Saint of the Day – 26 January – Saint Paula of Rome (347-404) Widow, Foundress- early Desert Mother, Foundress of the Order of St Jerome (the Hieronymites), life-long friend and associate of St Jerome. Born on 5 May 347 at Rome, Italy and died in 404 at Bethlehem, of natural causes. Also known as Paula the Widow, Paulina, Pauline. Patronages – widows and Co-Patron with St Jerome of the Order of Saint Jerome.
Paula was a member of one of the richest senatorial families which claimed descent from Agamemnon. Paula was the daughter of Blesilla and Rogatus, from the great clan of the Furii Camilli.At the age of 16, Paula was married to the nobleman Toxotius, with whom she had four daughters, Blaesilla, Paulina, Eustochium, and Rufina and a son who was named after his father.
Paula was very virtuous as a married woman and with her husband, they became icons of Rome by their example. However, Paula had her flaws, particularly that of a certain love of worldly life, which was difficult to avoid due to her high social position. Information about Paula’s early life is recorded by Saint Jerome. In his Letter 108, he states that she had led a luxurious life and held a great status. She dressed in silks and had been carried about the city by her eunuch slaves. At first, Paula did not realise this secret tendency of her heart but the death of her husband, which occurred when she was 33 years old, opened her eyes. Through the influence of Saint Marcella and her group, Paula became an enthusiastic member of this semi-monastic group of women. In 382, she met Saint Jerome, who had come to Rome with Saint Epiphanius and Bishop St Paulinus of Antioch.
Blesila, the eldest daughter of Paula, died suddenly, which caused the pious widow immense suffering. Saint Jerome, who had just returned from Bethlehem, wrote her a letter of consolation, but, nevertheless, he rebuked her therein, for the excessive grief she manifested without thinking that her daughter had gone to receive the heavenly prize. Paulina, her second daughter, was married to Pamaquio and died seven years before her mother. Saint Eustochium , her third daughter, was her inseparable companion. Rufina died while still young. Toxotius, at first not a Christian but baptised in 385, married Laeta, daughter of the pagan priest Albinus. Of this marriage was born Paula the Younger, who in eventually joined Eustochium in the Holy Land and in 420 closed the eyes of St Jerome. These are the names which recur frequently in the letters of St Jerome, where they are inseparable from that of Paula.
A year after the death of her husband, Paula pursued a pilgrimage to tour all of the holy sites, travelling with large entourages of both men and women including her daughter Eustochium and Jerome himself. Paula could undertake this voyage, due to her widow status, which left her a significant fortune allowing her exemption from remarriage. Additionally, having had a male heir and two married daughters provided supplementary financial insurance. Her travels are documented by Jerome in his later writing addressed to Eustochium which discusses how Paula participated in the environments they toured. He discusses that Paula exemplified an intimate and emotional connection with the sights, experiencing visual vividness of biblical events at each locale. Concluding her journey, Paula decided to remain in Bethlehem to develop a Monastery and spiritual retreat with Jerome.
Once settled in Bethlehem, Paula and Jerome built a double Monastery including one for Paula and her Nuns and another for Jerome and his Monks. The addition of a roadside hostel was also constructed to serve as an economic source to fund the Monasteries. This development took three years to complete and was primarily sourced by Paula who, during this time of construction, lived at another double Monastery called Mount Olives.
It is in Jerome’s writing’s, in a letter to Eustochium, that provide the most insight on Paula’s life during her years of service at the Monastery. She is noted as maintaining her ascetic devotion through intensive studies of the Old and New Testaments, often under the guidance of Jerome. With this, she also practiced a strict fasting regimen, abstinence and pursued a penitent lifestyle “to preserve a singular attachment to God” as stated by Jerome. While practising this life of isolation, Paula still continued to interact with local clergy and Bishops and maintained devout attention to teaching the nuns under her care. Jerome’s letter from 404, moreover, indicates Saint Paula’s first-hand connection with relics from Christ’s passion, “she was shown the pillar of the church which supports the colonnade and which was stained with the Lord’s blood. He is said to have been tied to it when he was scourged.”
Jerome made explicit in his letter how Paula, through these practices, became a recognised figure in the Christian community. At one point, while travelling to Nitria, she was earnestly received by renowned Monks from Egypt and once her death arrived on 26 January 404, her funeral was noted as having a significant portion of the Palestine population arrive in her honour. A year after her passing, Paula was recognised by the Church as a Saint, with feast day on 26 January.
St Jerome grieved over her death but knowing how innocently she had lived, he was sure she was already in Paradise. “O dear Saint Paula,” he prayed, “help me now by your prayers and do not forget me, who taught you to live for God and Heaven. Your faith and your piety, have already placed you in the bosom of God and I know, He cannot now refuse to hear you. Oh, then, my child, pray, pray for me.”
Paula helped Jerome in his translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into Latin. The work was done at her suggestion and she provided the reference works necessary for the undertaking. Being versed in Hebrew, she edited Jerome’s manuscripts. She and her daughter Eustochium copied the work for circulation.
An anecdote told of Jerome, of twelfth-century origin, tells that Roman clergy hostile to Jerome planned to have him expelled from the city by planting a woman’s robe next to his bed. When Jerome awoke in the middle of the night to attend the service of matins, he absentmindedly put on the female robes. He was thus accused of having had a woman in his bed. This story acknowledges, while at the same time discrediting as a malicious slander, Jerome’s relationship with women, such as he is presumed to have had with Paula.
Palladius, a contemporary of Jerome, believed that Paula was hindered by Jerome: “For though she was able to surpass all, having great abilities, he hindered her by his jealousy, having induced her to serve his own plan.”
When Jerome died in early 420, he was buried beneath the north aisle of the Church of the Nativity, near the graves of Paula and Eustochium and tradition tells us that St Paula the Younger attended him in his last hours and when he lost his speech, she made the Sign of the Cross on his lips.