May 10 is one of the feastdays of an Irish saint whose memory is still very much cherished in Italy, Saint Cathal (Cathaldus) of Taranto. Patrick Montague, author of The Saints and Martyrs of Ireland
, records in the preface to his book how he first encountered this Irish saint:
In early summer of 1944, I arrived in Taranto, Italy, as a Staff Officer of the Eighth Army. The next morning, I was urgently summoned to assist an American soldier who had driven his jeep into the path of a procession of Italians who were celebrating the Feast of their local saint. Since nobody was hurt, the situation was quickly adjusted. I was able to deal with it in Italian, aided by the presence of a local priest. Between us we calmed the excited people and rescued the soldier from his awkward predicament.
In conversation later, the priest informed me that the Saint was Cathaldo, and it was common knowledge that he was Irish. I wondered at the time whether this unusual fact was so so well-known in Ireland. In the years which followed, I have often pondered on the strange anomaly that the memory of Irish exiles like Cathal, or Cathaldo, of Taranto, can inspire public holidays and gatherings of the faithful all over Europe, and receive no more than a brief reference in works of scholarship in Ireland.
Below is an abridged version of a paper by Father J. F. Hogan from the Irish Ecclesiastical Record
, which contains a useful summary of the main points from the mass of traditions surrounding Saint Cathaldus. The article begins with an account of the founding of the city of Taranto but I have omitted this and the concluding paragraphs on its later history in order to concentrate on the details of its patron's life. Saint Cathal's story is certainly not a dull one, he is associated with the monastery of Lismore but leaves the scholar's life for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and ends up in Taranto following a shipwreck:
ST. CATHALDUS OF TARANTO
...A tradition of immemorial standing seems to ascribe the first conversion of Tarentum to St. Peter and his disciple and companion, St. Mark. Seeing that it is held by many writers that St. Peter paid two visits to Rome, during the second of which he suffered martyrdom, it is natural enough to suppose that, on his way to or from the East, he may have passed through Tarentum, and have preached the good tidings of Christianity to its people. However this may be, it is certain that the seeds of Christian life did not take deep root there on its first sowing, and that in the political turmoil which followed the transfer of the seat of Empire to Constantinople, its young shoots were almost completely smothered. In these disturbances Tarentum passed from Romans to Greeks, and from Greeks to Romans. It was handed about to all kinds of freebooters. For a time it was held by Belisarius for Justinian; then it was occupied by Totila and his Goths. These in their turn were expelled by the Imperial arms, and the citadel was held for the empire until the arrival of the Longobardi, whose commander, Romoald (Duke of Beneventum) got possession of the town and province.
It must be acknowledged that such stormy conditions of life were not very favourable to the spread of Christianity. No wonder, therefore, that little trace should have been found of the Christian settlement that had once been established at Tarentum when St. Cathaldus first appeared within its walls.
That St. Cathaldus was a native of Ireland, is a fact which cannot be seriously questioned. Indeed it is not denied by anybody worthy of a moment's notice. It has been the constant tradition of the Church of Tarentum; and in every history of the city or of its apostle that is of Italian origin, there is but one voice as to the country from which St. Cathaldus came. The most valuable biography of the saint which we possess was written in the seventeenth century by an Italian Franciscan named Bartolomeo Moroni. As this work professes to be based on very ancient codices and manuscripts of the Church of Taranto, we must conclude that it contains a good deal that is accurate and trustworthy, whilst a very cursory examination is sufficient to convince us that fable and fiction have entered not a little into its composition. It tells us, at all events, that Cathaldus was a native of Ireland; that he was born at a place called Rachau according to some, at Cathandum according to others; that as a happy augury of his future mission to the half Greek, half Italian city of Taranto, his father's name was Euchus, and his mother's Achlena or Athena.
A good deal of discussion has been indulged in as to the identity of his birthplace. The general opinion seems to be that Rachau was the place from which he took his title as bishop, and that Cathandum was the place of his birth. This Cathandum is supposed to be identified either with ''Ballycahill," in the Ormond district of North Tipperary, and in the diocese of Killaloe, or with a place of the same name not far from Thurles, in the diocese of Cashel. As for Rachau, it is believed to be intended either for Rahan in the King's Co., where St. Carthage had his famous monastery, and where he ruled as a bishop before his expulsion by the Hy Niall of Meath, or for one of the numerous places called Rath in the immediate neighbourhood of Lismore; or, finally, as Lanigan thinks probable, the place now called Shanraghan in Southern Tipperary and on the confines of Waterford. It is distinctly stated that the place was, at all events, in the province of Munster, and not far from Lismore. Nothing more precise can be laid down with certainty.
What does not, however, admit of the slightest doubt, is the fact that St. Cathaldus was surrounded by spiritual and religious influences of a very special kind from his infancy upwards. These influences found in his soul a most sympathetic response, and when they had lifted the thoughts and aspirations of this fair youth above earthly things, he was sent by his parents to the neighbouring school of Lismore. This school, although it had been established only for a very short time, had already acquired widespread fame, and had attracted students from all parts of England and Scotland, and from several continental countries besides.
