Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Paula, Marcella, Eustochium and Fabiola

Paula was a desert mother who belonged to a community of female ascetics founded on the Aventine Hill in Rome by Marcella.  Most of what we know about their community comes from Jerome. Widowed after only a few months of marriage, Marcella drew around her a community dedicated to prayer, fasting and the study of sacred texts.  The first members of the community included Marcella’s widowed mother and sister, and two other widows named Lea and Paula. Paula’s daughters Blaesilla, Paulina, Eustochium and Rufina, and her young son Toxotius also joined them.

Marcella founded a community with substantial wealth but chose to live a simple life in complete seclusion except for regular visits to the tombs of the martyrs and basilicas nearby.  Around 382 CE Jerome arrived in Rome and Marcella offered him lodging in her home where he translated the Bible into Latin.  Marcella was already versed in Latin and Greek and he taught her Hebrew so she could read the Old Testament in the original language and better interpret its meaning.  Jerome stayed up many nights finding answers to the excellent questions Marcella posed to him during the day. When strict fasting and bodily mortification led to the untimely death of Paula’s daughter Blaesilla, Paula’s relatives forced Jerome to leave. 

Eustochium, Paula's other daughter, accompanied her mother and Jerome to the Nitrian Desert where they stayed with the hermits and studied their way of life in 386 CE .  Then they went to Jerusalem where they visited the monastery on the Mount of Olives, at the present day site of the Eleona.  They finally settled near the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem where the Paula’s vast family fortunes were used to erect four monasteries and a hospice for pilgrims.  One monastery, under the direction of Jerome, was occupied by monks.  Three other monasteries were directed by Paula, until her death in 404 CE, when Eustochium took over leadership the community.   

The Goths pillaged Rome in 410 CE including Marcella’s palace on the Aventine.  They drove Marcella out into the street and sacked the building.  Marcella took sanctuary in the Church of St. Paul, where she died after her family home was destroyed.  Seven years later Paula's monasteries in Bethlehem were also attacked and pillaged. 

Fabiola was a nurse who had been married to violent man who abused her. She obtained a divorce according to Roman law and contrary to the ordinances of the Church, she entered upon a second marriage before the death of her first husband.  When her second husband died, she devoted herself to the ascetic life and practiced charitable works. On the day before Easter, she appeared before the gates of the Lateran basilica, dressed in penitential garb, and did public penance for her sin.  This made such a favorable impression upon the Christian population of Rome, the pope received her again into full communion with the Church.

Fabiola then renounced all that the world had to offer her, and devoted her immense wealth to the needs of the poor and the sick. She erected a hospital at Rome where she treated citizens rejected by society because of their diseases.  She gave up the remainder of her fortune to the churches and religious communities at Rome and other places in Italy and went to Bethlehem, where she lived in the hospice of the convent founded by Saint Paula under the direction of St. Jerome.   She devoted herself to contemplation of the Scriptures and ascetic exercises.   

A quarrel broke out between Jerome and John II the Bishop of Jerusalem respecting the teachings of Origen.  Life in the convent in Bethlehem became so uncertain Fabiola was forced to return to Rome, where she and the former senator Saint Pammachius erected a large hospice for pilgrims.  She continued aiding the poor and sick at this hospice until her death in of 399 CE.