There is a 13th century statue of St. Zeno in the magnificent old Basilica of S. Zeno Major, Verona, Italy, which represents this ancient bishop, enthroned, holding his crosier with his left hand and blessing with his right, smiling as he does so.
Why the smile? Most saints’ images are serious-faced. Whatever the reason, it makes this able prelate, described by his contemporary St. Ambrose of Milan as “a bishop of holy memory”, seem all the more approachable. Although he ruled a diocese in northern Italy, Zeno was probably of African origin. (If Zeno was indeed African, that does not mean he was a black. The most prominent people along the Mediterranean coast of Africa were usually Caucasian Europeans.)
St. Zeno apparently became bishop of Verona in 362. What he was like as a bishop, we can gather from snippets of his own writings and from the development of Catholicism in his diocese.
At his first arrival in Verona, Bishop Zeno found two major problems. First, there were still many pagans in the vicinity. Second, the heresy of Arianism (which denied the divinity of Christ) was widespread. Zeno records that he baptized a large number of pagans each year. He also countered the Arians vigorously and successfully. Thus the number of his diocesans grew so large that he had to build a larger basilica as his cathedral.
Zeno himself was evidently deeply religious. He trained his priests carefully and treated them in a fatherly style. He founded a convent of vowed virgins, and in this he became a pioneering figure in the Italian development of women’s religious congregations. He strongly opposed abuses that had arisen in connection with religious rites.
But Zeno’s outstanding trait was his charity. In his own lifestyle he was a poor man, and he successfully inculcated on his people a Christian concern for the needy. Verona thus became a city noted for its generosity. Its citizens opened their homes to the shelterless and anticipated other wants. After 378, when the barbarian Goths conquered Emperor Valens and enslaved many in northern Italy, the inhabitants of Verona came to the rescue, ransoming some, snatching others from death, and freeing still others from hard labor.
His writings show St. Zeno to have been a good theologian for his times. He not only stoutly defended the dogma of the Trinity; he also insisted that Mary was “ever virgin”: before, during, and after the birth of her Son.
Reverence for Zeno only increased once he was dead. In 586 Verona was threatened by the flooding of the river Adige. The Veronese crowded into their cathedral, to beg their eighth bishop for miraculous preservation. Their prayers were answered. The flood rose to the height of the windowsills outside, but never broke into the building. The congregation remained inside for 24 hours, and by then the waters had abated.
St. Zeno is usually pictured holding a fishpole with a fish on the hook. Maybe it is because he was a “fisher of men”. But maybe it was also because he enjoyed fishing for relaxation – a pleasant thought. By the way, this “smiling saint” is also invoked for children who are just learning to speak and talk!
–Father Robert F. McNamara