St. Venantius Fortunatus

(Sixth Century)

Today’s saint was unique: first a traveling lay poet, he later became a priest and then a bishop. But he always remained a professional author of poetry, a “troubadour” of Christ.

His impressive full name was Venantius Honorius Clementianus Fortunatus. Born near Treviso in northern Italy, he received a good education in literature and law.

While studying at Ravenna, he was cured of an eye ailment by the intercession of St. Martin of Tours. To express his gratitude to the Gallic saint, he set out for France, intent on a thanksgiving visit to St. Martin’s tomb. He did not take the shortest route, however. He went to Mainz, Cologne, Trier and Metz in Germany, then crossed into Gaul (France) and visited Verdun, Rheims, Soissons and Paris before he reached his destination. We know all this because we have the poetry he wrote for benefactors in each of these places. Thus he earned his fare.

After Venantius had thanked the Saint of Tours, he went over to Poitiers, also in France, and became attached to the Monastery of the Holy Cross at that place. He had been attracted by the work that St. Radegund was doing at Poitiers.

Radegund was the daughter of the King of Thuringia. King Clotaire of the Franks had captured her and forced her to marry him. Escaping from her husband, the unwilling queen had taken the veil at Poitiers and founded Holy Cross Abbey. She chose her adopted daughter Agnes as abbess. Venantius, who had a great sensitivity to women in need, volunteered to serve this monastery as its unofficial steward. Later he entered the priesthood and became the monastery’s chaplain. His “mother” (as he called St. Radegund) and his “sister” (as he called Abbess Agnes) were a good and gracious influence on him.

It was in 569, while Venantius was serving Holy Cross Abbey, that the Emperor Justin II sent to Queen Radegund a generous relic of the true Cross of Jesus. King Sigebert of Gaul arranged for a splendid ceremony to welcome this relic. Venantius composed the hymn Vexilla Regis, (“The royal banners forward go.”) One of the greatest of the medieval hymns, it continued to be chanted at the rites of Good Friday until the 1960s.

When St. Radegund died in 587, Fortunatus was freer to travel about. Wherever he went he was still prevailed on to write new poems. From 599 to 609 he was also bishop of Poitiers. As such, he was a close associate of three other notable bishops: Saints Felix of Nantes, Leontius of Bordeaux, and Gregory of Tours. St. Gregory urged him to collect and publish his poetical works. He did so and it amounted to ten fat volumes. More volumes were added after his death.

He had written cheerfully for every sort of celebration. Some of his poems were complimentary, some were lives of the saints, but the most durable were his devotional works. Another of these was sung, like the Vexilla Regis, in the Good Friday liturgy: “Pange lingua gloriosi lauream certaminis” (“Sing, my tongue, the Savior’s glory”). A third is still used (in translation) for Easter: Salve festa dies (“Hail thee, festival day”). St. Venantius also wrote hymns to Mary: “Quem terra, fontes, aethera” (“To God whom earth and sea and sky”), and perhaps even the popular “Ave Maris Stella” (“Hail, bright star of ocean”).

Venantius died with a reputation for genial holiness. Although he has never been listed as a saint in the official Roman Martyrology, he is honored as such in several French and Italian dioceses. As a poet he was more facile than great. But his devotional verge can show a depth of poetic piety. Thus, in addressing the Cross in his Vexilla Regis, he sings touchingly:

“On whose dear arms, so widely flung,
The weight of this world’s ransom hung:
The price of humankind to pay
And spoil the spoiler of his prey
All hail, O Cross, our only hope!”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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