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!