Saint/s of the Day – 2 January – St Basil the Great (329-379) and St Gregory of Nazianzen (330-390) Fathers and Doctors of the Church “Two Bodies one Spirit”
On 2 January, the Roman Catholic Church honours the memory of two friends from an area of what is now Turkey that was called Cappadocia. These men began their friendship while away at school and later became bishops who were the backbone of Catholic Orthodoxy during a period of doctrinal struggle and confusion. Gregory presided over the 2nd ecumenical council, held at Constantinople, whose great achievement was the completion of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that the Catholic Church recites each Sunday and the definition of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. These Cappadocian Fathers, both Doctors of the Church, proved to be some of the most influential Christian teachers of all time, honoured by both East and West, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic.
Basil was on his way to becoming a famous teacher when he decided to begin a religious life of gospel poverty. After studying various modes of religious life, he founded what was probably the first monastery in Asia Minor. He is to monks of the East what Saint Benedict is to the West and Basil’s principles influence Eastern monasticism today.
He was ordained a priest, assisted the archbishop of Caesarea—now southeastern Turkey—and ultimately became archbishop himself, in spite of opposition from some of the bishops under him, probably because they foresaw coming reforms.
Arianism, one of the most damaging heresies in the history of the Church which denied the divinity of Christ, was at its height. Emperor Valens persecuted orthodox believers and put great pressure on Basil to remain silent and admit the heretics to communion. Basil remained firm, and Valens backed down. But trouble remained. When the great Saint Athanasius died, the mantle of defender of the faith against Arianism fell upon Basil. He strove mightily to unite and rally his fellow Catholics who were crushed by tyranny and torn by internal dissension. He was misunderstood, misrepresented, accused of heresy and ambition. Even appeals to the pope brought no response. “For my sins I seem to be unsuccessful in everything.”
Basil was tireless in pastoral care. He preached twice a day to huge crowds, built a hospital that was called a wonder of the world—as a youth he had organised famine relief and worked in a soup kitchen himself—and fought the prostitution business.
Basil was best known as an orator. Though not recognised greatly in his lifetime, his writings rightly place him among the great teachers of the Church. Seventy two years after his death, the Council of Chalcedon described him as “the great Basil, minister of grace who has expounded the truth to the whole earth.”
After his baptism at 30, Gregory gladly accepted his friend Basil’s invitation to join him in a newly founded monastery. The solitude was broken when Gregory’s father, a bishop, needed help in his diocese and estate. It seems that Gregory was ordained a priest practically by force and only reluctantly accepted the responsibility. He skilfully avoided a schism that threatened when his own father made compromises with Arianism. At 41, Gregory was chosen suffragan bishop of Caesarea and at once came into conflict with Valens, the emperor, who supported the Arians.
An unfortunate by-product of the battle was the cooling of the friendship of two saints. Basil, his archbishop, sent him to a miserable and unhealthy town on the border of unjustly created divisions in his diocese. Basil reproached Gregory for not going to his see.
When protection for Arianism ended with the death of Valens, Gregory was called to rebuild the faith in the great see of Constantinople, which had been under Arian teachers for three decades. Retiring and sensitive, he dreaded being drawn into the whirlpool of corruption and violence. He first stayed at a friend’s home, which became the only orthodox church in the city. In such surroundings, he began giving the great sermons on the Trinity for which he is famous. In time, Gregory did rebuild the faith in the city but at the cost of great suffering, slander, insults and even personal violence. An interloper even tried to take over his bishopric.
His last days were spent in solitude and austerity. He wrote religious poetry, some of it autobiographical, of great depth and beauty. He was acclaimed simply as “the Theologian.”