Paulinus was from a notable senatorial family with possessions in Aquitaine, northern Spain, and southern Italy. He was educated in Bordeaux, where his teacher, the poet Ausonius, also became his friend. His normal career as a young member of the senatorial class did not last long—he served as governor of the southern Italian province of Campagna, but returned to Bordeaux where he became a serious Christian. In Paulinus's day the upper classes were in large part Christian, but not strongly observant. Paulinus married a Spanish woman named Therasia, and they moved from Bordeaux to northern Spain in 389 or 390. About the same time their only child, a son, died in infancy; Paulinus and Therasia's life in Spain became increasingly secluded. He was baptized in 389 by Delphinus, Bishop of Bordeaux. Paulinus then decided to live on his estates in Spain. In 393 or 394, after some resistance from Paulinus, he was ordained a priest on Christmas day by Lampius, Bishop of Barcelona. This was very similar to what happened with Saint Augustine of Hippo, who had been ordained against his will in the year 391 by a crowd cooperating with Bishop Valerius in the North African city of Hippo Regius.
Paulinus refused to remain in Barcelona, though, and in late spring of the following year he and his wife moved from Spain to Campagna. Already Paulinus had definite interests in monasticism and engaged in considerable epistolary dialogue about this with Saint Jerome among others.
Already during his governorship Paulinus had developed a fondness for the 3rd century martyr Felix. Felix was a minor saint of local importance and patronage whose tomb had been built within the local necropolis at Cimitile, just outside the town of Nola. As governor, Paulinus had widened the road to Cimitile and built a residence for travelers; it was at this site that Paulinus and Therasia took up residence. Nearby were a number of small chapels and at least one old basilica. Paulinus rebuilt the complex, constructing a brand new basilica to Felix and gathering to him a small monastic community. Paulinus wrote an annual hymn (natalicium) in honor of St. Felix for the feast day when processions of pilgrims were at their peak. In these hymns we can understand the personal relationship Paulinus felt between himself and Felix, his advocate in heaven. His poetry shares with much of the work of the early 5th century, an ornateness of style that classicists of the 18th and 19th century found cloying and dismissed as decadent—though Paulinus' poems were highly regarded at the time and used as educational models.
Many of Paulinus's letters to his contemporaries, including Ausonius and Sulpicius Severus in southern Gaul, Victricius of Rouen in northern Gaul, and Augustine in Africa are preserved. Paulinus may have been indirectly responsible for Augustine's Confessions: Paulinus wrote to Alypius, Bishop of Thagaste and a close friend of Saint Augustine, asking about his conversion and taking up of the ascetic life. Alypius's autobiographical response does not survive; St Augustine's ostensible answer to that query is the "Confessions."
Around 410 Paulinus was chosen Bishop of Nola. Like a growing number of aristocrats in the late 4th and early 5th centuries who were entering the clergy rather than taking up the more usual administrative careers in the imperial service Paulinus spent a great deal of his money on his chosen church and city.
We know about his buildings in honor of St Felix from literary and archaeological evidence, especially from his long letter to Sulpicius Severus describing the arrangement of the building and its decoration. He includes a detailed description of the apse mosaic over the main altar and gives the text for a long inscription he has written to be put on the wall under the image. By explaining how he intends the visitors to understand the image over the altar Paulinus provides rare insight into the intentions of a patron of art in the later Empire.
In later life Paulinus, by then a highly respected church authority, participated in multiple church synods investigating various ecclesiastical controversies of the time, including Pelagianism. St Paulinus died on June 22, 431 at Nola.