22 October is the feastday of Saint Donatus of Fiesole, an Irishman who, accompanied by his faithful companion Andrew, set off on a pilgrimage to Rome and ended up being chosen as a bishop. He is a wonderfully attractive character, a man of deep holiness yet one who who was also a significant figure at the very highest levels of both church and state. Neither were his talents restricted to diocesan administration, for Donatus had a reputation as a scholar too. I find him especially interesting as a biographer of Saint Brigid of Kildare and as a promoter of her cultus in Italy. More about this can be found at my other site here. Here we will look at the life of our scholarly bishop as told by Margaret Stokes in her book 'Six Months in the Apennines or A Pilgrimage in Search of Vestiges of the Irish Saints in Italy':
DONATUS, BISHOP OF FIESOLE.
Oct. 22, A.D. 824-874.
THE name of Donatus of Scotia stands high in ecclesiastical dignity as that of one among the early prelates who worthily occupied the chair of Fiesole, and Monsignore Francesco da Cattani da Diacceto, Florentine gentleman and Bishop of Fiesole, has thus recorded his merits : —
" He whose duty it is to guide the young in the way of good works and good actions may well follow the holy footsteps of that most perfect youth Donatus. In him wisdom and learning grew with increase of years, and his memory was stored with all things most worthy. In the government of the flock committed to him, he was diligent as Moses, faithful as Abraham, chaste as Joseph, just as Phineas, courageous in battle as David, and following our Saviour Christ in love and charity.
" He was born in the kingdom of Scotia, of noble parents, sprung from a long line of ancestors, all true to that faith which shone forth in Donatus from his earliest years. To this he added learning, so that he surpassed all his contemporaries, not less in intellect than in devotion, while he shunned the company of wicked men and such as loved vain things, even as the psalmist saith, 'I have hated the congregation of evil-doers, and will not sit with the wicked'.
“As the boy grew in wisdom and learning, the memory of his sayings was preserved, even as the pure Virgin preserved the sacred utterances of her Son, as it is written, 'His mother kept all these sayings in her heart'. He went forth teaching and directing all who heard his words, thus shedding abroad the light of that knowledge which had been vouchsafed to him, and it was said of him, 'Yea, he loved the people ; all the saints are in his hand ; and they sat down at his feet ; everyone shall receive his words.""
The subject of this eulogy was born about the year 774 in Ireland, during the reign of Aedh Ornidhe. Many incidental circumstances have given rise to the belief that he was educated at the school of Iniscaltra — Holy Island on Lough Derg. A long metrical life of St. Brigid of Kildare was found in an ancient manuscript in the library of Monte Cassino. The prologue to this poem was written by Donatus of Fiesole, and the poem itself is the work of the writer Caolan, who calls himself a monk of Iniscaltra. There are also certain allusions to Iniscaltra in the body of the poem itself, which suggest that the writer was familiar with this place. Thus the poet speaks of the wide water of the river Shannon, in which is Keltra with its company of wise men living under the rule of Benedict...
It happened at the time when Donatus was a teacher in Ireland, that there lived in the same country a noble virgin named Brigid, and her brother Andrew, a comely and gallant youth. Andrew was the elder of the two, and her constant guide and counsellor. It was their custom from earliest childhood, when they walked out together on their way to school, as they passed the church door, to pause and enter reverently and pray, which service they also repeated at every hour that they could save from sleep. Nor were there any poor or miserable that did not leave the house of Andrew comforted, so deeply was love to the unhappy rooted in his heart ; his parents meanwhile were careful that he should be taught the art of riding, as befitted his high rank. As time passed on, a rumour reached the ear of brother and sister that a great teacher, named Donatus, had arrived from many miles distant, who could still further instruct them in divine philosophy, and Donatus having already heard of the great promise of this youth Andrew, took him to his school, and soon came to love him as a son. The kindly greeting with which he was received caused Andrew more satisfaction to his heart than he could express, and an old Latin writer has said of these two holy men : "The greatest happiness of Donatus was theinstruction of Andrew ; the greatest enjoyment of Andrew was in obedience to Donatus."
