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Paula’s way

· The saint of the month told by Carla Mosca ·

A curious destiny, that of Paola, a saint celebrated of course for her many virtues but always with the air of having been set behind someone: behind two men in particular. In the calendar of saints, in fact, on 26 January, one comes across Paula framed as a widow. This condition, short of mariticide, could not seem more passive. It is almost as if her beloved husband, having prematurely ceased to exist, had given her importance – a quality moreover with which Paula had been lavishly provided by him.

Paula of Rome (a 14th-century Florentine painting)

Born in Rome in 347, Paula belonged to an inordinately wealthy Christian family of the noblest lineage. She was given an extremely refined education. At the age of 15 she married the rich and cultured Toxotius, he too born into one of those families that counted. He was a pagan but was deeply tolerant of the Christian religion which meant that Paula could practise her faith with all her passion without upsetting their conjugal harmony. They had four daughters (Paulina, Eustochium, Blaesilla and Rufina), and lastly a son who was given his father’s name.

An instinctive ability for harmonizing those in opposition distinguished her from other Roman matrons of her rank. Indeed she lived her social condition without giving up any of the symbols that came with it and in fact explicitly appreciated them. However, even in the frivolous use of her immense riches nothing ever prevented her from bestowing charitable, effective and constant attention on the lowliest. Nor did she enjoy comparing power and prestige, treating young girls and families badly, an odious and quite widespread habit among Roman matrons who, for this reason, had been the target of Juvenal’s scathing irony.

In brief she was a complex woman but one who did not limit herself to protecting the humble while willingly responding to the enticements of the world. Deep within herself Paula increasingly went about toying with the temptation of looking beyond them, with a desire for mortification and asceticism and the aspiration to a life of renunciation. These were vague impulses, albeit not so excessively vague as to prevent her from raising her gaze constantly to the Aventine, where the aristocratic Marcella (another future saint) had created an “Upper Room” of widows and virgins of lofty lineage in her splendid palace. It was thus natural for Paula to seek refuge with Marcella when, at the age of 33, she suffered the loss of her beloved Toxotius. We learn of her heartrending sorrow from Jerome, who must be considered her true biographer since on her death in 406 he pronounced one of the most passionate and detailed funeral orations one could ever read. Jerome suffered so deeply on her death that he was only able to write the eulogy months later, making a special effort to console Eustochium, the only daughter to have survived her mother. “When her husband died her grief was so great that she nearly died herself”, Jerome wrote, then adding the unusual remark: “Yet so completely did she then give herself to the service of the Lord, that it might have seemed that she had desired his death”.

Here, already, is the way, Paula’s way. It was the only one she knew, the only one she wanted to know, it was excess: that mixture of folly, passion and the gift of herself, in the absence of which, or if it is measured out by calculation, no holiness can be attained. Jerome recounts further that Paola lavished on the poor an enormous quantity of her riches, and that her relatives remonstrated with her for thereby defrauding her children. However she would hear no reason and declared that she was leaving to them a far better inheritance in the mercy of Christ.

Paula had met Jerome in Marcella’s Upper Room where, preceded by the fame of being a great Biblicist, the monk had arrived from Constantinople in 382, on the occasion of the synod convoked by Damasus. At the end of the synod the pope wanted to keep him in Rome, entrusting to him sensitive translations of biblical texts and the task of responding in turn to many of the sapiential questions that were put to him. Jerome’s future and the prestige of the responsibilities entrusted to him gave rise to much envy. And in that very period Marcella convinced him to become the spiritual director of the coenobium: by bestowing his wisdom on it, he would strengthen the foundations of the religious instruction of devout women. A perfect pupil, Paula learnt Hebrew quickly and succeeded better than others in enriching her spirit and mind, ably manoeuvring among the biblical dissertations of the philologist. Eustochium, who was to follow her on all her wanderings, was already with her on the Aventine and was soon joined by Blaesilla, widowed after barely a few months of marriage, who was so anxious to emulate her mother in her passionate practice of ascesis that it was not long before, worn out, she died of it.

In the meantime Jerome’s fame was spreading in Rome as were his fortunes. Moreover, for the whole of his life he was the subject of doctrinal polemics and took it upon himself to engage in every kind of polemic on themes dear to him, with insistence and sometimes with rage. Upon the Pope’s death Jerome realized that without his protection living in Rome would be really difficult for him. He therefore decided to return to the East. Paula seemed to expect nothing else: she could permit herself to do so too, and thus departed. As determined as ever, she once again judged for herself. She left, of course, along with the faithful Eustochium.

Her decision to settle in Bethlehem was clear and immediate. Here she lived for 20 years and here she died at the age of 59. Nor did she wish to support Jerome when – exhausted with doctrinal disputes, with calumnies concerning his work as a translator of the Scriptures and with the threat of being left homeless – he decided to leave Bethlehem. Although she was devout, Paula was adamant in preventing him.

She was a complex woman, as has been said. Indeed, although she was protected for ever in another world, she was also gifted with practicality and common sense. She immediately had building started on two monasteries, each with its own church, one for women and one for men. Jerome was able to settle in the latter with his group of collaborators. Here, financially supported by Paula, he could devote himself systematically and without interruption to his studies of the Bible, something which would have been impossible had he set out on another journey, as he had threatened. Here, under Paula’s protection – for it was a question of this – he translated the Scriptures into Latin, on the basis of the original texts in Greek and Hebrew. So it was that a splendid version of the Bible reached us.

Those acquainted with the life and works of Paula like to think, with some well-founded reasons, that the Vulgate is owed partly also to her. For she played a leading role in Jerome’s life: through the protection she granted her protector and through the firmness with which she directed her spiritual director (firmly keeping him there), to do the great task to which he had been called.

A well-known RAI journalist, Carla Mosca was for many years concerned with judicial news. Together with Mario Moretti and Rossana Rossanda she wrote Brigate rosse. Una storia italiana (Mondadori, 2007).




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 15, 2019