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 south Italian province of Campania, 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. When their only child, a son, died in infancy, he and his wife Therasia seem to have considered withdrawing from secular life, and began the process by moving from Bordeaux to Barcelona in about 390.
Like Augustine of Hippo, who had been ordained against his will in Hippo Regius in 391 by a crowd cooperating with Bishop Valerius, Paulinus was persuaded in Barcelona by a crowd at Christmas time in about 395 to receive ordination. Paulinus refused to remain in Barcelona, though, and he and his wife moved to Campania. Married priests were not uncommon even in the West in the early church, but Paulinus had definite interests in monasticism.
Paulinus had developed a fondness for the 4th century martyr St. Felix of Nola when he had lived in Campania before, and they settled near Felix's tomb; Paulinus rebuilt the complex, greatly enlarging the shrine and building guest houses for pilgrims. Paulinus wrote an annual hymn 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 feels between himself and his 'invisible friend' Felix, his advocate in heaven. His poetry shares with much of the work of the early 5th century a ornateness of style that classicists of the 18th and 19th century found cloying and dismissed as decadent.
Many of Paulinus's letters to his contemporaries, including Ausonius and Sulpicius Severus in southern Gaul, Victricius of Rouen in the 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 close friend of Augustine, asking about his conversion and taking up of the ascetic life. Alypius's autobiographical response does not survive; Augustine's answer to that question 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 for St. Felix from literary and archeological 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.