Doctors of the Church: St. Gregory of Nazianzus

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Gregory the Theologian, by Aidan Hart

The next Doctor of the Church on our list is another Cappadocian Father, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, and yes, his name is as difficult to say as it is to spell! Not only did he grow up close to St. Basil, but they were actually very good friends. The two of them first met at Caesarea, where they studied philosophy and rhetoric together, but as St. Gregory travelled the world to continue his studies, he went to Athens, where they met up again! Basil and Gregory did more than just hang out and talk shop; theirs was a truly holy friendship. St. Gregory once wrote about his friend Basil, “This was our competition: not who was first, but who allowed the other to be first.”

St. Gregory was a man who liked solitude and quiet, where he could think, write, and pray. Among his works are De Sacerdotio (on the priesthood), 249 theological letters, and over 17,000 verses of poetry! Later in life, he would write De Vita Sua, the story of his own life and spiritual journey.

As much as Gregory loved silence, he knew it wouldn’t last forever. He was reluctant to study for the priesthood because he knew it would likely lead to his becoming bishop, but eventually he was ordained a priest by his father (you don’t hear that every day!), before his friend Basil consecrated him the bishop of Sasima (in Turkey) in 371.

The most famous contribution of his life came at the Council of Constantinople in 379. St. Gregory was named Bishop of Constantinople and led the Nicaean delegation, the minority group of bishops who were faithful to the Church’s teaching from the Council of Nicaea. The Council of Constantinople had the daunting task of dealing with both Neo-Arianism (which said that Christ was human, but not totally divine) and Apollonarianism (which said that Christ was divine, but not totally human). Yikes!

But truly, this challenge was where St. Gregory shown the brightest. He gave five theological orations (similar to an extended homily), which emphasized that Jesus was both fully human, and fully divine, a concept that would become known as the hypostatic union at later Councils. Whereas his opponents were arguing that Jesus took on some of the qualities of being a human, but not all of them, Gregory asserted that Jesus had to take on all parts of our human nature in order to heal us, restore us, and save us. In one oration, he proclaimed, “What has not been assumed [by Jesus] has not been healed.”

At the conclusion of the Council, St. Gregory resigned his post and returned to Nazianzus, where he lived out the rest of his life in solitude and peace. St. Gregory died in 390, and truly gives us an example of faithfulness and service!

Doctors of the Church: St. Basil the Great

st-basil-the-greatemailNext up on our list is one of the great Cappadocian Fathers, St. Basil the Great (not pronounced like the herb, by the way). He was born in Pontus (northern Turkey) around the year 330. Some people love to call their parents or their siblings saints, but in Basil’s case, that wasn’t an exaggeration! His grandfather was a martyr for the faith, both of his parents were saints (St. Basil the Elder and St. Emmelia), and four other siblings were saints, including St. Gregory of Nyssa and St. Macrina.

St. Basil was blessed by the generosity of his parents to give him the best teachers money could buy in Athens and Constantinople, but he didn’t use his education very well in his early life. He spent much of his youth in a life of dissipation, and as St. Basil himself writes, “I wept many tears over my miserable life” before turning to the Gospel. He found conversion of heart through the work of his sister, St. Macrina, and eventually studied to become a priest before being named bishop of Caesarea (in Turkey) in 370.

Before being named a bishop, St. Basil focused much of his life on the ideals of monasticism. At the time, monastic orders tended to be much more closed off (cloistered), in order to focus on their prayer and intercession for the Church. But Basil’s monks were much different in that they served the local Church. They balanced solitude, prayer, and meditation with service to the community, as they ran hospitals, schools, and shelters for the poor. St. Basil wrote extensively on the meaning behind monastic life, and painted a beautiful picture of what it truly means to be both a monk and a Christian.

St. Basil was also very devoted to the liturgy, and gave us a Eucharistic prayer (anaphora in Greek) that is used even today in many Eastern Rite Catholic Churches. One of his major works, On Baptism (not the most original title), articulated the dignity of this great sacrament, as well as its connection to the Eucharist. Basil asserted that we need the Eucharist, which nourishes us and revitalizes what was given at Baptism.