What a busy place this famous southern university must have been in the days of its prosperity! When we read the account of it that has come down to us, glorified though it may be, and exaggerated, as no doubt it is, by the imaginations of its admirers, writing, some of them, centuries after its decay, and seeing it chiefly through the scholars and apostles that it produced, we cannot help being struck by the features of resemblance, and yet the strong contrast, it presents with those Grecian cities that, in far-off times, gathered to their academies and their market-places the elite of the world orators, poets, artists, grammarians, philosophers, all who valued culture or knew the price of intellectual superiority. Lismore had no spacious halls, no classic colonnades, no statues, or fountains, or stately temples. Its houses of residence were of the simplest and most primitive description, and its halls were in keeping with these, mere wooden structures, intended only to shut off the elements, but without any claim or pretence to artistic design. And yet Lismore had something more valuable than the attractions of either architecture or luxury. It possessed that which has ever proved the magnet of the philosopher and the theologian truth, namely, and truth illumined by the halo of religion. It sheltered also in its humble halls whatever knowledge remained in a barbarous age of those rules of art that had already shed such lustre on Greece and Rome, or had been fostered in Ireland itself according to principles and a system of native conception. Hence it drew around it a crowd of foreigners Saxons and Britons, Franks and Teutons, Sicambrians and Helvetians, Arvernians and Bohemians:
"Undique conveniunt proceres quos dulce trahebat
Discendi studium, major num cognita virtus
An laudata foret. Celeres vastissima Rheni
Jam vada Teutonici, jam deseruere Sicambri.
Mittit ah extreme gelidos Aquilone Boemos
Albis, et Arverni coeunt, Batavique frequentes,
Et quicumque colunt alta sub rupe Gebennas.
Non omnes prospectat Arar, Rhodanique fluenta
Helvetios; multos desiderat ultima Thule.
Certatim hi properant, diverse tramite ad urbem
Lesmoriam, juvenis primes ubi transigit annos." 1
1 These lines are taken from a metrical Life of St. Cathaldus, entitled Cathaldiados
, which was composed by Bonaventure Moroni, brother of Bartolomeo, the author of the prose Life. See Ussher's Antiquitates
, page 895.
At Lismore Cathaldus edified his brethren by his extraordinary piety as well as by his great love of study. In due time he passed from the student's bench to the master's chair, and whilst he taught in the schools, he was not unmindful of the world's needs. He raised a church at Lismore to the glory of God and the perpetual memory of His Virgin Mother. Frequent miracles bore testimony at this period to the interior sanctity of the young professor. So great was the admiration of the people for him that one of the princes in the neighbourhood grew jealous of his influence, and denounced him to the King of Munster as a magician, who aimed at subverting established authority and setting up his own in its place. The King accordingly sent his fleet to Lismore, where Cathaldus was taken prisoner and confined in a dungeon until some favourable opportunity should offer to have him conveyed into perpetual exile. The King, however, soon found what a mistake he had committed, and, instead of banishing Cathaldus, he offered him the territory of Rachau, which belonged to Meltridis, the Prince who had denounced him, and who was now overtaken by death in the midst of his intrigues. Cathaldus refused the temporal honours which the King was anxious to confer upon him, and proclaimed that he vowed his life to religion, and sought no other honours. He was, therefore, raised to the episcopate, and constituted the chief spiritual ruler of the extensive territory of the deceased Meltridis, whose tanist rights were made over on the church.
After Cathaldus had ruled the see of Rachau for some years, he resolved to set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He committed the care of his diocese to his neighbouring bishops, and set sail, without any retinue, for the Holy Land. It is probable that he was accompanied by his brother, Donatus, who afterwards became Bishop of Lupiae, now Lecce, in Calabria. In due course he reached his destination, and had the supreme happiness of kneeling at the great sepulchre, or as Tasso expresses it: "D'adorar la Gran Tomba e sciorre il voto."
With all the love and reverence of a pilgrim he sought out the holy places that had been sanctified by the presence of his Heavenly Master ; and so great was his joy to live in these solitudes, and dwell on the mysteries of man's salvation, amidst the very scenes in which it had been accomplished, that he earnestly desired and prayed to be relieved of his episcopal burden, and allowed to live and die in the desert in which our Lord had fasted, or in some one of the retreats that had been made sacred for ever by His earthly presence. Whilst engaged in earnest prayer on these thoughts, his soul was invaded by a supernatural light, which made clear to him that Providence had other designs about him. He accordingly started on the journey that Heaven had marked out for him; and, having been shipwrecked in the Gulf of Taranto, he was cast ashore not far from the city of which he was to become the apostle and the bishop. The cave in which he first took refuge is still to be seen in the neighbourhood of Otranto, not far from the point of the Japygian promontory.
