Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Isidore of Seville
"Believers Up to Our Times Benefit From His Definitions"
H.H. Benedict XVI
June 18, 2008
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I wish to speak of St. Isidore of Seville, younger brother of
Leander, bishop of Seville, and great friend of Pope Gregory the Great.
This relation is important because it leads us to keep in mind a
cultural and spiritual approach that is indispensable to understanding
Isidore's personality. In fact, he owed much to Leander, a very
exacting, studious and austere person, who had created around his
younger brother a family context characterized by ascetic demands proper
of a monk and the rhythms of work required by serious dedication to
In addition, Leander was attentive to prepare in advance what was
necessary to address the political-social situation of the moment: In
those decades, in fact, the Visigoths, barbarians and Arians, had
invaded the Iberian Peninsula and taken over territories belonging to
the Roman empire. It was necessary to win them over to Romanism and
Catholicism. Leander and Isidore's home had quite a rich library of
classical, pagan and Christian works. Isidore, who felt attracted
simultaneously to both one and the other, was taught, therefore, to
develop, under the watchfulness of his elder brother, a very strong
discipline in dedicating himself to their study with discretion and
In the bishop's residence in Seville one lived, therefore, in a serene
and open climate. We can deduce this from Isidore's cultural and
spiritual interests, as they emerge from his works themselves, which
contain an encyclopedic knowledge of the pagan classical culture and
in-depth knowledge of Christian culture. Thus can be explained the
eclecticism that characterizes Isidore's literary output, which extends
with great ease from Marcial to Augustine, and from Cicero to Gregory
Indeed, the interior struggle that the young Isidore had to endure,
having become his brother Leander's successor in the episcopal chair of
Seville in 599, was not light. Perhaps the impression of excessive
voluntarism that one detects when reading the works of this great author
-- regarded as the last of the Christian fathers of antiquity -- is due
precisely to this constant struggle with himself. A few years after his
death, which occurred in 636, the Council of Toledo of 653 described him
as: "Illustrious teacher of our time and glory of the Catholic Church."
Isidore was without a doubt a man of accentuated dialectical
oppositions. And, also in his personal life, he experienced a permanent
interior conflict, rather like that which St. Gregory the Great and St.
Augustine had already noted, between the desire for solitude, to
dedicate themselves solely to meditation on the word of God, and the
exigencies of charity toward his neighbors, for whose salvation, as
bishop, he felt responsible.
He wrote, for example, in connection with persons responsible for the
Churches: "The person responsible for a Church -- "vir ecclesiasticus"
-- must on one hand allow himself to be crucified to the world with the
mortification of the flesh and, on the other, accept the decision of the
ecclesiastical order, when it stems from the will of God, to dedicate
himself to governance with humility, even if he does not wish to do it"
(Sententiarum liber III, 33, 1: PL 83, col 705 B).
He then adds just another paragraph: "The men of God -- "sancti viri" --
do not in fact desire to dedicate themselves to worldly things and
lament when, by a mysterious plan of God, they are entrusted with
certain responsibilities. They do anything to avoid it, but accept that
which they wish to flee, and do that which they would have wished to
avoid. In fact, they enter into the secret of the heart and therein try
to understand what the mysterious will of God requests. And when they
realize that they must submit to God's plans, they humble their hearts
under the yoke of the divine decision" (Sementarium liber III, 33, 3: PL
83, coll. 705-706).
To better understand Isidore, we must recall, first of all, the
complexity of the political situations of his time, to which I have
already made reference: During the years of his childhood he had
experienced the bitterness of exile. Despite this, he was permeated with
apostolic enthusiasm: He experienced the rapture of contributing to the
formation of a people who were finally rediscovering their unity,
whether on the political or the religious plane, with the providential
conversion of Erminigild, the heir to the Visigothic throne, from
Arianism to the Catholic faith.
