St. Chromatius of Aquileia

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

General Audience Wednesday, December 5, 2007

During his general audience on Dec. 5, Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. Chromatius of Aquileia. He proclaimed the truths of the faith and sustained his flock in hope amid the uncertainties of the times. Above all, he taught his people to pray with confidence in the Lord’s victory over evil.

In our last two catecheses, we made a short journey to the Semitic-language churches of the East as we reflected on St. Aphraates of Persia and St. Ephrem of Syria. Today, with St. Chromatius of Aquileia, we return to the Latin world — to the northern part of the Roman Empire.

Chromatius carried out his ministry in the ancient church of Aquileia, a center of fervent Christian life situated in the Decima Regio of the Roman Empire — Venetia et Histria.

In 388, when Chromatius became bishop of Aquileia, the local Christian community had already developed a glorious history of faithfulness to the Gospel.

During the second half of the third century and the first years of the fourth century, the persecutions of Decius, Valerian and Diocletian had already produced many martyrs. Moreover, the church of Aquileia had been contending, as had many other churches of that era, with the threat of the Arian heresy.

Athanasius, the standard-bearer of Nicene orthodoxy whom the Arians drove into exile, sought refuge for a time in Aquileia. Under the guidance of its bishops, the Christian community resisted the insidious threats of heresy and grew stronger in its adherence to the Catholic faith.

In September of 381, Aquileia was the site of a synod that brought together some 35 bishops from the coast of Africa, the Rhone Valley, and the entire Decima Regio. The purpose of the synod was to eradicate the last vestiges of Arianism in the West. Chromatius, who was a priest, took part in the synod as an adviser to Bishop Valerian of Aquileia (370 or 371 to 387 or 388). The years preceding and following the synod of 381 were the “golden age” of the community in Aquileia.

St. Jerome, who was a native of Dalmatia, and Rufinus of Concordia speak with nostalgia of their stay in Aquileia (370-373) in something akin to a theological association that St. Jerome described as tamquam chorus beatorum (like a choir of the blessed) (Cronaca: PL XXVII, 697-698).

Within this association, which in many ways was reminiscent of the experiments in community life that Eusebius of Vercelli and Augustine carried out, the most famous figures of the Church in the Upper Adriatic region were educated.

Early Life

Nevertheless, it is within his family that Chromatius had already learned to know and love Christ. Jerome himself speaks about this with admiration, comparing Chromatius’ mother to the prophetess Anna, his two sisters to the wise virgins of the Gospel parable, and Chromatius and his brother Eusebius to the young Samuel (see Epistola VII: PL XXII, 341). Jerome also wrote of them, “The blessed Chromatius and the saintly Eusebius were brothers through the bond of blood, but also through the identity of their ideals” (Epistola VIII: PL XXII, 342).

Chromatius was born in Aquileia around the year 345. He was ordained a deacon and then a priest. Finally, in 388, he was chosen to be the bishop of that Church.

Having been consecrated a bishop by Bishop Ambrose, he courageously and energetically dedicated himself to an immense task, given the vast territory that was entrusted to his pastoral care. The ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Aquileia extended from the present territories of Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia up into Hungary.

We can deduce the degree to which Chromatius was known and esteemed throughout the Church of that time from an episode in the life of St. John Chrysostom. When this bishop of Constantinople was exiled from his see, he wrote three letters to those whom he considered the most important bishops in the West in order to solicit their support before the emperors. He wrote one letter to the bishop of Rome, a second letter to the bishop of Milan, and a third letter to the bishop of Aquileia, Chromatius (Epistola CLV: PG LII, 702).

In light of the precarious political situation, it was also a difficult for Bishop Chromatius. Most likely, Chromatius died in exile in Grado while fleeing the barbarian raids in 407, the same year in which Chrysostom also died.

Aquileia was the fourth city within the Italian peninsula in terms of size and prestige, and ninth within the Roman Empire. For this reason, it was attractive to the Goths and the Huns.

The invasions of these people, besides causing serious wars and destruction, gravely jeopardized the circulation of the works of the Fathers of the Church that were preserved within the bishop’s library, which included many codices.