The shipwrecked pilgrim, henceforward an apostle, soon made his way to the eastern gate of Tarentum. At the entrance of the city a blind man was to be seen, asking for assistance from those who passed by. His condition was symbolical of the darkness that prevailed within. Cathaldus addressed him, spoke to him of Christ and of the Blessed Trinity, and, as he found him amenable to Christian teaching, he instructed him in the mysteries of salvation; and whilst he imparted to him the light of grace through the Sacrament of Baptism he restored to him the light of natural vision through that supernatural power that had been vouchsafed to him. This whole circumstance was regarded as a happy omen, and as a symbol of the change to be wrought by the apostle within the city.
A parallel has sometimes been drawn between the condition of Taranto, when St. Cathaldus first entered its gates, with that of Athens when it was first visited by St. Paul. The parallel holds good in some respects, but not in all. Taranto was, to all intents and purposes, as deeply plunged in paganism as Athens was. There was scarcely a vestige left of the early religious settlement that had been made there by St. Peter and St. Mark, or by whoever had preached the Gospel to its people in early times. Paganism reigned supreme; but, in so far as it constituted a religion at all, it was paganism in its most corrupt and repellent form. The days of Archytas and of Pythagoras were now left far behind. The artistic splendour which had never entirely disappeared from Athens, had long since vanished from Taranto. There was no culture now, but ignorance and barbarism, the result of centuries of war and strife. With minds thus steeped in ignorance, with hearts corrupted by licence and perverted by superstition, the people of this neglected city did not offer a very encouraging prospect to the new missionary who appeared amongst them. His success, nevertheless, was greater than that of St. Paul at the capital of Greece. He won his way to the hearts of the people by his eloquence, his zeal, his power of working miracles; and when the prejudice entertained against his person and speech was once removed, the divine origin of the Gospel that he preached was acknowledged readily enough. We have, unfortunately, but very meager details as to the methods of his apostolate; but we are assured, at all events, that they were so effective as to win over the whole city in a few years. Certain it is that Cathaldus was acknowledged without dispute, during his own lifetime, as Bishop of Tarentum, and that he has ever since been revered as the founder of the Tarentine Church and the patron saint of the converted city.
It is said that when the saint felt that his death was at hand, he called around him his priests and deacons and the chief men of the city, and earnestly exhorted them to remain faithful to his teaching.
"I know [he said], that when I am gone dreadful and relentless enemies shall rise up against you, and endeavour, by heretical sophistry, to tear asunder the members of the Catholic Church, and lead astray the flock which I brought together with such pains. Against these enemies of your faith and of the Christian religion, I entreat you to strengthen the minds of the people by your own firmness, ever mindful of my labours and vigils."
The remains of the holy Bishop were committed, at his own request, to their native earth in his Cathedral Church. They were enclosed in a marble tomb, portion of which is still preserved. For some time the exact position of this tomb was unknown, but when Archbishop Drogonus of Tarentum was restoring the cathedral, in the eleventh century, the tomb was discovered. It was opened by the Archbishop, and the body of the saint was found well preserved. A golden cross had been attached to the body of the saint at the time of his burial. This also was discovered, and found to bear upon it the name of Cathaldus. The relics of the saint were then encased and preserved in the high altar of the cathedral. During the pontificate of Eugenius III they were transferred to a beautiful silver shrine adorned with gems and precious stones. A silver statue of Cathaldus was also cast, and erected in the church. These and many other memorials of the saint are still to be seen, and are held in great veneration by the people of Taranto.
The miracles attributed to the saints of the Church are often spoken of with derision by those who regard themselves as the children of light. These, whilst they minister to their own vanity, and fancy that nature has taken them specially into her confidence, revealing her inmost secrets to their ardent gaze, sometimes succeed in deceiving others: but they deceive themselves more than all. Indeed it is almost impossible to conceive how those early saints could have succeeded in winning over to Christianity, in the space of a few years, whole cities and districts that had hitherto been steeped in vice and superstition, without the power of working miracles. When that power is once granted, the explanation of wholesale conversion becomes easy and plain. Something is necessary to strike and astonish the multitude, and when wonder and alarm have become general, half the battle is already gained.
That St. Cathaldus possessed this power in a high degree, is testified not only in the records of his life, but still more authentically in the wholesale nature of the conversions that he wrought, and the unfading memory he left impressed on the city to which he ministered. The veneration for Cathaldus was not confined to Tarentum alone. It spread far and wide through Italy, Greece, and the Ionian islands. The village of Castello San Cataldo on the Ionian coast, midway between Brindisi and Otranto, perpetuates his name. Chapels dedicated to the saint, or statues erected in his honour, may be seen in many of the neighbouring towns of Calabria. The Cathedral of Taranto itself is, however, his greatest monument...
J. F. HOGAN
Irish Ecclesiastical Record, Volume XVII (1896), 403-416.
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