One day, as they were both standing at the gate outside the city (cashel) walls, discoursing, as was their wont, upon things human and divine, Donatus revealed to his disciple that he had long desired to journey into distant lands, to visit all the holy places throughout Italy, and then to seek a spot where none would know him, so that, far removed from family and friends, he would be free to give up his life to the service of God, desiring to imitate Heraclitus, who ceased not to mourn over human suffering.
Andrew, unable to part from his beloved master, prayed that he might go with him on this journey, and thus these two servants of God determined to depart. So fixed on Heaven were their hearts, that they showed no sorrow in parting, and paid no heed to the opposition of their people.
Great was the grief of Brigid when she learned their project, yet not even her tears could turn them from their course. The unhappy sister said, " Brother dear, why dost thou leave me? When shall we see one another again ? " They clung to one another in a close embrace, and their hot tears showed the tender love that bound them. At last, Andrew with much gentleness put his sister from him. "Go in peace," she said, and pray to God for thy sister, abandoned here in sorrow."
Then the two pilgrims, followed by their friends and families, went down the island to the sea-coast, where they embarked upon a ship whose sails soon swelled in the wind, and bore them to a foreign shore. They had scant money or provision for their journey, since they meant to beg their way from place to place, and having landed, they set off on foot with staff and bag, contented and humble in spirit. They rested at the monasteries where the relics of the saints were kept and honoured, and they often turned aside to visit certain hermitages in almost inaccessible places, where they might hold converse with holy anchorites who had resigned the world. As throughout their pilgrimage they greatly desired to visit every possible place where a holy sanctuary was to be found, in their careful search for such they came upon the beautiful mountain of Fiesole, where were the shrines of numberless martyrs and many stations of the cross.
In those days the people of Fiesole, having been deprived of a pastor, were in difficulty about the election of a new one, because of the civil discords that had sprung up after the recent devastations of the Northmen. The nobles and the people were at variance, and the state was passing through a crisis of great difficulty and danger. Then the good men of the city prayed fervently to God to the end that he might save their tottering state from civil war and mercifully provide them with a good pastor. Having thus prayed with all their might, the righteous petition of this multitude reached the ear of Him who sleepeth not, and He sent them aid in the following manner, as is related by the old historian of Donatus : —
"It was while the dismayed city of Fiesole was in this condition that the men of God, Donatus and Andrew, had turned thither in their wanderings through Tuscany, and, like other travellers, wearied with the great height they had climbed, and tired with their journey, they entered the hospice as the night closed in. Now it happened that at the moment of their arrival the abbey of Fiesole was filled with a great crowd of people in deep distress because they had been deprived of a pastor's care. With one voice they implored that He who brought Israel up out of Egypt might protect them with His right hand, and might deign to preserve their church by some angelic visitation. While the people thus prayed aloud, Christ worked a new miracle for them, and brought Donatus and his friend Andrew to the church door.
"As they ascended the steep hill from the river's side, the bells of the city on the instant rang forth, and the lamps burst miraculously into light of themselves. The people of Fiesole, amazed at this miracle, ran hither and thither through the city in all directions and in great confusion, asking in terror what might this portent mean. Impelled by their trust in God, they hurried down the hill to the abbey ;' men, women, and children of all ages, knelt there in tremblings and sobs and tears, and piously raising their hands to heaven, made prayer to God that He would deign to show them the meaning of this miracle. Suddenly a silence fell upon the multitude, and a voice proclaimed, 'Receive the stranger who approaches, Donatus of Scotia ; take him for your shepherd. When the voice of the Lord had ceased, the people, not knowing what to do, remained in prayer. Then behold the men of God, Donatus and Andrew, having just entered the city, went to the abbey where the congregation were at prayer, and believing it to be a feast day, marvelled to see the dismayed people praying in alarm and suspense. Advancing slowly, they stood in silence awaiting the result.
"Then a certain poor man standing by, and happening to see the strangers, inquired of them whence they came and whither they were bound, and by what name they were called. Donatus, with his usual simplicity, answered humbly, 'We are both men of Scotia. He is named Andrew, I Donatus. We came on pilgrimage to Rome.' And the poor man, remembering the divine voice he had just heard, straightway cried aloud, 'Citizens, the man is here of whom the Lord has spoken.' Then, clasping Donatus in his arms, he led him up the steps, the people crowded around, and cried with one voice,Eia Donatus Pater Deodatus ! (Hail ! Donatus, O Father given of God!) Ascend the bishop's chair, that you may lead us to the stars, that with you for our shepherd we may reach to the pastures of Heaven, and that through your intercession we may find salvation.' Then the gentle Donatus, trembling, and on the very verge of tears, spake thus from his pure heart : —
'Spare ye me,
O brothers ! vain is your offering to me ;
You would learn to deplore my sins.
You who should not trust me to teach the people.'
When he had said these words, the multitude made answer : —
'As when the eastern sun doth visit us on high.
So hath Christ led him here out of the west ;
Here then let us meet this holy man ;
Here, in Fiesole, let us elect him.
For behold, Donatus is declared worthy
By Christ, Who is our Lord.
Let him then be led to the throne,
For Donatus is given us for a father.
If he still strives to resist,
Yet must he still be elected.'
Then Donatus tremblingly said, Men and brethren, why do ye vainly strive to turn from his vows the desire of one who hastens on his journey. Why compel one so unworthy to become your pastor? A stranger mean and abject, half barbarous, and almost ignorant of your manners. Let him toil on that journey on which he started. By these and like words, and with much modesty, he strove to avoid the burden, but as he resisted, so much the more vehemently did the multitude insist upon their choice. At length his resistance was overborne by the people, and he was enthroned in the chair of Fiesole."
After his consecration, writes the old biographer, " Donatus appeared so apt and devoted that it seemed as if he had always filled that office to which he had been lately appointed. For he was liberal in almsgiving, sedulous in watching, devout in prayer, excellent in doctrine, ready in speech, holy in life ; his countenance betrayed the serenity of his spirit, and the gentleness of his speech revealed the tenderness of his heart. He would weep bitter tears if any report were brought to him of sin committed by those under his rule, so that he could say with the prophet, My tears have been my meat day and night. In his aspect he was terrible to sinners, mild to penitents, feared in his severity, and revered in his mildness. Happy Scotia, which brought forth such a one ; let Hibernia rejoice, which sent forth such a teacher ; let Fiesole and the whole province of Tuscany be glad."
Public Life of Donatus.
The first public event recorded in the life of Donatus, after he was raised to the episcopal chair, is that of his presence at the coronation of Louis II in Rome... Donatus returned to Fiesole after this exciting time in Rome, and seems to have continued to rule his diocese there in quiet for the next sixteen years, while Pope Sergius II. was succeeded by Leo IV. (847-855), who did much for the advancement of the arts, adding adornments of precious stones to the cross given by Charles the Emperor to the Basilica Constantiniana, finishing the decorations and mosaics of the churches of St. Martin and St. Silvester, and building the church of the Quattro Coronati in Rome. Also, having defeated in battle the Saracens who besieged Rome, he employed the prisoners in re-edifying those churches which the Saracens had heretofore ruined and burnt, and in building the wall about the Vatican, which from his own name he called Urbs Leonina. Then after the three years' pontificate of his successor, Benedict III., we come to Nicholas I., during whose reign as Pope, Donatus again visited Rome, when he was present at a Lateran Council that sat in the year 861 against John, Archbishop of Ravenna...
The Death and Burial of Donatus.
It remains to tell in what manner the saint laid aside the burden of the flesh and reached the green pastures, for all the days of his life he had given no rest to his soul, but was occupied with prayer or study, or the business of the church, or care for the widow and the orphan. But at last, when God willed that his labour should end, he was seized with a fatal illness. Feeling his end approaching, he called the brethren together ; having received the sacrament, he admonished them that they should live as holy and just men, and with lifted hands he poured forth prayers and vows to the Lord, and commended them to God and to the service of His word. Scarcely was his prayer ended, when behold ! a great multitude of the people came around him weeping and saying, "Oh, holy minister of God, have pity on our grief! Holy Father, have mercy upon us! hearken to the words of those who call upon Thee! Give warmth back to those, limbs that are now grown cold !"
