The faith of Christians is tested every day by the inner temptations and sins which constantly confront us. But faith can also be tested by events and circumstances from the outside, from wars to changing economic conditions, and even to shifting cultural and social conditions. These and many other things can challenge the faith of a Christian. The Church holds up saints to help us meet these challenges – holy men and women who offer examples and wisdom for Christians in every age and situation.
St. Isidore, the 7th century Bishop of Seville, lived in a time of cultural and social transition, when the remnants of Roman civilization were giving way to the customs and attitudes of the “barbarians”, the Visigoths, who had conquered Hispania. The Visigoths had given up their pagan religion for Christianity, but had adopted the heretical Arian version, denying the divine nature of Christ.
Isidore was born around the year 560 and, when he was a boy, his family moved from Cartagena to Seville seeking greater stability during a time when the Visigothic rulers were making life difficult for Orthodox Christians. Isidore’s elder brother, Leander, became a monk and was given charge of the education of his younger sibling. Leander eventually became the Bishop of Seville and is honored as a saint of the Church. Another brother, (St.) Fulgentius, was Bishop of Astigi, and a sister, Florentina, became a nun.
Isidore was, at first, a reluctant student. A story is told of his “playing hooky” from his lessons and sitting on a rock outside, letting his mind wander. He observed a tiny, steady trickle of water falling on the rock and how it had, slowly over time, made a small ridge in the stone. He realized that the mind could also be slowly affected by a trickle of knowledge, and he returned to his studies. He eventually came to see the importance of education, and this conviction was to be a central concern for the rest of his life.
Bishop Leander was able to bring the Visigothic King Recared into the Catholic Church and when the bishop died, Isidore was chosen to succeed his brother. The tasks before the new bishop were great. He had to continue to strengthen the Orthodoxy of the Visigothic people, to help them re-arrange their lives based on truly Christian principles and behaviors. He had to offer encouragement and hope to those of the native population. And he had to find a way to help this ethnic mixture form a unified society – an Orthodox Christian society which would be stable and faithful.
Bishop Isidore’s efforts took several forms. He set about making the monasteries more disciplined so that the monks and nuns could better serve the Church with their liturgical life of prayer. The monasteries were to be democratic, in that all members – whether they had come from royalty or been slaves – were to be treated equally, as they were in the sight of God. He made charity to the poor a major part of his work and, as his last act just before his death, gave all his remaining possessions to the poor. But, above all, he sought to make the pursuit of knowledge a priority in his diocese. At one of the numerous Councils of Toledo (local synods for enacting church regulations), Bishop Isidore established the ruling that every Cathedral had to provide a seminary for the education of its clergy. Here those who attended would study Greek, Hebrew and Latin, and both sacred and classical literature would be made available to them.
St. Isidore was a prolific writer, producing works on diverse subjects (astronomy, biographies, commentaries on Scripture, and histories of the Goths). His concern for the careful celebration and the beauty of the Liturgy led him to develop the Mozarabic Liturgy for the Spanish people, with its local variations on the Roman Liturgy.
In the year 636, when he was nearing the end of his life at the age of 80, St. Isidore asked to be dressed in sackcloth and to be taken into his cathedral where, surrounded by his clergy, he confessed his sins and received the Sacrament before ending his earthly sojourn. The 8th Council of Toledo, in 653, made a memorial to the beloved bishop in this declaration: “The extraordinary doctor, the latest ornament of the Catholic Church, the most learned man of the latter ages, always to be named with reverence, Isidore.”
May we, who are once again living in times of social and cultural change, seek the prayers and guidance of St. Isidore of Seville.