St. Zeno, Bishop of Verona, Confessor
THIS holy prelate is styled a martyr by St. Gregory the Great, 1 and in several martyrologies. But was honoured only with the title of confessor, in the ancient missal of Verona, before the time of Lewis Lippoman, bishop of that city, in 1548: 2 and it appears, from the manner in which St. Ambrose, who was his contemporary, writing to Syagrius, oursaint’s successor, speaks of his happy death, and extols his eminent sanctity, that he did not die by the sword. 3 Living in the days of Constantius, Julian, and Valens, he might deserve the title of martyr, by sharing in the persecutions carried on by those princes. Hence, in some calendars, he is styled martyr, in others confessor. 1
The marquis Scipio Maffei, and some others, pretend from his name, that he was a Grecian: but the Ballerini show, from the natural easiness, and the sharpness and conciseness of his style, that he was by birth, or at least by education, a Latin, and an African; which is confirmed from his panegyric on St. Arcadius, a martyr of Mauritania. From the African martyr, called Zeno, it is clear this name was there in use. Our saint seems to have been made bishop of Verona in the year 362, in the reign of Julian the Apostate. We learn from several of his sermons, that he baptized every year a great number of idolaters, and that he exerted himself with great zeal and success against the Arians, whose party had been exceedingly strengthened in those parts by the favour of the emperor Constantius, and the artifices of the ringleaders of that sect, Ursacius and Valens, and particularly of Auxentius, who held the see of Milan, into which the heretics had intruded him, for twenty years, till 374. He also opposed himself, as a strong bulwark, against the errors of the Pelagians. The church of Verona was purged by his zealous labours and holy prayers, in a great measure, both of heresy and of idols. His flock being grown exceeding numerous, he found it necessary to build a great church, in which he was liberally assisted by the voluntary contributions of the rich citizens. 4 In this church he mentions a cross of wood erected, as it were, to defend the doors. 5 By the precepts and example of this good pastor, the people were so liberal in their alms, that their houses were always open to poor strangers, and none of their own country had occasion even to ask for relief, so plentifully were the necessities of all supplied. 6 And he congratulates them upon the interest which they accumulate in heaven by money bestowed on the poor, by which they not only subdue avarice, but convert its treasures to the highest advantage, and without exciting envy. “For what can be richer than a man to whom God is pleased to acknowledge himself debtor?” After the battle of Adrianople, in 378, in which the Goths defeated Valens, with a greater slaughter of the Romans than had ever been known since the battle of Cannæ, the barbarians made in the neighbouring provinces of Illyricum and Thrace an incredible number of captives. 7 It seems to have been, on this occasion, that the charities of the inhabitants of Verona were dispersed like fruitful seeds through the remotest provinces, and by them many were ransomed from slavery, many rescued from cruel deaths, many freed from hard labour. 8 St. Zeno himself lived in great poverty. 9 He makes frequent mention of the clergy which he trained up to the service of the altar, and the priests his fellow-labourers, to whom a retribution was allotted at Easter, according to every one’s necessities and functions. 10—He speaks of the ordinations 11 which he performed at Easter: 12 also the solemn reconciliation of penitents, which was another function of that holy time. 13 St. Ambrose mentions, 14 at Verona, virgins consecrated to God by St. Zeno, who wore the sacred veil, and lived in their own houses in the city; and others who lived in a monastery, of which he seems to have been both the founder and director, before any were established by St. Ambrose at Milan. Love-feasts, or agapes, were originally established on the festivals of martyrs in their cemeteries, which, by the degeneracy of manners, were at length converted into occasions of intemperance and vanity. St. Zeno inveighed warmly against this abuse. 15 Nor can we doubt but he was one of the principal amongst the bishops of Italy, who, by their zeal and eloquence, entirely banished out of their diocesses a custom which gave occasion to such an abuse, for which St. Austin gave them due praise. 16 St. Zeno extended his charity to the faithful departed, and condemned severely the intemperate grief of those who interrupted by their lamentations the divine sacrifices and public office of the church for their deceased friends, 17 which the priests performed by apostolic tradition at the death and funerals of those who slept in Christ.—St. Zeno received the crown of his labours by a happy death, in 380, on the 12th of April, on which day he is commemorated in the Roman Martyrology. He is honoured at Verona with two other festivals, that of the translation of his relics on the 21st of May, and that of his episcopal consecration, and also of the dedication of his new church in the reign of Pepin, king of Italy, on the 6th of December. The first church which bore his name was built over his tomb, on the banks of the river Adige, without the walls of the city. St. Gregory the Great relates the following miracle, which happened two centuries after the death of the saint, and which he learned from John the Patrician, who was an eye-witness, with king Autharis and count Pronulphus. 18 In the year 589, at the same time that the Tiber overflowed a considerable quarter of Rome, and the flood overtopped the walls, the waters of the Adige, which fall from the mountains with excessive rapidity, threatened to drown great part of the city of Verona. The people flocked in crowds to the church of their holy patron Zeno: the waters seemed to respect its doors, they gradually swelled as high as the windows, yet the flood never broke into the church, but stood like a firm wall, as when the Israelites passed the Jordan: and the people remained there twenty-four hours in prayer, till the waters subsided within the banks of the channel. This prodigy had as many witnesses as there were inhabitants of Verona. The devotion of the people to St. Zeno was much increased by this and other miracles; and, in the reign of Pepin, king of Italy, son of Charlemagne, and brother of Lewis Debonnaire, Rotaldus, bishop of Verona, translated his relics into a new spacious church, built under his invocation in 865, where they are kept with singular veneration in a subterraneous chapel. 19 2
St. Zeno is chiefly known to us by his sufferings for the faith. Persecutions and humiliations for Christ are not a chastisement, but a recompense, and the portion of his most faithful servants. Happy are they who know their value, and bear them at least with patience and resignation; but more happy they who, with the martyrs and all the saints, suffer them with a holy joy and exultation. From his own feeling sentiments, and perfect practice of patience, St. Zeno composed his excellent sermon on that virtue, which he closes with this pathetic prayer and eulogium. “How earnestly do I desire, if I were able, to celebrate thee, O Patience, queen of all things! but by my life and manners more than by my words. For thou restest in thy own action and council more than in discourses, and in perfecting rather than in multiplying virtues. Thou art the support of virginity, the secure harbour of widowhood, the guide and directress of the married state, the unanimity of friendship, the comfort and joy of slavery, to which thou art often liberty.—By thee, poverty enjoys all, because, content with itself, it bears all. By thee, the prophets were advanced in virtue, and the apostles united to Christ. Thou art the daily crown and mother of the martyrs. Thou art the bulwark of faith, the fruit of hope, and the friend of charity. Thou conductest all the people and all divine virtues, as dishevelled hairs bound up into one knot, for ornament and honour. Happy, eternally happy, is he who shall always possess thee in his soul.” 20 In the following discourse, he speaks no less pathetically on humility: but surpasses himself in his sermon on charity, or divine love, “O Charity! how tender, how rich, how powerful art thou! He who possesseth not thee, hath nothing. Thou couldst change God into man. Thou hast overcome death, by teaching a God to die,” 21 &c. 3
Note 1. Dial. l. 3, c. 19.
Note 2. Hence some have distinguished two St. Zenos, bishops of Verona, the first a martyr, about the reign of Gallien: the other an illustrious father of the fourth century. But Onuphrius, in his exact history of the bishops of Verona, mentions but one of that name, the predecessor of Syagrius, in the fourth century: in which the Ballerini, and all judicious critics, now agree.
Note 3. St. Ambros. ep. 5, ad Syagrium.
Note 4. St. Zeno, l. 1, Tr. 14, p. 103.
Note 5. Ib. p. 106.
Note 6. L. Tr. 10, p. 83.
Note 7. Ammian. Marcellin. Zozimus, l. 4, c. 31; St. Ambros. de Offic. l. 2, c. 15 and 28.
Note 8. Ib. p. 82.
