As a disciple of St. Jerome, she remained faithful to her spiritual father even in face of the persecutions and calumnies raised against him.


If all the members of my body were to be converted into tongues, and if each of my limbs were to be gifted with a human voice, I could still do no justice to the virtues of the holy and venerable Paula.”1 This is how St. Jerome begins one of his letters, introducing the reader, with these brief words, into one of the most beautiful pages of Catholic hagiography.

Who is this Paula, whom St. Jerome felt incapable of praising as much as she deserved?

Illustrious lady of ancient Rome

It is the year 379. During a tranquil autumn sunset, the houses light up gradually and discreetly, and the hustle and bustle typical of a busy city slowly fades, giving way to the silence of the night. We are in Rome, the capital of the world.

The watchful eye of those who walk these well-paved streets is drawn to a brightly lit palace, and the noise emanating from within seems to indicate the presence there of many people. The event is just beginning. Gradually the matrons arrive, clothed with luxurious garments, adorned with valuable jewels and carried on comfortable litters. The first strains of a song are heard. One more party has commenced in Roman high society.

Still young, one would say that Paula, the matriarch of this home, was the happiest person in the world. The great glories of the Cornelii, Scipios, Aemilii and Gracchi shine in her lineage. She is gifted with brilliant intelligence as well: in addition to Latin, she also speaks Greek perfectly. She married Toxotius, the offspring of the most noble blood of the Julii, which gained world renown when Julius Caesar took power as consul and dictator. Along with their nobility, the couple also possessed an immense fortune.2

A lady of this class was obliged to dress in gold-embroidered silk garments, to wear shoes embellished with diamonds, a jewelled belt, and to adorn herself with earrings and necklaces the cost of which was an inheritance. Paula strictly followed these rules.

Bereft of worldly happiness

The years unfolded in carefree happiness for the couple, who brought five children into the world: Blesilla, Paulina, Eustochium, Rufina and Toxotius, named in honour of his father. The illustrious lady, however, could not imagine the great storm that awaited her with the death of her husband.

The sudden event darkened her horizon with sadness and left her without a compass for her life. Still a young lady, about thirty-one, her future was uncertain, her family vulnerable, and her social life in turmoil. Crushed with sorrow, she would weep for entire nights, and no one was able to comfort her.

Paula’s grief reached such a point that many feared for her life. She claimed to be a Christian, but she could not contemplate this tragedy with the eyes of faith. However, her suffering eventually gave her the opportunity to consider things for the first time in the clear light of eternal realities, in face of which the passing illusion of worldliness is laid to rest.

Of what good was it to be counted among the greatest fortunes of the empire? Of what use her exceedingly noble blood? Furthermore, what benefit was there in the effort to be seen well by society, to spend hours on end braiding her hair and grooming herself so as to be considered beautiful?

Her husband’s cold, inert body held a blunt answer: recognition from the world had not delivered him from death; neither money nor honours could ever give him the power to move even a finger again.

This perspective, entirely new to Paula, may have drawn even more blood from her soul than the loss of the one she loved. A crossroads opened before her: she could plunge deeper into the world, giving free rein to despair and the enjoyment of pleasures, or she could reach out to Providence, who invited her to seriousness.

Which path would she choose?

Word and example that transform

Surely Paula would not have been able to prevail at such a crucial juncture if this passage of Scripture had not come true for her: “A faithful friend is a sturdy shelter: he that has found one has found a treasure” (Sir 6:14).

Marcella was a patrician lady of another important Roman lineage. Her parents had arranged an advantageous marriage for her, to ensure the continuity of the family. Although she cherished the desire to surrender herself to God, she had fulfilled the wishes of her parents. However, after only seven months she was widowed and, never having loved the world, she turned her palace into a true religious community.

A few years had passed when, one day, a young lady approached that house converted into a monastery and met those who lived there. Still wearing the clothes of mourning, and immersed in an internal struggle, the widow of Toxotius marvelled at the example of the one who had, in her brief marriage, suffered a fate similar to her own.

Paula opened her soul to Marcella’s influence and the latter helped her to shed her worldly vanities, introducing her into divine intimacy. She was, as the disciple herself would later recognize in a letter, “the first to set our kindling alight,” urging “with word and example to embrace this kind of life.”3

The wisdom of God… is foolishness to the world, says St. Paul (cf. 1 Cor 1: 23-24). Perhaps, even at that time, some “wise man” would have attributed the conversion of the young patrician woman to a serious psychological disorder brought on by the death of her husband… But, in fact, it was grace that worked wonders in the heart of this distinguished lady.

