In Roman times, Auxerre (Antissiodorum) in north-central France, was an important city. Germain was born there, became a bishop there, and from that place achieved wide influence both in Gaul and in the British Isles. Germanus (his name in Latin) was the child of a distinguished Gallo-Roman family. Earmarked for civil service, he studied literature and law in Rome, married a Roman socialite and was sent back to be governor of Armorica (northwest France).
Governor Germanus was not only a good administrator, but a devout Christian. So when Bishop Amator of Auxerre died, the Auxerrois demanded Germanus for their next bishop. He yielded only on their insistence, was ordained, consecrated and installed. (He was not the only Roman civil servant to be so drafted: St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Paulinus of Nola were two others. Germain remained married, for the Western Church had not yet set up celibacy as a norm.)
Once a bishop, Germanus started to live like one, for he believed that bishops should set an example of unworldliness and charity. He also worked with St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, to popularize the monastic life. The new bishop of Auxerre soon had to deal with the menacing heresy of Pelagianism. Pelagius, a native of Britain, had begun to teach that there was no such thing as original sin, and that divine grace is not necessary for salvation. The implication was that mankind can save itself, and that the Redemption had been unnecessary, thank you!
Pope St. Celestine asked the bishops of Gaul to deal with this error. In 429 A.D., they sent Germanus and St. Lupus, Bishop of Troyes, to preach against Pelagianism in Great Britain. This was the first of Germain’s two trips there. By his preaching and miracles, he was able to outsmart Pelagius in large part. One of his methods was to set up schools where correct doctrine was taught. It was most likely Germanus, too, who consecrated St. Patrick a bishop and sent him to Ireland. Patrick was a strong adversary of Pelagianism. (Another saint whom Germain “discovered” was St. Genevieve, the future patron saint of Paris.)
The English Catholic poet Hilaire Belloc wrote a rollicking song about the saint’s campaign called “Song of the Pelagian Heresy”. Here is one stanza:
“He thwacked them hard and he thwacked them long
On each and all occasions,
Till they bellowed in chorus loud and strong
Their orthodox persuasions.
With my row-di-do-de-oodly-ow.
Their orthodox persuasions.”
Back home St. Germain used his political expertise to good purpose. By straight talk plus a miracle he persuaded the Roman prefect of Gaul to lighten oppressive taxes. Again, when the Roman general Aetius sent in a pagan army to suppress a revolt among the Christians of Armorica, Germanus, fearing for the welfare of his people, persuaded the pagan commander to hold off until he himself could go to Ravenna, Italy, and ask Aetius’ pardon for the insurgents.
Germain won his case at Ravenna. Unfortunately, death overtook him while he was still there. By now he had become so noted throughout the Roman Empire that the transportation of his body back to France and his obsequies at Auxerre constituted one of the most magnificent funerals ever recorded. The bishop’s tomb soon became a center of pilgrimage, and he was widely venerated as a saint in France, Britain and Ireland. Germain of Auxerre – surely a five-star bishop!
–Father Robert F. McNamara