The most important contribution to theology by this Doctor of the Church was his work On the Holy Spirit, written against the Pneumatomachians. These guys had taken a page out of the Arians’ book (except in their name, which is obviously much more difficult to write and say). In the same way that the Arians taught that the Son was a creation, and therefore not divine, the Pneumatomachians taught that the Holy Spirit wasn’t God either! They believed that when Jesus says he will “send the Spirit,” he implies that the Spirit is somehow subservient and lesser than the Father and Son. However, St. Basil argued that the Holy Spirit is totally inseparable and utterly incapable of being divided from the Father and the Son. In everything that they do, the Holy Spirit is there – one in essence, one in power, one in action.

Tune in next week for another Cappadocian Father and Doctor of the Church!

Doctors of the Church: St. Cyril of Jerusalem

cyril-of-jerusalem-1For our next Doctor of the Church, we head back east. St. Cyril of Jerusalem was born around 315 near (you guessed it) Jerusalem. Not much is known about the personal details of his life, but like many of the Doctors, he was very well-read, familiar with the Greek philosophers, early Church Fathers, and Scriptures.

St. Cyril succeeded another saint, St. Maximus, as bishop of Jerusalem around the year 348. It’s fair to say there was an air of uncertainty and distrust surrounding Cyril. The Church in Jerusalem was heavily divided between the Arian Christians and the Nicene Christians (those who professed the Church’s teaching from the Council of Nicaea), and nobody knew what side Cyril was on. He was ordained by Acacius, an Arian sympathizer, who probably thought he was getting Cyril as a new ally. Others thought he had sold out to the Arians in order to obtain his post. Throughout his episcopacy, people doubted his orthodoxy and fidelity.

Probably the greatest proof of this comes from his being exiled three times – once by the priests of Jerusalem, once by Acacius, and once by the Emperor Valens. I’m starting to wonder if exile is a requirement to become a Doctor of the Church! He was finally able to return to Jerusalem in 378, and he participated in the 2nd Council of Constantinople (382), where he was finally heralded as a hero of orthodoxy after helping to confirm the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, which we now pray every Sunday at Mass.

While certainly important in the battle against Arianism, Cyril is perhaps best known for his desire to teach the faith, especially to those becoming new Christians. Of his many teachings, we have 24 well-preserved catechetical homilies, letters, and lectures. The first few are a “protocatechesis” to welcome the “candidates for illumination,” those catechumens preparing for baptism. He continues with an ongoing catechesis explaining the faith of the Church and why we should watch out for those pesky Arians.

The final and greatest part of his catechetical lectures were his “mystagogical catecheses,” a beautiful explanation of the sacraments to the recently baptized, explaining the mysteries they had just experienced. Included in these lectures are a commentary on the rites of baptism (which gives us a neat view into what the liturgy of the 4th century looked like!), a teaching on the oil of Sacred Chrism, an explanation of the Our Father, and a beautiful catechesis on the Eucharist. The last of these is very clear and articulate, showing us that the Church’s teaching on the Body and Blood of the Lord was held even in the earliest days of the Church!

As we conclude, I invite you to reflect on these words of St. Cyril on baptism, that first and foundational sacrament that gives birth to our Christian lives: “At the self-same moment [your baptism], you were both dying and being born; and that water of salvation was at once your grave and your mother…For you…the time to die goes hand in hand with the time to be born.” Let us ask God for the grace to continue to live out our baptism by dying to ourselves and being reborn in the Father’s love!

Doctors of the Church: St. Hilary of Poitiers

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Mosaic of St. Hilary from the Cathedral of Monreale, completed in 1185

So far, we’ve been focusing mainly on the Doctors of the Eastern Church, that part of the Roman Empire along the Mediterranean coast from Greece down to Egypt. Many, if not most, of the early Doctors come from this area, but today’s Doctor is the first (chronologically) to come from the Western Church.

St. Hilary (his Latin name is Hilarius, hahaha!) was born in Poitiers in what is today west-central France around 310. He belonged to a very influential pagan family, which provided him with a great education, particularly in the area of Greek philosophy. Hilary studied many of the works of Plato and his successors, and it was in reading Plato that he was drawn to Christianity. He was baptized around 345 at the age of 35, and only eight years later, was ordained and elected bishop of Poitiers.

As you remember, Arianism was rampant around this time, particularly in the Western Church, and even good bishops were becoming convinced of this Arian theology, creating a lot of division within the Church. St. Hilary called a synod of the bishops of Gaul (modern-day France) in order to discuss things and bring about some unity. Ironically, despite his calling the synod, it ended with some of the Arian bishops colluding with the emperor to exile Hilary!

