Doctors of the Church: St. Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo

In today’s article, we honor St. Isidore of Seville – bishop, Father of the Church, Doctor, and patron saint of the Internet (for some reason). St. Isidore was one of the last ancient Christian philosophers, and his work as Archbishop of Seville helped shape Spain to be the country it is today, even earning him a place on the badge of the Spanish football team Sevilla FC, for all you fans out there (you know who you are!).

Isidore was born around 560 in Cartagena, Spain. He was a member of another one of those saintly families, with all three of his siblings canonized as saints! The most influential of these was Isidore’s brother, Leander. In a world where Visigoths had invaded and destroyed much of the vestiges of Roman culture, St. Leander of Seville tried to surround his brother Isidore with an atmosphere of learning, discipline, culture, and faith.

Leander became the bishop of Seville, and was a great hero for the faith in his own right. He opposed the Visigoth king and fearlessly defended the teachings of the Church against the Visigoth Arians, which ultimately led him to suffer exile. With such a great life and ministry, you can imagine how difficult it would have been for Isidore to fill his brother’s shoes when he was chosen to succeed him as bishop of Seville in 601.

But indeed, Isidore answered the call and became a great and holy bishop. He worked to eliminate the Arian heresy brought to Spain by the Visigoth invasions, and through his dialogues with the tribal leaders, he was able to bring some them back into the fold of the Church.

At the same time, Isidore knew that in order to build a better society, they needed to preserve an educational structure. He worked to establish new standards for education in Spain based on the old Roman structure that was fading away after the fall of the Roman Empire. His system was built on the liberal arts, especially science, history, and philosophy, and it was in those areas that most of Isidore’s writings were focused.

Isidore’s greatest work was the Etymologiae, a compilation and summary of general knowledge from old Roman handbooks and classical authors. The topics included ranged anywhere from grammar and rhetoric to metallurgy, medicine, and a theological understanding of the choirs of angels. Other works by Isidore include The History of the Gothic, Vandal, and Suebi Kings, a book on astronomy and history entitled On the Nature of Things, a treatise on the Trinity, the Natures of Christ, and Heaven, and even writings on the symbolic use of numbers in Scripture.

Isidore worked to preserve learning and science in a changing age, but always saw it as his way of glorifying God. In history, he saw how God worked through peoples and civilizations. In science, he saw how the beauty and intricacy of the natural world reflects the magnificence of the Creator. In doctrine, he saw how God continues to guide us in his people through the teachings of his Church. Let us likewise never forget these things and always use our learning to give glory to God!

Doctors of the Church: St. Basil the Great

Icon of St. Basil the Great from St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev

Not too many people can claim the title “the Great” (St. Basil, St. Leo, Wayne Gretzky), but here we are with our second “Great” in a row! St. Gregory the Great was born around 540 of a noble family known for their piety and Christian fidelity. St. Gregory had quite a pedigree going for him – both of his parents were saints and two of his relatives had been popes – Felix III and Agapetus. So I guess you could say that whatever it was that he had ran in the family.

St. Gregory began his career by serving as the Prefect of Rome in 572, and while this sounds nice, it was not a terribly sought-after position at the time – Rome was falling apart! Maybe it was the vastness of the problems lying before him or something deeper, but Gregory eventually abandoned his secular ambitions and, like many Fathers before him, entered the monastic life. Whereas many of his monastic predecessors founded monasteries in the deserts or the wilderness, Gregory established mini-deserts in the middle of the city, including St. Andrew’s Monastery on the Caelian Hill in Rome.

Gregory’s holiness led others to grow in their respect of him, and he was appointed apocrisarius (basically a papal diplomat) to Emperor Tiberius II at Constantinople. His political mission was to acquire the Emperor’s help against the invading Lombard army, but he was also attentive to his spiritual mission: to free the Church from the Monophysite heresy. You remember these guys – the ones who rained on the parade at the Council of Chalcedon. If you recall, St. Cyril of Alexandria said that Christ was two natures (human and divine), but one person. Well, the Monophysites claimed that at Jesus’ birth, the divine nature obliterated the human nature, so Christ was really just one nature (divine). St. Gregory was having none of it, though, and worked to further clarify the Church’s teaching.

Despite his refusals and attempts to flee, Gregory was elected as Pope in 590, and is now known as one of the greatest in history. As Pope, he reformed the clergy to give them a more spiritual basis from which to conduct their ministry. He also emphasized missionary work in the Western Church. In Gregory’s mind, with all these barbarians invading Europe, why not convert them as well? He sent missionaries to Sardinia, Gaul, and England (including St. Augustine of Canterbury). Gregory also worked to reform the liturgy and firm up the order of the Mass as we know it today. Part of his work involved fostering the development of sacred music, especially a little thing you might have heard of – Gregorian chant!

St. Gregory himself chief pastor of souls and peacemaker in the Church. With the cities and territories of the former Roman Empire in shambles, Gregory took it upon himself to protect his people against invading armies, especially the Lombards. St. Gregory even negotiated two different truces to dissuade the Lombards outside of the government’s approval.

St. Gregory the Great was one of the first popes to use the title Servus Servorum Dei, the “Servant of the Servants of God.” As Pope Benedict XVI writes about him, “Precisely because [Gregory] was this, he is Great, and also shows us the measure of true greatness.” May we imitate St. Gregory the Great to aspire to true greatness in our Christian lives as well!