of Nola and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton grew up with wealth and status but gave up everything for their faith. In contrast to the rich young man of the Gospel parable, they renounced their privilege to take up the treasure of Christ and his kingdom.

St. Paulinus of Nola is the most consequential, accomplished and well-connected saint many Catholics have never heard of.

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.

He was also known to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who mentioned how he inspired the spirituality of the co-founder 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 of 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 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 XVI 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 Pope 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, co-founder of the Daughters of Charity, “exposed his life for saving his neighbors … pushed by the zeal of St. Paulinus.”

But her life mirrored Paulinus in other uncanny ways. St. Paulinus could have been describing Elizabeth Ann Seton’s widowhood, or the loss of his own spouse, when he wrote of what happened when St. Melania the Elder lost her husband: “Through the loss of her human love, she conceived a love of God. She was made wretched to become blessed; she was afflicted to be healed.”

St. Paulinus also had great compassion for the sick.

Elizabeth had to confront illness throughout her entire life—her own and the sickness that plagued those around her, victims of the tuberculosis that claimed the lives of many Americans, including her husband and, eventually, Elizabeth herself.

St. Paulinus composed a poetic prayer about 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.”

That prayer is reminiscent of Mother Seton’s words about the illness of her youngest daughter, Rebecca Mary Seton. Elizabeth Ann Seton records her daughter saying, “I do wish so his will should be done, my Mother,” and adding “out of my prison I will soon be delivered … I shall soon go.”

Both St. Paulinus and St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had inspiring experiences of friendship.

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton’s extensive correspondence with friends has given us a wealth of information and insights into her biography and her interior life.

We know that St. Paulinus was also a great letter writer, based on St. Augustine’s own testimonial to him. The two knew each other exclusively through letters throughout much of their adult lives, with Paulinus helping to get his friend’s works published in Europe while 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.”

Elizabeth Seton had a lifelong friend in Julia Scott, and in 1808, she expressed to her what their friendship meant:

“My Friend – my dear, dear Julia,” Elizabeth wrote. “Can it be your letter is so long unanswered though my heart made so warm a reply on its first reception?” She wrote of how greatly she appreciated “your unremitted and precious friendship,” and said that, “You have a friend who would fly to you from any part of the world, leave children and everything, on the smallest intimation she could be useful to You. I would think the distance between us but a speck if I might hold your dear head when it ached or banish one hour of sorrow.”

One achievement of St. Paulinus had a direct effect on Elizabeth Ann Seton’s faith.

For years, the use of bells at Mass was attributed to St. Paulinus. Now it appears that St. Paulinus doesn’tdeserve 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 figures, these images will awaken interest in their astonished minds.”

That strategy worked in the 300s, and it worked 1500 years later when Elizabeth Ann Seton was profoundly moved by the Catholic art she encountered during her time in Italy, after her husband’s death there.

She told her hosts, the Filicchi family, 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 — 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. Elizabeth Ann Seton came from a comfortable background and offered everything for her faith. So did St. Paulinus.

“Let the rich enjoy their riches, let the kings enjoy their kingdoms,” he said. “You, O Christ, are my treasure and my kingdom.”

TOM HOOPES, author most recently of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas, where he teaches. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary for the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in the Register, Aleteia, and Catholic Digest. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and has nine children.

Image: CC BY-SA 3.0

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