He was banished to Phrygia (in modern-day Turkey), where he suffered greatly. But despite his distance from his home and his diocese, Hilary continued to love his people and serve them from afar. He spent much of his time writing commentaries on the Gospels and Psalms, and in fact, his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew is the oldest-known commentary on that Gospel in Latin.

It was also during this time that he wrote his greatest work, entitled De Trinitate (On the Trinity), which revolved around our baptismal profession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hilary wrote a collection of twelve books, in which he first outlined his own journey of faith, especially through philosophy and Scripture, before providing a defense of the Church’s teaching on the Trinity, addressing many of the Arian arguments based in Scripture. He pointed out that while most of the time we think of the Son of God being connected mainly to the New Testament, the mystery of Christ is very clearly present in the Old Testament as well. Hilary outlined the way in which the Scriptures speak to different aspects of Christ. For example, some passages emphasize Jesus as God, while others focus on his humanity. And yet, while there are many emphases at different points, all Scripture gives testimony that Jesus is truly divine.

Hilary returned to Poitiers four years later, and worked tirelessly for the fidelity and unity of his diocese and the bishops of Gaul. After many years of faithful ministry, St. Hilary went to his reward around the year 367. Even as we reflect on Scripture today, let us remember the contributions of St. Hilary of Poitiers, and the fidelity and courage that made him a great teacher of the faith!

Doctors of the Church: St. Ephrem the Syrian

Mor_Ephrem_iconOur next saint and Doctor of the Church is one of my personal favorites, St. Ephrem the Syrian. He was born around 306 in Nisibis, which would have been on the southern border of present-day Turkey. Not much is known about his family or young life. Some traditions hold that his parents were both Christians and part of the growing Christian community in Syria, while others say that his father was a pagan priest.

We do know that St. Ephrem served as a deacon in the Church in Edessa. In one of his writings, Ephrem stated that if his bishop was the “shepherd,” then he was the “herdsman” of the flock. He showed a great desire to serve the Church in cooperation with the bishop, even as our deacons at Ascension do today. There is some question whether he at any time lived as a monk, but one thing that is certain is that he lived the monastic virtues of chastity and poverty.

St. Ephrem is a different sort of Doctor of the Church. As we remember that “doctor” primarily means “teacher,” it is very easy to infer that the Doctors were predominantly focused on writing tracts and treatises on doctrine. Ephrem was certainly very knowledgeable and orthodox in his theology, but his primary means of propagating it was through beauty. Certainly, some of his works are commentaries and treatises, as we would expect, but most of his works consist of poetry and hymns. In fact, St. Ephrem even used to write his homilies in verse, and sing them to his congregation (and you thought my homilies could be long!). Thus, Ephrem is fittingly nicknamed the “Harp of the Spirit.”

St. Ephrem’s poetry and hymns are very strong in Incarnational and Marian theology. Proponents of Arianism (which, you might recall, was very influential at the time) would deny Jesus’ divinity, and thus would deny Mary’s dignity as the Mother of God. One collection of Ephrem’s works, therefore, was called the Hymns against the Heresies, in which he would draw from hymns and tunes used by the various heretical sects and change the words to preach orthodoxy! It’s along the same lines as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” being drawn from the tune for “God Save the Queen,” but about theology!

Many of his writings against these heresies were very strong in praise of Mary, because praise of Mary is first and foremost praise of Christ. In one of his hymns, St. Ephrem comes very close to articulating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you consider that it was 1500 years before the doctrine was solemnly declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854!

St. Ephrem certainly helps us grow in our appreciation for the beauty of our faith and the beauty of truth. As we draw to a close, I invite you to reflect on one of his hymns on the Nativity of Jesus:

“The belly of your Mother changed the order of things, O you who order all! Rich he went in, he came out poor: the High One went into her [Mary], he came out lowly. Brightness went into her and clothed himself, and came forth a despised form. He that gives food to all went in, and knew hunger. He who gives drink to all went in, and knew thirst. Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all things [in beauty].”

Doctors of the Church: St. Athanasius

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One of my favorite icons of St. Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea, and yes, that is Arius he is standing on!

It’s appropriate that the first Doctor of the Church in this series is arguably one of the greatest – St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He was born around 296 in Alexandria to a Christian family, and would have been about 7 years old when the co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian began the fiercest persecution in Church history.

Athanasius wanted to be a priest from an early age, so much so that there is a story of him as a boy pretending to be a bishop and baptizing his pagan friends in the sea. When the bishop found out and reasoned that the baptisms might actually be valid (hey, there’s water, intention, and the right words!), he told Athanasius that he probably shouldn’t be stealth-baptizing his friends! Not bad evangelization for a kid!

