Despite of the extreme brevity of his entry in the Pilgrim’s Guide, through his many writings and celebrated life, Saint Caesarius was remembered as the leading man of the church during one of its most defining periods in the first half of the sixth century.
He was archbishop of Arles for forty years during a particularly tumultuous time in its history. During his tenure which began in 503, four separate Germanic peoples vied for control of the region. First the Burgundians and the Visigoths and then Ostrogoths controlled the city which was finally ruled by the Merovingian Franks from 536. In particular, a war of 507 was particularly harsh on the inhabitants.
In this difficult environment, Caesarius managed to combine strong qualities of statesmanship with a common touch which endeared him to the people. He was known to free captives by selling church ornaments to pay ransoms. Even during his lifetime he had a considerable reputation as a miracle worker.
On one occasion, in order to relieve a period of drought, he was said to have trapped the wind from the sea in his hand glove and released it over a dry valley which then became fertile.
Caesarius’ life is well documented because of his own prolific writing and the hagiography written by his disciple Saint Cyprien.
Born into the fifth century Gallo-Roman landed gentry, Caesarius left his family home in Burgundy to enter the monastic life on the island of Lerins off the coast of Provence. Saint Honoratus had founded the first community of monks there in 410 and the monastery was soon established as an important academy for illustrious men of the church.
The fervour with which he applied himself to his devotions caused the young Caesarius to fall foul of his fellow monks. When acting as the monastery’s cellarer he decided that the meals offered to the monks were not sufficiently frugal and Caesarius withheld rations accordingly.
He was sent to Arles where he was taken under the wing of bishop Aeonius and made prior of a monastery on an island in the Rhône.
After Aeonius’s death, Caesarius was elected archbishop. He soon found himself in conflict politically and theologically. On the political front he was exiled by the Visigothic ruler Alaric II, after being accused of siding with the Burgundians. After a year Caesarius managed to clear his name and was reinstated. It was not long before he ran into trouble with the new Ostrogothic ruler Theoderic, who had him imprisoned in 512. Again, he was released after he had pleaded his cause.
Caesarius was very active in the debate over the heresy of semi-Pelagianism, arguing at the Council of Orange in 529, that man could not be predestined to evil.
Generally considered to be the first western cleric to receive the Papal pallium, this was a mark of the exceptional esteem Caesarius enjoyed at Rome. This attribute, a woollen band worn over the head and draping down in the form of a Y, was originally reserved for the Papacy only.
During his long term in office, Caesarius was very active in defining the nature and role of the Church in society at a time when Western civilisation was at a crossroads.
Among his numerous works, he established a monastic rule for convents which was the most widely used until it was superceded by the Benedictine Rule.
The Guide erroneously tells us that Caesarius was a martyr, however this is not the case. After the Franks had succeeded in taking over Arles, he retired from public life. His relics were kept at the cathedral of Saint Trophime at Arles.
Biblio. W Melczer, The Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago de Compostela