Thursday 22 October 2015

Saint Donatus of Fiesole, October 22

October 22 is the feast day of one of my favourites among the Irish saints who laboured in continental Europe: Saint Donatus of Fiesole. This wonderful man brought everything that was best about the early medieval Irish Church to his adopted homeland and he maintained a saintly humility whilst dealing with both ecclesiastical and secular politics at the highest level. Last year I posted the account of his life from the work of Margaret Stokes here. Saint Donatus cherished a deep devotion to Saint Brigid of Kildare and a post on the Prologue to the Life of Saint Brigid which he composed can be found at my other site here  plus a modern scholarly commentary here. This year we have a tribute to Saint Donatus from an Italian author, Vincenzo Berardis, a former diplomat who wrote a book on the relationship between Ireland and Italy in the Middle Ages:

There are many saints of whom something must be said because they lived and died in Italy, where there are so many reminders of their culture and their teaching. They belong to the period of the scholars and the apostles, and were men who played a part in the political life of Italy. These scholars were almost all ecclesiastics who had been trained in the great monastic schools of Ireland; they were endowed with great strength of character and intellect, and were masters of every branch of learning - men who rendered great services to civilization on the Continent, especially during the Carolingian era. Not a few of these scholars after a period of teaching, deserted the courts of princes and the uncertainties of public life and entered the monasteries so as to enjoy that solitude which is the spiritual home of men of great strength of character. Although most of these learned men went to France, Italy attracted many who took part in the directly apostolic work of the Church.

Such a one was St. Donatus who became famous both as a politician and a man of letters. He was Bishop of Fiesole for nearly fifty years and is a somewhat solitary figure, remote from the Carolingian world where culture was valued more as a means to acquire feudal and imperial prestige than as a method of attaining intellectual freedom. He had apparently studied and taught at the monastery of Iniscaltra; like many other monks he visited the Holy Places, being accompanied there by his faithful companion, Andrew. When he arrived in Italy he travelled to the tombs of the martyrs, the monasteries and the hermitages. At Fiesole he was welcomed by a crowd of the faithful "mysteriously gathered together in the Cathedral", who during this still more "mysterious period of waiting" acclaimed him as bishop of the vacant See. During his episcopate the learned Irishman had to face a precarious and dangerous political situation, for the property of the Church was pillaged by Saracens and Northmen who sailed up the Arno and even sacked the Bishop's palace at Fiesole. He was not called upon to do missionary work but he had to defend the rights of the Church against many tyrannical acts of partisan factions, and he did so with great ability and energy. As Bishop and feudatory of the Empire, he was present at the coronation of Louis II; he commanded his own vassals in an imperial expedition; he took part in company with the Pope and the Emperor in deciding an old ecclesiastical quarrel and he attended the Council in Rome summoned by Nicholas I. Having reached this eminence, he consolidated his temporal authority, rendering it independent of the imperial administration and acquiring - by an imperial rescript - fiscal and juridical rights.

St. Donatus interested himself not only in politics and administration but undertook with equal success the post of professor in the school of Florence, where he proved himself to be a learned Latinist and a writer of verses. According to Davidson, he specialised in teaching and commenting on Vergil. In his verses, which served as a preface to the biography of St. Brigit, his miracle-working compatriot, he quoted Democritus and Hesiod. Even centuries after his death his poems were much admired. He also left a life of St. Brigit in prose, much fuller than that in verse. It contains some descriptions of Ireland which he praises for its richness, "the absence of savage beasts and poisonous snakes", and for the progress of its people in learning, in peace and in faith. It is related that when hear his death, St. Donatus appeared at a meeting of his brethren where he had to recite his poetic beliefs, which he did in terms of Virgil's eclogue, dying as he came to the last words. Papini declares that "like Augustine, the Emperor Constantine, Eusebius, Lactantius, Innocent III and even Abelard, St. Donatus believed that Virgil had announced the coming of our Saviour."

During the last years of his life he built a church at his own expense in Piacenza and dedicated it to St. Brigit. This church he left in his will to the Abbey of Bobbio, with the obligation of maintaining a hospice for Irish pilgrims. The work and constructive ability of St. Donatus have always remained an example to members of the Church. He is still remembered in Tuscany and many boys are christened with his name in the provinces of Florence, Pisa, Leghorn and Lucca.

Vincenzo Berardis, Ireland and Italy in the Middle Ages (Dublin, 1950), 108-110.

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