Moving against the stream of the society to which she had once belonged, Paula took large strides towards perfection. She distributed a large part of her wealth to the poor, assisted the needy with extreme dedication, and when family members criticized her for taking from her children to give to others, she answered that she left them a greater and more valuable inheritance than gold: the mercy of Christ.

St. Jerome, St. Paula, St. Eustochium and Blesilla – Church of St. Mary Magdalene, Genoa (Italy)

Meetings with the Doctor of Scripture

Paula was still taking the first steps in her conversion when an illustrious and exceptional presence was felt in Rome, arousing sympathy in some, and antipathy in others.

Amid the luxury and pleasures of the time, he was a stern man who “looked like a portrait of Elijah, the Baptist, or Anthony of Egypt. In his speech, demeanour and gestures he gave the impression of a hermit of great austerity, a monk full of perfection, and a man truly crucified to the world and transformed into Jesus Christ.”4

It was Bishop Jerome, who had come to the Eternal City to act as secretary for Pope St. Damasus and to serve as an important biblical adviser. According to some hagiographers, he held a post equivalent to that of today’s Secretary of State.

His scholarship and virtues, coupled with a strikingly austere figure, appealed to all who sought sanctification, particularly that group of Christian matrons. It was St. Marcella who, moved by admiration, became the first bridge of communication between them and the Saint, for the latter modestly shielded his eyes from noble ladies.5

Finding in them, and in other friends of hers, a genuine desire to progress on the path of perfection, St. Jerome spared no effort in leading them along the ways of virtue. He began by noting that although they had consecrated their lives and desires to God, they still retained numerous whims and defects. They were, writes the Saint, “slaves of the world […], unable to bear the rubbish thrown into the street. They were carried by eunuchs, chafed at the unevenness of the road, found the silk dresses they wore a heavy burden, and felt bothered by the sun, if its rays should happen to intensify even slightly.”6

At the request of this group, St. Jerome began to hold meetings at Marcella’s palace, and later at Paula’s, where he explained to them many different passages from the Bible.

True spiritual father of Paula

He gradually became their spiritual director, especially for Paula. If Marcella had been the faithful friend that helped her to choose the good path, it fell to Jerome to engender her “in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (1 Cor 4:15).

With great discernment and patience, the holy man began to guide and forge the character of the Roman patrician, who in turn saw him more as a father than as a teacher. Thus was established that enduring bond proper to the things of the spirit.

It is related, for example, that Paula’s daughter Blesilla, a fine-looking young woman, but who was given over to the enticements of society, eventually renounced the world under St. Jerome’s guidance. However, malaria brought her to the grave in three months, leaving her mother once again overwhelmed with sorrow, to the point of displaying imbalanced behaviour, such as refusing to eat.

A true spiritual father, St. Jerome was also affected by the separation: “My Paula, I take as my witness Jesus, whom Blesilla now follows; I take as witnesses the Angels, whose company she enjoys, that I am suffering the same torments that you suffer. I am her father in spirit, her preceptor in charity.”7

Notwithstanding the grief thus manifested, St. Jerome very tactfully reminds Paula that the hand of God is behind everything that happens. He explains why such an end was for the best, even for her, the mother. Firmly, he warns her not to give in to a purely carnal affection, comparing her to a pagan woman whose husband had recently died.

During St. Jerome’s four years in Rome, St. Paula was moulded by him to such an extent that she became, more than all his biblical, doctrinal or apologetic writings, “the best letter, the masterpiece”8 of the Great Doctor of the Church.

Dignity and fidelity in face of calumnies

It was now the year 385, and Paula, who had already matured in virtue, was ready to bravely face a new storm – and how difficult it would be! She, who had renounced the world to surrender herself to God, would have to defy it once more to seal her allegiance to the chosen path.

With the death of St. Damasus, St. Jerome was divested of his pontifical functions. At the same time, a wave of infamous slander rose against him. He was accused of not being what he showed himself to be. The conversion of Paula, Marcella and so many other ladies was attributed to magical gifts that he used to attract and manipulate people; and even worse, they tried to smear the meetings in the palace of St. Marcella with malicious insinuations.

