January 1, 2018

Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, Bishops and Doctors of the Church

Saints Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen

On January 2nd the Church celebrates the memorial of Saint Basil the Great and Saint Gregory Nazianzen, bishops and doctors. Both men were from Cappadocia (central turkey) and followed the monastic way of life for some years. Together with Saint Gregory of Nyssa, they are known as the Cappadocian Fathers and venerated widely for their contributions in both the Eastern and Latin Churches.

The old saying goes that “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” If ever there were a saint who proved that proverb to be true, it was St. Basil the Great.  His grandmother, Macrina, was a saint who suffered persecution under the Romans, and of his nine brothers and sister, two of them, Gregory of Nyssa and Macrina (the younger), also became saints. Another brother, Peter, became a bishop.  No doubt this combined influence also caused him, as a youth, to take an abiding interest in the poor by organizing famine relief and working in a soup kitchen. It was a concern and a cause that he would champion for the rest of his days.

Before he turned to a formal religious life, however, Basil was known as a great scholar and orator.  He studied in his native Caesarea, as well as Constantinople and Athens, the last city being the place where he met his lifelong friend (and the saint who shares his feast day), Gregory of Nazianzus.  Upon completing his education, Basil returned to the city of Caesarea, where he founded a school of oratory and law.  This proved to be a very successful venture and Basil soon found himself much in demand as a speaker—so much so that he feared he would become too worldly and lose his faith. As a result of this, and at the urging of another lifelong friend, the bishop Dianus, and his own sister, Macrina, Basil instead followed the biblical injunction to “sell all he had and give it to the poor.”

He then visited monasteries in both Syria and Egypt before returning to Caesarea in 358, this time not as a successful scholar, but as a holy hermit. He compiled a set of rules which he believed to be at the heart of monastic life, based on both obedience and the balance between work and prayer. Because of this, and because he and Gregory of Nazianzus founded a monastery in Pontus, he has sometimes been compared to Saint Benedict the father of Western monasticism.

But Basil lived in troubling times, and as much as he might have wished to live out his vocation in the monastery, he was called from there in 363 to serve as a priest, and later as the bishop of Caesarea from 370 until his death in 379. At the time, the Arian heresy—which denied the divinity of Christ—was threatening to destroy the infant Church, and Basil would play a large role in defending Christianity against it. He used his powers of oratory to refute the Emperor Valens, who was persecuting orthodox believers. Valens eventually backed down. Then, when another great defender of the faith against Arianism, St. Athanasius, died in 373, it was up to Basil to continue the fight for belief in Jesus’ divinity.

From that point on, however, Basil did not seem to meet with much outward success and once said, "For my sins I seem to be unsuccessful in everything." The success for which he longed was finally accomplished in God’s time. St. Basil died of natural causes in 379. Two years after his death, Arianism was defeated once and for all at the Council of Constantinople. For his tireless pastoral care of the poor and the sick, he was proclaimed the patron of hospital administrators.

St. Gregory Nazianzen

St. Gregory Nazianzen, surnamed the "Theologian" by the Greeks, was born at Nazianz in Cappadocia in 339. He was one of the "Three Lights of the Church from Cappadocia." To his mother, St. Nonna, is due the foundation for his saintly life as an adult. He was educated at the most pestigeus schools of his time at Caesarea, Alexandria and Athens. At Athens he formed a lifelong friendship with St. Basil which was still flaming with all the fervor of youthful enthusiasm when he delivered the funeral oration at the grave of his dear friend in Christ in 379.

Gregory was baptized in 360, and for a while lived the quiet life of a hermit. In 372 he was consecrated bishop by St. Basil. At the urgent wish of Gregory, his father and bishop of Nazianz, he assisted him in the care of souls. In 381 he accepted the see of Constantinople, but grieved by the constant controversies retired again to the quiet life he cherished so highly and dedicated himself entirely to prayer, contemplation, holy sacrifice and true monastic austerity.

During his life span the pendulum was continually swinging back and forth between contemplation and the active ministry. He longed for solitude, but the exigencies of the times called him repeatedly to do pastoral work and to serve in the ecclesiastical movements of the day. Gregory was unquestionably one of the greatest orators of Christian antiquity; his many and great accomplishments were due in great measure to his exceptional eloquence. His writings have merited for him the title of "Doctor of the Church." He is one of the Cappadocian Fathers.

Almighty God, who were pleased to give light to your Church by the example and teaching of the Bishops Saints Basil and Gregory, grant, we pray, that in humility we may learn your truth and practice it faithfully in charity. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit one God forever. Sts. Basil the Great and Gregory Nazianzen, pray for us.

St. Gregory Nazianzen from The Church's Year of Grace, Father Pius Parsch.

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