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St. Isidore of Seville (April 4)

March 4, 2006

Spain of the mid-500s was in the midst of a clash of cultures. The Roman empire was crumbling, and cultured Roman Spain had been overrun by the superior fighting strength of the uncouth, unlettered Visigoth barbarians. In addition, these Visigoth rulers were Arian (most of the military in the empire was), while their subjects were Catholic. Besides being the “in” thing in the empire (everybody who was somebody was Arian, if you know what I mean), Arianism was easier. If you just deny the divinity of Jesus, you don’t have to try wrap your brain around the Trinity (how can there be three Persons in One God?), the Incarnation (how could God become Man?), or Mary as Mother of God. You don’t have to believe in a God who could humble Himself enough to let us crucify Him, or who could insist that we follow Him to the cross. Of course, it also means that Jesus couldn’t save us. Details do matter…

Into this setting was born a family of saints. St. Leander, the oldest, became a Benedictine monk, and later archbishop of Seville, leading the move to convert the Arian Visigoths to Catholicism. Less is known of his younger siblings, St. Fulgentius (bishop of Carthegena) and St. Florentina (a nun who directed 40 convents, about 1,000 nuns), but today we honor his youngest brother, St. Isidore of Seville.

St. Isidore, born in 560 to noble Roman parents, was orphaned early in life. This isn’t too surprising when we realize that he was about 26 years younger than Leander. Isidore was sent to the cathedral school of Seville, which Leander had founded, and which was the first of its kind in Spain. There he received his education in the trivium (the studies of languages, oratory and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy & music) at least partly under Leander’s instruction. He quickly established himself as an able student (after, it seems, a bit of a rough start with his brother’s educational style), mastering Latin, Hebrew and Greek and becoming the most learned man of his century.

In 579, Leander became archbishop of Seville, and went into exile in Byzantium that same year because he had been influential in the conversion of Hermenegild to Catholicism. Hermenegild, King Leovigild’s oldest son and heir apparent, was executed by his father’s orders in 585. It’s not known exactly when Leander returned from exile (or what Isidore was doing in the meantime), but he was also instrumental in the conversion of King Leovigild’s younger son, Reccared, to Catholicism in 587, two years before King Leovigild’s death in 589. When Reccared took the throne upon his father’s death, his new faith formed the basis for a united Spain. By and large, his fellow Visigoth rulers followed him into the Catholic Church, with a lot of help from Leander and Isidore, both of whom worked tirelessly to present the appeal of the truths of the Faith against the errors of Arianism.

“Heresy is from the Greek word meaning ‘choice’…. But we are not permitted to believe whatever we choose, nor to choose whatever someone else has believed. We have the Apostles of God as authorities, who did not…choose what they would believe but faithfully transmitted the teachings of Christ. So, even if an angel from Heaven should preach otherwise, he shall be called anathema.” -Saint Isidore

When Leander died in 600 or 601, Isidore took his place as archbishop of Seville, carrying on the legacy of education and apologetics his brother had begun. To counteract the Visigoth contempt of learning, he ordered the establishment of cathedral schools in every diocese in Spain, making sure they taught a classical curriculum, and writing so many books for their use that he was known as the “schoolmaster of the Middle Ages”. It was through his efforts that Spain was spared the worst of the Dark Ages into which education fell in most of western Europe. His books were used as the standard for textbooks well into the 1500’s. He is best known for his 20-volume encyclopedic work “Etymologies”, in which he organized all the knowledge of the known world of his time, from the heights of theology to the intricacies of medicine to the practicality of furniture and everything in between. In this work, many fragments of classical learning were preserved which otherwise would have been hopelessly lost. It’s because this work resembles a modern database that St. Isidore has been proposed as patron saint of the internet. He also wrote a dictionary of synonyms, a history of the Goths, a rule of life for monks (monasticism was still fairly new), biographies of the major characters of the Bible, a history of the world, and many other sacred and secular works.

As archbishop, he called and presided over several Church councils, in which he was influential in restoring and settling the discipline of the Church, as well as in paving the way for representative government and in decreeing that Jews must not be Baptized by force.

Isidore was well-loved by his people. Although he had always been generous with the poor, during the last six months of his life he gave away so much that his house was always crowded from morning to night with poor who had come for his aid. When he realized that his end was near (he was roughly 76 years old), he called two of his bishops and went with them to the church, where he had one clothe him in sackcloth and the other strew ashes on his head. In this spirit of penance, he then stretched his hands to Heaven, prayed earnestly, begged aloud for forgiveness and received the Holy Eucharist. He urged everyone present to pray for him and to live charitably, he forgave all debts owed to him and had the remainder of his property distributed to the poor. Finally, he went home and calmly gave his spirit into the hands of God on this day in 636.

St. Isidore, your love of knowledge pointed you to love of God and of your fellow man. Pray for us, that we may put our knowledge of God into practise, and join you one day before the throne of God, where you praise Him forever.

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