I think we have yet to encounter a woman from antiquity in this series. So let’s celebrate one today.
Paula shared a life profile with many women saints. She was a wealthy noblewoman who enjoyed luxury. She married young. She bore four daughters and a son. She was widowed at a fairly young age. After her husband’s death, she experienced a deeper conversion and devoted her life to God.
Unusual for her day, she was a woman of learning. But not so unusually, as we’ve seen among worthy women, she was associated with a great male saint. In her case, the scholar Jerome.
Jerome lived in Rome from 382 until the death of Pope Damasus in 384. There he began his translation of the Bible into the vernacular of the day, Latin. During his time in the Eternal City he was associated with two women’s communities –one of which met in the home of and under the leadership of Paula.
His friendship with the widow caused some measure of gossip. To some, Paula was perceived to have had no intellectual heft to add to the association, so it must have been about sexual favors. On the other hand, an acquaintance of both thought Jerome was using the woman’s talent. Palladius, a contemporary, remarked:
For though she was able to surpass all, having great abilities, he hindered her by his jealousy, having induced her to serve his own plan.
There was also the matter of her financial support of Jerome’s enterprises. Thanks to her family wealth, she was able to fund more than just the scholarly work of translating Hebrew and Greek into Latin. When Jerome went into exile in the Holy Land, Paula and her daughter Eustochium followed. They founded a combination monastery in Bethlehem for men and women.
As for the translation effort, in addition to her material patronage, Paula served as editor of Jerome’s manuscripts.
Paula died in her fifties, and Jerome continued his work with the Vulgate and their community with the assistance of Paula’s daughter. The female Hieronymites (Order of Saint Jerome) had a strong eremitic strain, similar to the desert tradition emerging in Egypt and elsewhere in southwest Asia. In other ways this community foreshadowed other women’s communities of later centuries: a dedication to learning, especially Biblical literacy.
Inspired by God and the deep God-given curiosity given to people regardless of sex, women have been part of the intellectual witness to Christ, despite cultural flaws and male domination. Also despite, jealousies and gossip.
We don’t know a great deal about Paula of Rome. But I think we know enough to count her among worthy women.
In this image, Paula depicted with her daughter Eustochium and her friend Jerome.