Saint of the Day – 27 August – Saint Caesarius of Arles (470-543) – ArchBishop and Church Father, Theologian, Preacher, apostle of charity, legislator, administrator, writer, reformer – sometimes known as Caesarius of Chalon due to his birthplace, born in 470 at Châlons, Burgundy, Gaul (modern France) and died on 27 August 543 at Saint John’s convent, Arles, Gaul. Patronages – against fire.
Caesarius was born at what is now Chalon-sur-Saône, to Roman-Burgundian parents in the last years of the Western Empire. His sister, St Caesaria, to whom he addressed his “Regula ad Virgines” (Rule for Virgins), presided over the convent he had founded. Unlike his parents, Caesarius was born with a very strong and intense feeling for religion which alienated him from his family for the majority of his adolescence.
He entered the monastery of Lérins when quite young but his health being affected, the abbot sent him to Arles in order to recuperate. The Monastic community he joined there nursed him back to health and he was soon popularly elected as their bishop. By middle age, he had “become and was to remain the leading ecclesiastical statesman and spiritual force of his age.” His concern for the poor and sick was famous throughout and beyond Gaul as he regularly provided ransom for prisoners and aided the sick and the poor. Upon arriving in the city, the Vita Caesarii Life of Caesarius, says that Caesarius discovered, completely to his surprise, that the bishop of Arles – Aeonius – was a kinsman from Chalon (concivis pariter et propinquus – “at once a fellow citizen and a relative”. Aeonius later ordained his young relative as deacon and then Priest. For three years he presided over a monastery in Arles but of this building, no vestige is now left.
On the death of the bishop Caesarius was unanimously chosen his successor. He ruled the See of Arles for forty years with apostolic courage and prudence and stands out in the history of that unhappy period as the foremost bishop of Gaul. His episcopal city, near the mouth of the Rhone and close to Marseilles, retained yet its ancient importance in the social, commercial, and industrial life of Gaul and the Mediterranean world generally. As Bishop, Caesarius suffered much political hardship and attacks from many sides but he consistently remained true to his role as Bishop of the faith.
Caesarius, is, however, best known in his own day and is still best remembered, as a popular preacher, the first great ‘peoples’ preacher’ of the Christians, whose sermons have come down to us. As a preacher, Caesarius displayed great knowledge of Scripture and was eminently practical in his exhortations. Besides reproving ordinary vices of humanity, he had often to contend against lingering pagan practices, as auguries, or heathen rites.
Caesarius also has the reputation of being the faithful champion of Augustine of Hippo in the early middle ages. Thus Augustine’s writings are seen to have profoundly shaped Caesarius’ vision of human community, both inside and outside the cloister and Caesarius’ prowess as a popular preacher, is understood to follow from his close attention to the example of the Bishop of Hippo. A certain number of these discourses, forty more or less, deal with Old Testament subjects and follow the prevalent typology made popular by St Augustine.
Caesarius has over 250 surviving sermons in his corpus. His sermons reveal him as a pastor dedicated to the formation of the clergy and the moral education of the laity. He preached on Christian beliefs, values and practices against pagan syncretism. He emphasises the life of a Christian as well as the love of God, reading the scriptures, asceticism, psalmody, love for one’s neighbour and the judgement that would come. His works travelled to all parts of the Christian West, spreading his medieval sermon tradition and its topics. His writings were used by monks in Germany, repeated in Anglo-Saxon poetry and turned up in the important works of Gatianus of Tours and Thomas Aquinas.
As the occupant of an important see, the bishop of Arles exercised considerable official, as well as personal, influence. Caesarius was liberal in the loan of sermons and sent suggestions for discourses to priests and even bishops living in Spain, Italy, and elsewhere in Gaul. The great doctrinal question of his age and country was that of semi-Pelagianism. Caesarius, though evidently a disciple of St Augustine, displayed in this respect, considerable independence of thought.
Caesarius instituted many reforms, was the first to introduce in his cathedral the Divine Office, Hours of Terce, Sext and None and he also enriched with hymns, the Psalmody of every Hour.
On a visit to Rome, Pope St Symmachus gave him the Pallium and made him the apostolic delegate to France. St Caesarius was the first in western Europe to receive the Pallium, thus being a forebear of this custom, which now is a rite of the Church.
St Caesarius published the Brevarium Alarici, an adaptation of Roman law which became the civil law of all Gaul. Following the fall of Arles by the Franks in 536, Caesarius moved his offices and residence to Saint John’s convent where he lived out his last seven years, spending much of his time in prayer.
Caesarius was a perfect monk in the episcopal chair and as such, his contemporaries revered him. He was a pious and a peaceful shepherd amid barbarism and war, generous and charitable to a fault, a great benefactor of his Church, mindful of the helpless, tactful in dealing with the powerful and rich, in all his life a model of Catholic speech and action.