St. Pacian

(Fourth Century)

There are many saints whose lives and works inspire us, but about whom we can’t learn as much as we would like, because the records are missing.

One of these is St. Pacian. He had an impressive career as bishop of Barcelona, Spain, in the last two decades of the fourth century. He has left three letters and two sermons, but these are so good we hanker for more.

Pacian was outstanding enough to merit inclusion in the “who’s who” called On Men of Distinction, written by the great fourth-century scholar, St. Jerome. Jerome did not know the bishop personally, but he did know Pacian’s son, Flavius Dexter, an officer who served Emperors Theodosius and Honorius. It was to Flavius that Jerome dedicated On Men of Distinction. The author was well informed on the bishop. He praised his personal integrity and simple eloquence, and declared that his way of life was even more illustrious than his works.

One of Pacian’s writings that was not preserved, but about which we know, was his Cervellus. Cervellus (“The Little Stag”) dealt with an immoral pagan New Year’s celebration. It was a sort of Mardi Gras centering around a little deer. The pagan participants would wear masks, dress up like animals, and then act like animals (or worse).

Since this was an ancient and popular observance, Christians sometimes yielded to the temptation to take part. Bishop Pacian was faced with a dilemma that bishops still face today. Should he publicly denounce this immoral rite or not? It was his duty to warn the faithful, but denunciation also gave a “box office” publicity to the Cervellus. If he warned the faithful, he would be fulfilling his duty to save their souls. But the very warning would prompt others, out of curiosity or defiance, to join in the pagan rite, and their souls might thus be lost.

Well, he did give public warning, and the practice eventually died out. As for the danger of publicity, he simply left this, I suppose, in God’s hands. Sometimes we have to tolerate the bad side effects of our good actions.

Pacian preached clearly on the need to ask God’s forgiveness for all our sins. He reminded his flock that when Jesus gave the authority to bind and loose sins to his apostles – and through them to their successors – this authority extended to every sin, slight or serious: “Whether it be great or whether it be small.”

Yes, there are smaller sins, he said. These, too, can be forgiven in confession. But the venial sins can also be forgiven or atoned for by other means. He doubtless meant prayer, self-denial, etc. This is good for us to remember, especially in Lent: Our Lenten prayers, acts of self-denial (like fasting and abstinence) and almsgiving make up to God for our lesser sins. (Indeed, they can be applied to the sins of the faithfully departed, too, towards the release of their souls in purgatory.) On the other hand, mortal sins (like idolatry, irreverence towards the Blessed Sacrament, murder and illicit sex) can be forgiven only through the sacrament of reconciliation (penance).

Pacian sensed that some would object (as they do today) to confessing their sins to a priest: “I am embarrassed to confess these grave sins.” The saint answered pointedly, “You were not ashamed to commit the sin, but now are ashamed to confess it?”

A good comment! We should be embarrassed to confess serious sins. Embarrassment is itself an appropriate act of penance. By undergoing it, we prove to God that we are humble enough to deserve his forgiveness.

Pacian is best remembered, however, for adopting and clarifying the word “Catholic”. A heretic once rebuked the bishop for his use of the term “the Catholic Church”. St. Pacian replied, “Christian is my name, Catholic my surname. The one name puts me in a class; the other gives me a character. The second is a testimonial; the first is a label.” A Catholic Christian, he went on to explain, is a Christian who follows the correct teaching of the Catholic (i.e. universal) Church.

This, like much else that Pacian said 17 centuries ago, is still true today.

-Father Robert F. McNamara

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