Saints and miracle men in antiquity and modern times: Pope Francis on the Roman Danube?

Guest post by Nick Mataya, PhD student in Ancient History, who works with Prof Mark Humphries.

There is an American sports-documentary series called 30 for 30 that has an ad campaign that goes “What if I told you…(insert relevant sports story)? ESPN 30 for 30 presents …”.  When I was asked about writing this blog post, that ad campaign combined with the title of this post was the first thing that came to mind.  So, what if I told you that Pope Francis was active on the Roman frontier along the Danube in the late fifth century?

My name is Nick Mataya and I am a doctoral candidate studying the spread of Christianity in the Late Roman Balkans.  My thesis discusses the role of bishops, theological controversies, the spread of religious practices, and the rise of holy men.  What makes this really interesting – to me at least – is that the Roman Balkans were constantly under attack from enemies, both foreign (a slew of barbarian groups) and domestic (usurpers and once-allied barbarian groups) throughout the period I examine (the late third century through the sixth).  The subject of this post contains many of those factors.

In the early sixth century, a monk called Eugippius, the abbot of a monastery near the modern city of Naples, wrote a work about a holy man called Severinus.  This work, erroneously known as the Vita Sancti Severini, was a short summary of the actions of Severinus in Noricum (modern Austria and Slovenia) and the movement of Severinus’ remains to Eugippius’ monastery of Castellum Lucullanum.  The work, according to Eugippius, was not meant to be the “Life” of Severinus, but it was merely supposed to be something that another author could use to write a “Life” of Severinus.  He calls it a commemoratorium (means of remembrance), and that is title I will use in this post.

At first glance, the Commemoratorium is unremarkable.  It tells the story of a holy man who does typical holy man things: he helps the poor, he performs miracles, he tells the future, he says prayers, he tries to make people be better Christians, and he acts as an intermediary for the people.  When one looks a little bit deeper, however, the Commemoratorium is astonishing.  For example, it tells us nothing about Severinus’ life before he came to Noricum.  He just shows up on the scene like Clint Eastwood in a western and starts trying to fix everything that is going wrong in the area.


The most astonishing thing about Severinus is that he does not emphasise doctrine in his missionary activities (just like…Pope Francis!).  The Roman Empire, and especially the Balkans, had been racked for nearly two centuries by a theological controversy that questioned how one defined Christ.  People were in one of two camps: the “orthodox” Nicene camp and the “heretical” Arian camp (note: both of these “camps” contained a number of groups within them, many of which vehemently disagreed with each other).  The debate between these two camps became incredibly hostile.  For example, the Nicene bishop of Milan, Ambrose (c. 347-397), advocated the complete shunning of all Arians.  It is therefore quite shocking to find the story of a holy man who does not care about doctrinal differences, especially when most of the Arians he encountered were invading barbarians!

Severinus was also a great weeper (just like…Pope Francis! Here is one of the many stories involving Francis and tears:  The Commemoratorium is littered with stories where either Severinus is weeping or he is telling other people to weep.  This is normal in early Christian writings.  Tears have a strong link with Christianity (the shortest verse in the [English] New Testament is “Jesus wept – John 11:35”) and many of the early stories of monks involved them weeping.  Many of the tears of Severinus, however, would have to be classified as unconventional (and that is being mild): the tears trigger miracles.  Sometimes these tears cause the healing of the sick, the raising of the dead, and the feeding of the poor.  Other tears cause the defeat of barbarian armies, the punishment of those who refuse to listen to Severinus, and the “paternal flail of God” – demonic possession.  Yes, Severinus possesses some of his monks with demons through his tears.

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Through my research, I keep finding parallels between Severinus and Pope Francis.  Although Pope Francis would probably be horrified by some of the actions of Severinus in the Commemoratorium, I do get the distinct feeling that Francis would find in Severinus a kindred spirit, and I would not be shocked to learn that Francis was influenced by the Commemoratorium.  They both prioritise charity before doctrine, they both perform what their followers would deem to be miracles (, and they both see tears as an essential part of Christian understanding and practice.  Further, they both have hazy pasts (have you tried looking into Francis’ actions during the “Dirty War” in Argentina?) and they both have a plan to accomplish a great deal in a short amount of time (they also prophesied their own deaths: