A Patron Saint for Widows

St. Paula (347-404) is one of those neglected saints who deserves a revival. In her own day as a descendant of Scipio Africanus and the Gracchi — heroes of the old Roman Republic who would be on a par with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — she was famous in Rome, even a celebrity. Paula's parents actually tried to elevate their family tree a bit higher by claiming the mythical heroes Aeneas and Agamemnon were their ancestors, too.

Paula and her family were Christians. When she was about 15 years old she married a senator, Toxotius, who was also a Christian from a distinguished Roman family. Unlike so many arranged marriages of the time, this was a love match. During their almost 20 years of marriage the couple had five children, one son and four daughters; two of the girls, Blaesilla and Eustochium, became saints. When Paula was only 32 years old, Toxotius died, a loss that plunged her into deep mourning. As she sat in her house nursing her grief, one of Paula's closest friends, St. Marcella, also recently widowed, came to console her. But Marcella did even more, showing her friend how to be happy again and find a purpose in her life.

At this time one of the most famous priests in Rome was St. Jerome. It has been said that Jerome was thin-skinned, hyper-defensive, and argumentative — all of which is true. But he was also the most trusted advisor of Pope St. Damasus, a brilliant linguist who would produce the Vulgate Bible and an inspired spiritual director. Marcella was one of several well-to-do Roman ladies who had become Jerome's disciples; when Marcella introduced Paula to Jerome, Paula's life changed forever. Initially Jerome advised Paula on how to deepen her spiritual life and how to make the best use of the fortune she had inherited from her late husband, but when he learned that Paula was fluent in Greek, he invited her to help him read and analyze Greek texts of Sacred Scripture for his new, authoritative Latin translation of the Bible. It was the beginning of a close friendship and personal collaboration that lasted until the end of Paula's life.

 Meanwhile, Paula's daughters, Eustochium and Blaessilla, became Jerome's protégées. In Blaesilla's case the relationship ended tragically. She longed to live the life of an ascetic, and Jerome encouraged her, but Blaesilla's health was poor, and she fasted to excess. She contracted a fever, possibly malaria, and not having the strength to resist it, died. Soon thereafter Jerome's patron and protector, Pope St. Damasus, died too. Those members of the Roman clergy who had always envied Jerome made his life so miserable that he decided to leave the city. Along with Paula, Eustochium, and several other Roman women from his inner circle, Jerome moved to the Holy Land, settling in Bethlehem. Paula financed the move. Once the little group arrived in Bethlehem, she built an enormous religious complex that included a monastery, three convents, a school and a hospital for pilgrims. And she began to study Hebrew so she could help Jerome translate the Hebrew texts of the Bible.

In the Holy Land, Paula found the fulfilling life her friend Marcella had promised — she was happy, useful, respected, beloved, and on the path to sainthood. When Paula died, Jerome buried her in the holiest spot he could think of — beneath the altar of the Church of the Nativity. Her feast day is today, January 26th. It's obvious why St. Paula is held up as a model for widows. But she also deserves to be venerated as the patroness of biblical studies — St. Jerome could not have produced the Vulgate Bible without her.

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Thomas Craughwell is the author of Saints for Every Occasion (Stampley Enterprises, 2001).

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