In 1970 I was studying for the priesthood when I attended an ecumenical program for seminary students. We began by introducing ourselves. Many Protestant seminarians introduced themselves as ministers or sons of ministers. When it was my turn I stated my name. Then I added: “I am neither a priest, nor the son of a priest.” My remark brought the roar of hearty laughter and broke the ice between participants.
I recalled that incident, in preparing to celebrate this feast day, because Gregory Nazianzus (329-390) was both a priest and the son of a priest. In 361 he was ordained by his father, the bishop of Nazianzus, a small town in Cappadocia (a region in modern day Turkey). Gregory knew Greek culture, philosophy and literature. He concluded his formal study in Athens, where he met Basil. The two were both born in 329, just four years after the Council of Nicaea. They developed a friendship that endured, despite some serious disagreements.
Gregory considered joining Basil’s monastic community. But, Gregory’s father demanded that he assist him in caring for the Christians in Nazianzus. Gregory accused his father of “paternal tyranny” and left home to consult his friend Basil. Basil advised Gregory to return home and do as his father wished. Gregory complied with his friend’s advice.
Gregory focused on efforts to heal the divisions in his father’s diocese. It was a time of theological controversy concerning Christological doctrine. The teachings of Arius, who denied that Christ was divine, were splintering the Church in Nazianzus. Gregory was successful in healing the divisions because of his interpersonal skills, patience and respectful attitude toward all.
After the death of Emperor Valens, who had promoted Arianism, Gregory was called to be archbishop of Constantinople. It was a tough job. Gregory suffered slander and violent personal attacks. Yet, while serving in Constantinople, Gregory wrote his famous sermons on the Holy Trinity.
Basil (329-379) is called the “father of eastern monasticism” because he founded the first monastery in Asia Minor. Basil accepted ordination and assisted the archbishop of Caesarea in healing divisions in that locale. When elected archbishop of Caesarea, he brought a strong reform agenda and faced opposition from corrupt bishops who were under his authority.
Basil suffered in the nasty politics of the Roman Empire. Emperor Valens was a supporter of Arianism—which denied that Jesus was divine.
Valens pressured Church leaders to accept his view. However, Basil remained firm in the faith and eventually became the chief defender of orthodoxy. Basil was a dedicated preacher and writer. However, it was only after his death that his efforts were widely recognized.
Today we remember these two brilliant leaders who did their best to promote the Catholic faith through their teaching, writing and ministry to the poor. They reluctantly accepted the mantle of servant leadership because of their profound faith and personal relationship to Jesus.
Attacks on our faith here in the United States are relatively minor compared to the persecution and violence spawned by the Arian heresy. However, we must remain determined do our best, despite secular opposition and corruption in today’s church.
Photo: Public Domain Saints Basil, John Chrysostom and Gregory Nazianzus