However, we must not underestimate the enormous difficulties he faced in
adequately addressing very grave problems such as those of relations
with the heretics and the Jews -- a whole series of problems that appear
very concretely also today, above all, if we consider what happens in
certain regions in which it seems that situations somewhat similar to
those of the Iberian Peninsula of the 6th century have reappeared. The
wealth of cultural knowledge that Isidore possessed allowed him to
constantly confront the Christian novelty with the Greco-Roman classical
heritage, even if, beyond the precious gift of synthesis, it seems he
also had that of "collatio," namely, of compilation, which was expressed
in an extraordinary personal erudition, not always ordered as might have
To be admired, in any case, is his persistent desire not to neglect
anything of that which human experience had produced in the history of
his homeland and of the whole world. Isidore did not wish to lose
anything that was acquired by man in ancient times, whether pagan,
Jewish or Christian. We should not be surprised, therefore, if, in
pursuing this purpose, at times he was not successful in passing on
adequately, as he would have wished, the knowledge he possessed through
the purifying waters of the Christian faith.
In fact, however, in Isidore's intentions, the proposals he makes are
always in harmony with the Catholic faith, which he firmly upheld. In
the discussion of several theological problems, he shows perception of
their complexity and often suggests with acuity solutions that take up
and express the complete Christian truth. This enabled believers through
the course of the centuries and up to our times to benefit with
gratitude from his definitions. A significant example of this matter is
offered to us by Isidore's teaching on the relationships between the
active and contemplative life.
He writes: "Those who seek to attain the repose of contemplation must
first train themselves in the stage of the active life; and thus, freed
from the dross of sins, will be able to exhibit that pure heart which,
alone, allows one to see God" (Differentiarum Lib II, 34, 133: PL 83,
The realism of a true pastor convinces him however of the risk that the
faithful run of reducing themselves to being one-dimensional men. Hence,
he adds: "The middle way, composed of both ways of life, is generally
more useful to resolve those tensions that often are acute by the choice
of only one kind of life and are better tempered by an alternation of
the two ways" (o.c., 134: ivi, col 91B).
Isidore looks for the definitive confirmation of a correct orientation
of life in the example of Christ and says: "Jesus the Savior offers us
the example of the active life when, during the day he dedicated himself
to offer signs and miracles in the city, but he showed the contemplative
life when he withdrew to the mountain at night and dedicated himself to
prayer" (o.c. 134: ivi).
In the light of the example of the divine Teacher, Isidore could
conclude with this precise moral teaching: "Therefore, the servant of
God, imitating Christ, must dedicate himself to contemplation without
denying himself the active life. To behave otherwise would not be right.
In fact, as we must love God with contemplation, so we must love our
neighbor with action. It is impossible, therefore, to live without the
presence of one and the other way of life, nor is it possible to love if
one has no experience of one or the other" (o.c., 135: ivi, col 91C).
I hold that this is the synthesis of a life that seeks the contemplation
of God, dialogue with God in prayer and the reading of sacred Scripture,
as well as action in the service of the human community and of one's
neighbor. This synthesis is the lesson that the great bishop of Seville
leaves us, Christians of today, called to witness to Christ at the
beginning of a new millennium.
[Translation by ZENIT]
[The Pope then greeted pilgrims in several languages. In English, he
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In today's catechesis we turn to Saint Isidore of Seville, the brother
of Saint Leander and a contemporary and friend of Saint Gregory the
Great. Isidore lived during the Visigothic invasions of Spain, and he
devoted much energy to converting the barbarian tribes from heresy and
preserving the best fruits of classical and Christian culture. His
encyclopedic, albeit somewhat eclectic, learning is reflected in his
many writings, including the Etymologies, which were widely read
throughout the Middle Ages. Isidore worked to bring the richness of
pagan, Jewish and Christian learning to the rapidly changing political,
social and religious situations in which he lived. Throughout his life,
he was torn between his devotion to study and contemplation, and the
demands made by his responsibilities as a Bishop, especially towards the
poor and those in need. He found his model in Christ, who joined both
the active and contemplative life, and sought to "love God in
contemplation and one's neighbor in action" (Differentiarum Liber, 135).
This is a lesson which is as valid today as it was in the life of the
great Bishop of Seville.
I am pleased to welcome the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Apostles
gathered in Rome for their General Chapter, and the participants in the
Rome Seminar of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities. I
also warmly greet a group of survivors of the Holocaust who are present
at today's Audience. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims, especially
those from England, South Africa, Australia, Vietnam and the United
States, I cordially invoke God's blessings of joy and peace.
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