Hearing these words, Donatus blessed the whole multitude with the benediction of the saints, and moved by their sorrow he poured forth this prayer in the presence of the crowd : —
" O Christ, the virtue and splendour of God, the wisdom of the Father,
Begotten without time and before all ages ;
Who, being born of a Virgin, didst take our form,
Nourished and suckled at the breast of a mother ;
Who dost cleanse our sins in holy baptism,
So that a new offspring descends from heaven ;'
Who destroyed the noxious power of the forbidden fruit,
Who healed our wounds with His blood,
Who by dying gave us life, and redeemed us from death.
And who when buried, changed the law of the grave,
By rising up from death and destroying its bitterness ;
Who formerly destroyed Tartarus, and the realms of gloomy Pluto ;
Who overcame the floods of greedy Acheron ;
Who hurled down the wicked enemy into the pit.
He arose, and led the captive captive to the right hand of the Father,
And thousand, thousand virtues praise His victor)'.
Thou also who hast deigned to suffer for our sins.
Thou who hast given the kingdom of heaven to the wretched.
Grant me power to climb the lofty stair of Paradise,
Open the gates of Life to me who duly knock,
Let no proud or greedy enemy overtake me.
Let no strange hand touch me or snatch away my prize ;
But do Thou, O Christ, receive Thy humble servant.
That I, though trembling, may deserve to see those glorious guests,
That I may behold the company of saints, rejoicing with Thee,
Thou who rulest with the Father and the Holy Spirit throughout all ages."
Having uttered these words, Donatus signed his brethren and his spiritual children with the cross, and the old man was gathered to the fathers, and full of days went on his way to heaven, and his disciples laid him in a stone coffin in the same place where the other holy bishops were laid, and carved upon his tomb the epitaph that Donatus himself had written : —
"Here I, Donatus, sprung from Scotish blood,
Alone in this tomb, among the worms and dust dissolve.
For many years I served the kings of Italy,
Lothair the Great and Louis the Good.'
For more than eight lustrums and seven years
I was ruler in the city of Fiesole;
I dictated exercises in grammar to my pupils,
Metrical schemes, and the lives of the blessed saints.
You traveller, whoever you are, for Christ's sake
Be not unwilling to behold my tomb.
And pray to God, who rules in highest heaven,
That He may grant to me His blessed kingdom."
The old biographer of Donatus, at the conclusion of his history, adds these lines : —
" Let us therefore all unite and say.
Oh, saint of God and beloved confessor.
Father and pontiff.
Educator and nourisher, ruler and shepherd.
Help with thy prayers the destitute and fallen.
Have pity on the widow and the captive.
Help the orphan and the weak.
Help those who live to-day, and those who will come after,
Give aid to those who live and those who die ;
Refuse not, we beseech thee, to listen to our prayers,
Who though imprisoned in the bonds of iniquity,
Yet so far as their ignoble nature may permit.
Make offering of these things to their superiors.
Them we implore with all our might
To amend that which is faulty, and to be indulgent to
All that which is worthless, and to pity our presumption,
And since we cannot of ourselves mount to the pastures of Paradise,
Help us to pray that so we may entreat the aid of Jesus Christ,
To whom, with the Holy Trinity, are all things, world without end."
TOMB OF S. DONATUS,
According to the Roman martyrology the feast of S. Donatus, Bishop and Confessor, was annually kept at Fiesole, in the cathedral of which town he was buried. Also, in the British martyrologics, Donatus Scotus is honoured as the chief patron of Fiesole, and his feast was celebrated on the 22nd October, the day of his death. His feast is now celebrated throughout the whole of Ireland on the same day, in accordance with a decree of Benedict XIV., quoted by Thomas de Burgh, issued on the 1st July, 1747.
I have learned that the body of Donatus is no longer buried in the church here called the Badia, or abbey. His bones are now laid in the cathedral of Fiesole, where his relics were removed along with those of SS. Romolus and Alexander, and buried in the chapel of the sacrament.
