Saint of the Day – 21 August – Saint Sidonius Apollinaris (c 430 – 489) Bishop, Copnfessor, Poet, Diplomat, Writer, Scholar, Apostle of the poor and of exiles – Sidonius is “the single most important surviving author from fifth-century Gaul.” Also known as Caius Sollius Apollinaris Sidonius – Born in c 420 in Lugdunum, Gaul (modern Lyon, France) and died in 489 at Clermont, France.
He is one of four Gallo-Roman aristocrats of the fifth- to sixth-century whose letters survive in quantity. The others are St Ruricius, Bishop of Limoges (died 507),St Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus, Bishop of Vienne (died 518) and St Magnus Felix Ennodius of Arles, Bishop of Ticinum (died 534). All of them were linked in the tightly bound aristocratic Gallo-Roman network that provided the Bishops of Catholic Gaul.
Sidonius Apollinaris was born at Lyons about the year 431, and was of one of the most noble families in Gaul, where his father and grandfather, both named Apollinaris, had commanded successively in quality of prefects of the prætorium.
He was educated in arts and learning under the best master, and was one of the most celebrated orators and poets of the age in which he lived. From his epistles, it is manifest that he was always religious, pious, humble, affable, extremely affectionate, beneficent and compassionate and no lover of the world, even whilst he lived in it.
For some time he had a command in the imperial army and he married Papianilla, by whom he had a son called Apollinaris and two daughters. Papianilla was daughter of Avitus, who after having been thrice prefect of the prætorium in Gaul, was raised to the imperial throne at Rome in 455 but being obliged to quit the purple after a reign of ten months, died on the road to Auvergne. Majorian, his successor, prosecuted his relations, and coming to Lyons, caused Sidonius to be apprehended but, admiring the constancy with which he bore his disgrace and becoming acquainted with his extraordinary qualifications and virtue, restored his estates to him and created him Count. Majorian was a good soldier and began to curb the barbarians who laid waste the fairest provinces of the empire, but was slain in 461, by Ricimer the Goth, his own general, who placed the diadem upon the head of Severus. Upon this revolution Sidonius left the court, and led a retired life in Auvergne, where he protected his Province from the Goths and divided his time between studies and the exercises of piety. Severus was poisoned by Ricimer after a reign of four years, and Anthemius chosen Emperor in 467, who immediately called Sidonius again to Rome and created him prince of the Senate, Patrician and Prefect of the City. His piety and devotion suffered no prejudice in his elevation and amidst the distraction of his secular employments, in which he made use of his authority only to promote the divine honour and to render himself the servant of others in studying to advance every one’s happiness and comfort.
God soon called him from these secular dignities to the government of His Church. The Bishopric of Arvernum, since called Clermont, in Auvergne, falling vacant in 471, the people of that extensive Dioces, and the Bishops of the whole country, who had long regretted his absence whilst he was detained in the capital of the world, unanimously demanded that he should be restored to them in order to fill the episcopal chair.
Sidonius was then a layman, and his wife was yet living he, therefore, urged the authority of Canons against such an election and opposed it with all his might, till, fearing at length to resist the will of heaven, he acquiesced; it having been customary on extraordinary occasions to dispense with the canons which forbid laymen to be chosen Bishops. He, therefore and his wife, agreed to a perpetual separation and from that moment, he renounced poetry, which till then had been his delight, to apply himself only to those studies which were most agreeable to his ministry. He was no stranger to them whilst a layman and he soon became an oracle whom other Bishops consulted in their difficulties; though he was always reserved and unwilling to decide for them and usually referred them to others, alleging that he was not capable of acting the part of a doctor among his brethren, whose direction and science he stood himself infinitely in need of.
St Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, who had loved and honoured him whilst he was yet wandering in the dry deserts of the world, found his affection for him redoubled when he beheld him become a guide of souls in the paths of religion and virtue. Upon his promotion to the Episcopal dignity, he wrote him an excellent letter of congratulation and advice, in which, among other things, he told him: “It is no longer by pomp and an equipage that you are to keep up your rank but by the most profound humility of heart. You are placed above others but must consider yourself as below the meanest and last in your flock. Be ready to kiss the feet of those whom formerly you would not have thought worthy to sit under your feet. You must render yourself the servant of all.” This Sidonius made the rule of his conduct. He kept always a very frugal table, fasted every second day, prayed much and though of a tender constitution, often seemed to carry his penitential austerities to excess. He was frequently in want of necessaries, because he had given all away to the poor. His love and compassion for them, even whilst he lived in the world, was such, that he sometimes had sold all his plate for their relief.
After he was Bishop, he looked upon it as his principal duty to provide for the instruction, comfort and assistance of the poor. In the time of a great famine he maintained, at his own charge, with the charitable succours which Ecdicius, his wife’s brother, put into his hands, more than four thousand Burgundians and other strangers, who had been driven from their own country by misery and necessity and, when the scarcity was over, he furnished them with carriages and sent them to their respective homes. St Sidonius made frequent visitations of his Diocese, and performed every office of his ministry with all the care and prudence possible.
The city of Clermont being besieged, in 475, by Alaric, king of the Visigoths, who then reigned in the southern provinces of France, the zealous Bishop encouraged the people to stand upon their defence, by which he exposed himself to the rage of the conquerers after they were masters of the place. He entreated the Arian king to grant several articles in favour of the Catholics, which the barbarian was so far from allowing, that he sent the holy prelate prisoner to Liviane, a castle near Carcassone, where he suffered much. However, Alaric some time after, restored him to his Se, and he continued to be the comfort and support of the distressed Catholics in that country.
He was again expelled by two factious wicked priests, but some time after recovered the government of his Church and died in peace in the year 482, on the 21 August. His festival was kept soon after his death with solemnity at Clermont, where his memory is in great veneration. His body lay first in the old church of St Saturninus, but was afterwards translated into that of St Genesius.
St Gregory of Tours speaks of Sidonius as a man who could celebrate Mass from memory (without a sacramentary) and give unprepared speeches without any hesitation.