Note 9. L. 2, Tr. 14, p. 251.
Note 10. L. 2, Tr. 50, de Pascha. 6, p. 261.
Note 11. Ib.
Note 12. From the omission of Easter, in the enumeration of the times for conferring holy orders, by Gelasius, ep. 9, ad Episc. per Bruttios et Lucanium, c. 11, by Pope Zachary, in the Roman council, in 743, &c. some have pretended, with Quesnel (in Op. S. Leonis, diss. 3, n. 5, et non. in ep. 11,) and Mabillon, (Musæ Ital. t. 2, p. 104,) that anciently Easter was not one of the times for conferring holy orders. But that it was so at Verona, and, doubtless, in many other churches, is clear from St. Zeno, l. 2, Tr. 49, de Pascha 5, p. 261. The reconciliation of penitents was performed on Maunday Thursday, according to the Sacramentaries of Gelasius, &c. but on Good-Friday, at Milan, as appears from St. Ambrose, ep. 20, ad Marcellin, n. 26, imitated afterwards in Spain, and in some churches in France. See Martenne, t. 2, de Antiquis. Eccles. Ritibus, l. 1, c. 6, art. 5.
Note 13. Ib. p. 162.
Note 14. S. Ambros. ep. 5, ad Syagrium.
Note 15. S. Zeno, l. 1, Tr. 15, p. 115; Vide Annot. 18, ib. and S. Ambr. 1, de Elia et Jejunio. c. 17, n. 62.
Note 16. S. Aug. ep. 22, Item ep. 29, and Conf. l. 6, c. 2.
Note 17. Solemnia ipsa divina quibus a Sacerdotibus Dei quiescentes commendari consueverunt, profanis aliquoties ululatibus rumpit. S. Zeno, l. 1, Tr. 16, p. 126.
Note 18. S. Greg. M. Dial. l. 3, c. 19.
Note 19. The fire and spirit of the good African writers are so remarkable in the sermons of St. Zeno, that Gaspar Barthius calls him the Christian Apuleius. One hundred and twenty-seven sermons were printed under his name at Venice, in 1508, at Verona, in 1586, and in the Libraries of the Fathers. In the MS. copies, as in that which Hincmar gave to the monastery of St. Remigius, at Rheims, the title of St. Zeno’s works belonged only to the first part, and others of different authors were added without their names or a different title. Hence Dupin, Tillemont, Ceillier, t. 8, p. 362, and others, have been led into several mistakes about the writings of St. Zeno, which are corrected, and all the difficulties cleared up, by the two learned editors of the new excellent edition, published at Verona, in folio, in 1739, and dedicated to Cardinal Passionei. Here, according to the ancient MSS. these sermons are called Tractatus, which title was given in that age to familiar short discourses made to the people. They are divided into two books; the first of which contains sixteen Tractatus, or sermons, the second seventy-seven, much shorter. Many points of morality and discipline, as well as articles of our faith, are illustrated in these discourses. It appears, from l. 2, tr. 35, p. 234, that it was the custom at that time to plunge the whole body in the water in baptism, and that the water was warmed; for which purpose the editors observe, that the Popes Innocent I. and Sixtus III. had adorned the great baptistery at Rome with two silver stags with cocks. St. Zeno is the only author who mentions the custom of giving a medal to every one that was baptized. See the Ballerini, Annot. ib. p. 233, et in l. 1, Tractat. 14, p. 108. The spurious discourses are thrown into an appendix, and consist of two sermons of Potamius, a Greek bishop, mentioned in a letter written to St. Athanasius, published by Luke D’Acheri in his Spicilegium, t. 3, p. 299. Five others are St. Hilary’s, who was contemporary with St. Zeno, and four are a free translation from St. Basil’s, probably made by Rufin of Aquileia.
Note 20. St. Zeno, l. 1. Tract. 6, de Patientiâ, p. 63.
Note 21. L. 1, tr. 2. de Charitate.
Rev. Alban Butler (1711–73). Volume IV: April.
The Lives of the Saints. 1866