It appears that, on the occasion of a great festa in honour of the final overthrow of Napoleon, held on the 14th, and 16th days of August, 1814, the vicar, wishing to give the thanksgiving service due impressiveness, proposed to the chapter that not only should they expose to the gaze of the faithful the crucifix to be brought from the neighbouring oratory of Fonte Lucente, but also all the remarkable relics in the old abbey were to be taken from their places and laid upon the altar in the sight of the congregation.' The bones of the patron of the church, who lived A.D. 60, S. Romolo, were then all taken, excepting his head, and laid in a marble tomb beneath the altar. This was opened, and the relics were removed for three days to a gilded coffer, along with the bones of S. Alessandro, S. Donato, and S, Andrea Corsini. At the end of the ceremony the holy relics were restored to their places, especially those of S. Romolo, which were carefully laid back again in the tomb beneath the altar. In 1827-28, works of restoration were carried on, and repairs were made in the choir and crypt ; again, in 1838, a government grant of 500 scudi toscani enabled them to carry on repairs and restorations. It was during the episcopate of Bishop Ranieri Mancini, A.D. 1787-1814, that the altar of S. Donato was erected in the cathedral. The head of the saint is enshrined in a silver bust in the church of S. Domenico (see fig. 86).
" It appears," writes P. Bargilli (p. 128), "that in 1795 Bishop Mancini sought permission to remove the remains of the body of S. Donatus from the abbey of Fiesole, where it had been originally buried. After some delay he succeeded, and wishing to revive the devotion of the people to their holy bishop, he resolved to make a solemn ceremony of the translation, and to have a public festival in honour of the Virgin Brigid. But the disturbed state of the country at the time so distracted the minds of the people of Tuscany, that he had to effect the translation of the relics of Donato in the most private possible manner. Therefore, in the evening of the 5th May, 1810, the bishop and a few of his canons went to the old abbey and took the relics out of the tomb. They laid them in a wooden coffin, and secretly transported them to Fiesole, hoping that in better days they might be able to give them the due honour then forbidden by the unhappy circumstances of the time. Pending the erection of the altar within the cathedral, the relics were consigned to the guardianship of the Curato Romolo Pelagi, to be kept in his private oratory. The design for the altar was finished and the materials were ready, when a letter arrived from Paris condemning the good bishop to exile.
" The canons, moved by inexpressible grief, met to consult together in this crisis. They wrote an affectionate letter of condolence to their prelate, and added prayers to their ritual for the return of their bishop to his diocese, and the restoration of peace to their country.
"Bishop Mancini had been Napoleon's constant and avowed opponent, condemning his actions as unjust and unrighteous; therefore it was in vain that the noblest citizens of Florence united with the clergy of Fiesole to entreat that this unjust sentence might be revoked. The good bishop died in exile on the l0th February, 1814, and when his will was opened, it was found to contain an injunction that the altar for the relics of S. Donatus should be built as soon as possible. The order was carried out by his relation, Lancilotto Mancini, when he had obtained the new bishop's consent. It was finished in June, 1817, and the coffin was prepared to receive the sacred bones, which were carried to it in solemn procession upon St. Peter's day. The sorrow for the death of their beloved bishop was soon alleviated by the news of the fall of the dreaded conqueror, who had overrun Italy and devastated the Church. The cathedral resounded with songs of thanksgiving."
In all this history of the translation of the bones of S. Donatus there is no mention made of the ancient sarcophagus, with the Latin epitaph written by the saint himself, and carved by his disciples on his tomb. It would be most interesting to discover at what time this monument disappeared.
The Bishop of Fiesole, Benozzo Federighi, in 1440 ordered a picture to be presented to the cathedral, representing Our Lady between St. Peter and St. Paul, S. Donato and S. Alessandro. It is not certain who the painter of this picture was, but this much is certain, that Federighi ordered the picture to be executed; his arms may be seen on a shield at the side of the step, which is divided into compartments, each illustrating scenes in the life of the saint painted above.
Margaret Stokes, Six Months in the Apennines or A Pilgrimage in Search of Vestiges of the Irish Saints in Italy (London and New York, 1892), 227-276.
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