Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Saint Paulinus, Patriarch of Aquileia, Confessor

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One of the most illustrious and most holy prelates of the eighth and ninth centuries was Paulinus, patriarch of Aquileia, who seems to have been born about the year 726, in a country farm not far from Friuli. His family could boast of no advantages of fortune, and his parents having no other revenue than what arose from the tillage of their farm, he spent part of his youth in agriculture. Yet he found leisure for his studies, and in process of time became so eminent a grammarian and professor, that Charlemagne honoured him with a rescript, in which he styles him Master of Grammar, and Very Venerable. This epithet seems to imply that he was then priest. The same prince, in recompense of his extraordinary merit, bestowed on him an estate in his own country. It seems to have been about the year 776, that Paulinus was promoted, against his will, to the patriarchate of Aquileia, which dignity had not then been long annexed to that see, after the extinction of the schism of Istria. From the zeal, abilities, and piety of Saint Paulinus this church derived its greatest lustre. Such was his reputation, that Charlemagne always expressed a particular desire that he should be present at all the great councils which were assembled in his time, though in the remotest part of his dominions. He assisted at those of Aix-la-Chapelle in 789, of Ratisbon in 792, and of Francfort in 794; and held himself one at Friuli, in 791, or 796, against the errors which some had begun to spread in that age concerning the Procession of the Holy Ghost, and the mystery of the Incarnation.

Felix, bishop of Urgel in Catalonia, in a letter to Elipandus, bishop of Toledo, who had consulted him on that subject, before the year 783, pretended to prove that Christ as man is not the natural, but only the adoptive Son of God: which error he had already advanced in his public discourses. The rising error was vigorously opposed by Beatus, a priest and abbot, and his disciple Etherius, who was afterwards bishop of Osma. Soon after it was condemned by a council at Narbonne, in 788, and by another at Ratisbon, in 792, whilst Charlemagne kept his court in that city. Felix revoked his error first in this council at Ratisbon, and afterwards before Pope Leo III at Rome. Yet after his return into Spain he continued both by letters and discourses to spread his heresy; which was therefore again condemned in the great council of Francfort, in 794, in which a work of our saint, entitled “Sacro-Syllabus,” against the same, was approved, and ordered to be sent into Spain, to serve for an antidote against the spreading poison. From this book of Saint Paulinus it is clear that Elipandus also returned to the vomit. Alcuin returning from England, where he had staid three years, in 793, wrote a tender moving letter to Felix, exhorting him sincerely to renounce his error. But the unhappy man, in a long answer, endeavoured to establish his heresy so roundly as to fall into downright Nestorianism, which indeed is a consequence of his erroneous principle. For Christ as man cannot be called the adoptive Son of God, unless his human nature subsist by a distinct person from the divine. By an order of Charlemagne, Alcuin and Saint Paulinus solidly confuted the writings of these two heresiarchs, the former in seven, and our saint in three books. Alcuin wrote four other books against the pestilential writings of Elipandus, in which he testifies that Felix was then at Rome, and converted to the Catholic faith. Elipandus, who was not a subject of Charlemagne, could not be compelled to appear before the councils held in his dominions, Toledo being at that time subject to the Moors. Felix, after his relapse, returned to the faith with his principal followers in the council of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 797. From that time he concealed his heresy; but continued in secret to defend it, and at his death, in 815, left a written profession of his heresy. Elipandus died in 809.

The zeal of Saint Paulinus was not less successful in the conversion of infidels than in the extinction of this heresy. Burning with zeal for the salvation of souls, and a vehement desire of laying down his life for Christ, he preached the gospel to the idolaters who had remained to that time obstinately attached to their superstition amongst the Carantani in Carinthia and Stiria; in which provinces also Saint Severinus the abbot, who died in 481, and afterwards Saint Virgilius, bishop of Saltzburg, who died in 785, planted several numerous churches. Whence a contest arising between Arno, Saint Virgilius’s successor, and Ursus, the successor of Paulinus, to which see Carinthia, ought to be annexed, it was settled in 811, that the churches which are situated on the south of the Drave should be subject to the patriarchate of Aquileia, and those on the north to the archbishopric of Saltzburg. The Avares, a barbarous nation of Huns, who were settled in part of Pannonia, and were twice subdued by Charlemagne, received the faith by the preaching of Saint Paulinus, and of certain missionaries sent by the archbishops of Saltzburgh. Henry, a virtuous nobleman, being appointed by Charlemagne Duke of Friuli, and governor of that country which he had lately conquered, Saint Paulinus wrote for his use an excellent book Of Exhortation, in which he strongly invites him to aspire with his whole heart after Christian perfection, and lays down the most important rules on the practice of compunction and penance, on the remedies against different vices, especially pride, without which he shows that no sin ever was, or will be committed, this being the beginning, end, and cause of all sin: on an earnest desire and study to please God with all our strength in all our actions; on assiduous prayer and its essential dispositions: on the holy communion, of the preparation to which after sin he shows confession and penance to be an essential part: on shunning bad company, etc. He closes the book with a most useful prayer; and in the beginning promises his prayers for the salvation of the good duke. By tears and prayers he ceased not to draw down the blessings of the divine mercy on the souls committed to his charge. Alcuin earnestly besought him as often as bathed in tears he offered the spotless victim to the divine Majesty, to implore the divine mercy in his behalf. In 802, Saint Paulinus assembled a council at Altino a city near the Adriatic sea, which had been destroyed by Attila, and was at that time only a shadow of what it had been, though famous for a monastery, in which this synod was probably held. It is long since entirely decayed. Saint Paulinus closed a holy life by a happy death on the 11th of January, in 804, as Madrisius proves. His festival occurs on this day in the old missal of Acquileia, and in several German Martyrologies: but it is at present kept at Aquileia, Friuli, and in some other places on the 28th of January. See the life of Saint Paulinus of Acquileia compiled by Nicoletti, with the notes of Madrisius; and far more accurately by Madrisius himself, an Oratorian of Utina, who in 1737 published at Venice the works of this father in folio, illustrated with long notes and dissertations on every circumstance relating to the history or writings of our saint.

MLA Citation

  • Father Alban Butler. “Saint Paulinus, Patriarch of Aquileia, Confessor”. Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Principal Saints, 1866. Saints.SQPN.com. 28 January 2013. Web. 22 August 2014. <>