Thus, they sullied the holy and entirely spiritual bond between Paula, her daughters and St. Jerome. He was portrayed as a depraved man who indulged in immorality, and there was even one wretched man who fabricated very serious charges, which he later admitted were false…

But St. Jerome was not to be intimidated, and he regarded the persecution that had been unleashed against him with disdain: “How little anguish have I endured, I who fight under the banner of the cross! They have laid to my charge a crime of which I am not guilty; but I know that I must enter the Kingdom of Heaven through evil report as well as through good.”9

Knowing the integrity of his spiritual daughter, and seeing her also reviled, he highlights how her virtues have made her worthy to suffer for Christ: “O envy that dost begin by tearing yourself! O cunning of satan, that always persecutes what is holy! No other women in the city of Rome have occasioned scandal except Paula and Melanium, who, despising their riches and forsaking their children, have raised the Cross of the Lord as a standard of piety. If they frequented the baths, if they coveted perfumes, if they made of their wealth and widowhood a pretext for luxury and freedom, they would be considered true ladies and even holy ones.”10

A soul of solid principles, nothing shook Paula’s surrender to God and her confidence in St. Jerome. In face of the persecution and slander raised against him, this distinguished disciple remained faithful to her father who had led her along the ways of the Spirit.

What a joy for the Doctor of Sacred Scripture, in the midst of that raging sea, to see the fidelity and steadfastness shining in her, fruits of his intense apostolate and sacrifice! In fact, concluding one of his letters of defence, St. Jerome writes: “Give my regards to Paula and Eustochium – who, though not pleasing to the world, are always mine in Christ.”11

St. Jerome bestows the habit upon St. Paula and St. Eustochium – National Museum of Antique Art, Lisbon

Living rule to be followed in the monastery

Still in the tumultuous year of 385, St. Paula leaves the Eternal City on a ship heading East, following the footsteps of her master. In the subsequent months she will become acquainted with the Holy Land, cradle of the Faith, and with Egypt, birthplace of the monastic life. And as she travels through each of the holy places, her pious soul will relive the Gospel.

Master and disciples finally settled in Bethlehem. There Paula built a monastery for women, of which she was superior, and St. Jerome a coenobium for men. They would also build a house dedicated to the lodging of pilgrims, in reparation for the lack of welcome suffered by the Holy Family in that city.

St. Paula lived for about twenty years in the monastery in Bethlehem. In spite of all the responsibilities that governing the house entailed, she continued to assist St. Jerome in his commentaries on the Sacred Scriptures, especially by raising questions and making observations that would lead him to new explanations. In order to be more useful to her master, she also learned Hebrew. But, following his example, she principally strove to transpose the biblical teachings into daily life, rather than to study them intellectually.

An exemplary superior, she was the living rule to be followed. No one outdid her in humility or surpassed her in generosity. Combining firmness with compassion and a keen psychological sense, she gave an excellent formation to her disciples and, despite St. Jerome’s warnings, subjected herself to severe penances, saying: “I must disfigure that face which contrary to God’s commandment, I have painted with rouge, white lead, and antimony. I must mortify a body that has given itself over to many delights. […] I, who once sought to please the world and my husband, now want only to please Christ.”12

From Bethlehem to the Kingdom of Heaven

Having reached fifty-six years of age, Paula was found by God to be ready for Heaven. A terrible illness struck her, and she sensed her end was near. Transforming the throes of agony into praise of God, she only said: “How lovely is Thy dwelling place, O Lord of hosts! My soul longs, yea, faints for the courts of the Lord” (Ps 84:1-2).

When they were informed that the virtuous soul was about to leave this world, monks and virgins hastened to the monastery. They were joined by the Bishops of Jerusalem and of other cities, as well as by many priests and deacons. And at her death, they all praised God for the marvels worked in that noble lady. “We do not grieve that we have lost her, but give thanks to God that we have had her, or rather, for that we have her still,”13 St. Jerome later expressed in the funeral eulogy of his disciple.

He pays his last respects to her with words full of poetry and piety saying: “And now, Paula, farewell, and aid with your prayers the old age of those who reverence you. Your faith and your works unite you to Christ; thus, standing in His presence, you will the more readily gain what you ask.”14 



1 ST. JEROME. Letter 108, n.1.
2 Cf. GENIER, OP, Raimundo. Santa Paula. Barcelona: La Hormiga de Oro, 1929, p.11; 19.
3 ST. JEROME. Letter 46, n.1.
4 SIGÜENZA, José de. Vida de San Geronimo, apud MORENO, Francisco. San Jerónimo: la espiritualidad del desierto. Madrid: BAC, 2007, p.44.
5 Cf. Idem, p.45.
6 ST. JEROME. Letter 66, n.13.
7 ST. JEROME. Letter 39, n.2.
8 RUIZ BUENO, Daniel. Introducción, versión y notas. In: ST. JEROME. Cartas. Madrid: BAC, 1962, v.I, p.233.
9 ST. JEROME. Letter 45, n.6.
10 Idem, n.4.
11 Idem, n.7.
12 ST. JEROME. Letter 108, n.15.
13 Idem, n.1.
14 Idem, n.33.


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