The writings of St. Chromatius were among those that were dispersed, ending up here and there and often attributed to other authors, including John Chrysostom (mostly because their two names — Chromatius and Chrysostom — begin with the same letters), Ambrose, Augustine, and even Jerome, whom Chromatius had greatly assisted in his revision of the text and in the Latin translation of the Bible.

The rediscovery of a great part of Chromatius’ work is due to several fortunate and providential events that have enabled us only in recent years to reconstitute a fairly substantial body of writings that consist of some forty sermons, of which ten are fragmentary, and more than sixty treatises of commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.

Chromatius was a wise teacher and a zealous pastor. His first and principal commitment was to listen to the Word of God so that he could then proclaim it. In his teachings, he always began with the Word of God and ended with it.

He was particularly fond of certain themes, especially the mystery of the Trinity, which he considered in its revelation throughout the entire history of salvation.

The theme of the Holy Spirit was also dear to him: Chromatius constantly drew the attention of the faithful to the presence and the work of the third Person of the Holy Trinity in the life of the Church.

This holy bishop was especially insistent as he repeatedly addressed the mystery of Christ. The Word that became flesh is truly God and truly man. He fully assumed human nature in order to confer upon mankind the gift of his own divine nature.

Fifty years later, these truths, insistently hammered home to refute Arianism, led to their definition at the Council of Chalcedon.

This strong emphasis on Christ’s human nature led Chromatius to speak about the Virgin Mary. His teaching on Mary is succinct and precise. We are indebted to him for some thought-provoking descriptions of the Blessed Virgin: Mary is “the virgin of the Gospel who was capable of receiving God” and she is “the immaculate and inviolate sheep” who gave birth to the “lamb swaddled in purple” (see Sermo XXIII, 3: Scrittori dell’area santambrosiana 3/1, p. 134).

Chromatius of Aquileia often compared the Blessed Virgin Mary to the Church. Both are “virgins” and “mothers.”

Chromatius developed his ecclesiology mostly in his commentaries on the Gospel of Matthew. Several concepts are recurring: The Church is one and is born from the blood of Christ; it is a precious garment that the Holy Spirit has woven together; the Church is the place that proclaims that Christ was born of the Virgin Mary and where brotherhood and harmony flourish.

Chromatius was particularly fond of the image of a ship on the stormy sea since, as we already said, the time in which he lived was also stormy. “Without any doubt, this ship represents the Church,” this holy bishop affirmed (see Tract. XLII, 5: Scrittori dell’area santambrosiana 3/2, p. 260).

A Beloved Pastor

Being a zealous pastor, Chromatius knew how to speak to his people in a way that was fresh, colorful and incisive. Even though he mastered Latin perfectly, he preferred to use the popular language, which was rich in easily understandable images.

For example, finding inspiration in the sea, he compared fishing in which fish, once thrown upon the shore, died, to the preaching of the Gospel, which saves men from the murky waters of death and leads them into the true life (see Tract. XVI, 3: Scrittori dell’area santambrosiana 3/2, p. 106).

In a tumultuous time ravaged by barbarian raids, he stood alongside the faithful as a good shepherd would in order to comfort them and to open their hearts to God, who never abandons his children.

In conclusion, let us reflect on one of Chromatius’ exhortations, which is still perfectly valid today.

“Let us pray to the Lord with all our heart and all our faith,” the bishop of Aquileia recommends in one of his sermons, “that he free us from every attack of the enemy and from all fear of the adversary. May he not look upon our merits but upon his mercy, he who in the past deigned to free the children of Israel not because of their merits but because of his mercy. May he protect us with this same merciful love and may he do for us what holy Moses said to the children of Israel: ‘The Lord will fight for you and you have only to keep still.’ It is he who fights; it is he who brings victory. ... In order for him to deign to do so, we ought to pray as much as possible. He himself says through the mouth of the prophet: ‘Invoke my name on the day of tribulation; I shall free you and you shall give me glory’” (Sermo XVI, 4: Scrittori dell’area santambrosiana 3/1, pp. 100-102).

As the Advent season begins, St. Chromatius reminds us that Advent is a time of prayer during which we need to be in contact with God. God knows us, he knows me, he knows each one of us, he loves me, he does not abandon me.

Let us go forward with this trust throughout the liturgical season that has just begun.

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