A very well educated young man, Athanasius became secretary to Bishop Alexander before being ordained a priest, and eventually named Bishop of Alexandria himself. Even as a bishop with many responsibilities in one of the greatest cities in the world, Athanasius was a great teacher and a holy man, even developing a relationship with the desert monk St. Anthony. Athanasius’ respect for monasticism and the ideals of St. Anthony continued to guide him the rest of his life.

I mentioned about the growing threat of Arianism in my last column, and perhaps what Athanasius is best known for is being the greatest defender of the Church’s teaching against this heresy in his generation. He wrote and preached fervently against Arianism through most of his priesthood, and was especially influential at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). Athanasius and Santa Claus (St. Nicholas of Myra) led the defense of the Church and worked tirelessly against Arius and his followers. When the Council came to an end, he thought the fight was over.

But in truth, that battle had just begun for Athanasius. Some of his well-connected enemies (who also happened to be admirers of Arius), convinced the Emperor Constantine to exile Athanasius to Germany, which was about as far from Alexandria as one could get at the time. Athanasius returned in 338 only to be banished again…and again…and again – five times altogether! All the while, he was preaching and teaching the truth that we take for granted today. Eventually, this holy servant of the truth returned to Alexandria and spent his final years cleaning up what had been done in his absence, until he died in 373. His relics had been reposed in Venice, but in 1973, Pope Paul VI donated some of them to the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, and they are preserved in Cairo today.

St. Athanasius was a prolific preacher and writer, even in exile, and his teaching has certainly impacted us today. At the Council of Nicaea, he was partly responsible for the development of the Greek term “homoousios,” now known to us as “consubstantial,” used to describe the fact that the persons of the Trinity share the same substance, or being. They are three distinct persons, but one supreme Godhead. This teaching is wonderfully summed up in the “Shield of Athanasius,” seen below. Even though Athanasius probably didn’t design the image itself, it is a great tribute to his gift of explaining our understanding of God!

Doctors of the Church: Know Your Enemy

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Jolly Old St. Nicholas…Smacking Arius!

Before I actually write about the Doctors of the Church, I think it’s important to realize what they were up against!

I can imagine that the faith journey of the Early Church might have been similar to many of us as we grew up. The experience I have of children learning their faith is that from Kindergarten through 2nd grade, they are content to just believe – “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!” as the song goes. But as children get older, they start to wonder “why?” and “how?” In the same way, we can probably imagine the excitement of the Early Church hearing this Good News preached by the apostles and witnesses to the Resurrection, but after the initial fervor, they want to know how all this is possible? How is Jesus both God and man? What’s the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” And that’s exactly what happened! While many remained true to the faith, others wandered from the teaching of the apostles into heresy. Keep in mind, “heresy” isn’t a word used lightly, and it’s more than just making a mistake or having questions about the faith. Heretics are those who, when faced with authentic teaching, refuse to be corrected.

Certainly one of the greatest heresies in the history of the Church was Arianism, which takes its name from Arius, a priest from Alexandria born around 256. We don’t know much about him (none of his writings survived), but what we do know is that he was magnetic. He was tall and dignified, charming, and had an aura of intellectual superiority. He was also by all accounts a very good preacher, speaking intelligently with a melodious voice.

Arius and his followers taught that Christ was the greatest and first of God’s creatures…but he wasn’t God. To the Arians, the Son was created – there was a time when there was no second person of the Holy Trinity. Even in the Scriptures, when Jesus is called the “Son of God,” Arius would say that it is because he somehow participated in or was adopted by the Father, but was still of a lower status than the Father.

Now obviously, this is not what we believe. We understand, and have always taught, that the Son is God, one in being (consubstantial) and co-eternal with the Father, meaning that he’s God, and always has been. But lots of people bought into Arius and his teaching, and saw it as a little easier to grasp. That included Emperors, bishops, priests, and even a majority of the Church at one point. As St. Jerome wrote, “The whole world woke up one morning, lamenting and marveling to find itself Arian.”

But truth isn’t decided by a majority vote, and the Holy Spirit continued to guide the Church, even in those difficult times. In a sense, heresy is medicinal to the Church, in that it forces us to look seriously at what we believe and how we articulate it. And as we’ll see, articulating the Church’s teaching is the forte of our Doctors!