Saint of the Day – 5 February – Saint Avitus of Vienne (c 450-c 518) Bishop of Vienne, Poet, Confessor and Defender of the Mysteries of the Faith against heretics, writer. Avitus was a distinguished Bishop of Vienne, in Gaul, from 490 to about 518, though his death is placed by some as late as 525 or 526. Also known as – Alcimus Ecdicius
Avitus was born of a prominent Gallo-Roman family closely related to the Emperor Avitus and other illustrious persons and in which episcopal honours were hereditary.
In difficult times for the Catholic faith and Roman culture in Southern Gaul, Avitus exercised a favourable influence. He pursued with earnestness and success, the extinction of the Arian heresy in the barbarian Kingdom of Burgundy (443-532), won the confidence of King Gundobad and converted his son, King Sigismund (516-523).
A letter of Pope Hormisdas to Avitus records that he was made Vicar Apostolic in Gaul by that Pontiff and in 517, he presided in this capacity at the Council of Epaon for restoring ecclesiastical discipline in Gallia Narbonensis. Avitus appears also to have exerted himself to terminate the dispute between the churches of Rome and Constantinople, which arose out of the excommunication of Acacius; we gather from his later letters, that this was accomplished before his death.
Like his contemporary, Ennodius of Pavia, he was strenuous in his assertion of the authority of the Apostolic See as the chief bulwark of religious unity and the incipient Christian civilisation. “If the Pope,” he says, “is rejected, it follows that not one Bishop but the whole episcopate threatens to fall” — Ep. xxxiv; ed. Peiper).
The literary fame of Avitus rests on a Poem of 2,552 hexameters, in five books, dealing with the Scriptural narrative of Original Sin, Expulsion from Paradise, the Deluge, the Crossing of the Red Sea. The first three books offer a certain dramatic unity; in them are told the preliminaries of the great disaster, the catastrophe itself and the consequences. The fourth and fifth books deal with the Deluge and the Crossing of the Red Sea as symbols of Baptism. Avitus deals freely and familiarly with the Scriptural events and exhibits well their beauty, sequence and significance.
He is one of the last masters of the art of rhetoric as taught in the schools of Gaul in the fourth and fifth centuries. Ebert says that none of the ancient Christian poets, treated more successfully, the poetic elements of the Bible. His poetic diction, though abounding in archaisms and rhythmic redundancy, is pure and select and the laws of metre are well observed. It is said that Milton made use of his paraphrase [sic] of Scripture in the preparation of “Paradise Lost.” He wrote also 666 hexameters “De virginitate” or “De consolatoriâ castitatis laude” for the comfort of his sister Fuscina, a nun.
His prose works include “Contra Eutychianam Hæresim libri II,” written in 512 or 513 and also, about eighty seven letters, that are of considerable importance for the ecclesiastical and political history of the years 499-518. Among them is the famous letter to Clovis on the occasion of his Baptism.
There was once extant a collection of his homilies but they have perished with the exception of two and some fragments and excerpts. The works of Avitus are still found in printed format.
Upon his death, Avitus was buried in the Monastery of St Peter and St Paul at Vienne, see below.