Saint Gregory Nazianzen, Bishop, Confessor, Doctor of the Church

May 9

Today is the feast day of Saint Gregory Nazianzen.  Ora pro nobis.

Saint Gregory was born at Arianzus, in Asia Minor, c. 325. He was son — one of three children — of Gregory, Bishop of Nazianzus (329-374), in the south-west of Cappadocia, and of Nonna, a daughter of Christian parents. The saint’s father was originally a member of the heretical sect of the Hypsistarii, or Hypsistiani, and was converted to Catholicity by the influence of his pious wife. His two sons, who seem to have been born between the dates of their father’s priestly ordination and episcopal consecration, were sent to a famous school at Caesarea, capital of Cappadocia, and educated by Carterius, probably the same one who was afterwards tutor of St. John Chrysostom. Here commenced the friendship between Basil and Gregory which intimately affected both their lives, as well as the development of the theology of their age. From Caesarea in Cappadocia Gregory proceeded to Caesarea in Palestine, where he studied rhetoric under Thespesius; and thence to Alexandria, of which Athanasius was then bishop, through at the time in exile. Setting out by sea from Alexandria to Athens, Gregory was all but lost in a great storm, and some of his biographers infer — though the fact is not certain — that when in danger of death he and his companions received the rite of baptism. He had certainly not been baptized in infancy, though dedicated to God by his pious mother; but there is some authority for believing that he received the sacrament, not on his voyage to Athens, but on his return to Nazianzus some years later. (5)

by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877

 St. Gregory who, on account of his great knowledge in Sacred science, is surnamed the Theologian, was born at Nazianzum, in the year 300. His father, whose name was also Gregory, his mother, Nonna, his brother Caesarius, and Gorgonia, his sister, are all honored as Saints. At Athens, where St. Gregory devoted himself to study, he became acquainted with St. Basil who had made his home there with the same intention. They became most intimate friends, as both were virtuous and diligent. They secluded themselves from all frivolous young men, shunned gaming, idleness, and other vices of youth, cultivating only piety and knowledge. They knew of only two roads, one of which led to school, the other to church. After having finished his studies, Basil returned to his home, but Gregory remained and studied eloquence, in which he was in after years unsurpassed. At that time also, Julian studied at Athens, who afterwards became Emperor and was called the Apostate. In regard to the manners and behavior of this prince, St. Gregory said at that time; “Oh what a monster the Roman Empire nourishes in its bosom!” At the same time he predicted, that if Julian should ever wear the imperial crown, he would become the great enemy and persecutor of Christendom, which unhappily became true. After several years, St.Gregory left Athens and returned to his native place. One day, while studying, he was overtaken by sleep, and it appeared to him that he saw two beautiful virgins who came as if wishing to speak to him. He asked who they were and what they desired. “One of us,” they answered, “is chastity, the other wisdom. God has sent us to be your friends and remain constantly with you.” His life proved that this vision was no empty dream. Gregory preserved his chastity inviolable, and was endowed by the Almighty with such wisdom, that on account of it he became celebrated throughout the whole world. Great men, among whom was St. Jerome, often travelled many miles to hear him speak. Having been ordained priest, he went secretly to St. Basil, who had retired to the desert of Pontus. There they lived in the greatest harmony, but, at the same time, in the greatest rigor: occupied only in prayer and in studying the holy Scriptures.

After the lapse of some years, St. Gregory returned again to his home, to bring back to the true faith his father who, not out of wickedness, but out of simplicity and ignorance, had been deluded by the Arians. Gregory happily extricated him from his error and brought him to the true faith. Meanwhile Basil became Bishop of Caesarea, and most earnestly requested Gregory to take the small bishopric of Sasima, as the far spreading heresy demanded a strong opposition. Gregory allowed himself to be prevailed upon and accepted the See. When, however, another one came who asserted that the office was his, he gave place to him and retired. They wished him afterwards to take charge of the church at Nazianzum, but he arranged matters in such a manner that they chose some one else. He, however, did not succeeed so well in Constantinople. He had gone thither to oppose the heretics, who had filled the whole city with their poison, to defend the Catholic faith and teach its doctrines to the people. After he had labored there some time with great success, Peter, patriarch of Alexandria, nominated him patriarch of Constantinople, and Gregory was obliged to take this heavy burden. All his thoughts were now directed to exterminate heresy, and to restore the ancient prestige of the church. The Catholics had at that time only one church where they assembled, the heretics having taken possession of all the others. St. Gregory, however, so brought it about that the newly chosen Emperor Theodosius came himself to Constantinople and gave the cathedral back to the Catholics, although the heretics opposed it with all their power. This enraged the latter to such a degree that they hired a villain to assassinate the patriarch. The Saint was sick in bed when the murderer came under the pretext of visiting him. As he, however, was alone with him and therefore had every opportunity of committing the crime, God suddenly changed his heart, and falling at the feet of the Saint, he confessed his wicked intention and asked forgiveness. The Saint said; “May God, who protected me, forgive you; I ask you nothing but that you forsake your heresy.” Much more had he to suffer from the heretics, but it in no wise slackened his zeal. The Catholics also gave him just cause of complaint.

Among the bishops assembled in council a dispute arose concerning the validity of Gregory’s election. The Saint represented to them that he had not in any manner sought the office, but that it had been forced upon him against his desire; perceiving, however, that all were not satisfied with his explanation, and fearing that the peace of the church might be materially endangered to the detriment of the whole Christian community, he arose and addressed the assemblage in the following manner: “Dear colleagues, and joint-shepherds of the flock of Christ; it would be very unbecoming to your dignity, should you, whose office it is to exhort others to peace, become disunited among yourselves: Am I the cause of your discord? Behold, I am not better than the prophet Jonas; cast me, therefore, into the sea and the tempest will be calmed. Although I am innocent of your charges, I will suffer without a murmur, that unanimity may be restored among you.” After having thus spoken calmly and sweetly, he took leave of all present and went to the Emperor, whom he acquainted with his resolution to leave Constantinople. The Emperor at first refused his consent, but the Saint knew so well how to represent to him his reasons, that he at last gave him the desired permission. He immediately made all the necessary preparations for his departure, but once more ascended the pulpit of his Episcopal Church, and in a last discourse took leave of all the assembled faithful, as also of all the other churches, hospitals and asylums of the city. To those who had frequently complained of his sermons because he unhesitatingly denounced their vices, he said: “Now joyfully clap your hands and cry that the bad, talkative tongue will cease to strike you; yes, it will cease; but the hand still remains, and pen and ink must in future sustain the combat.” Finally, he admonished them all to lead a Christian life, and concluded his sermon with these words: “I exhort you, my dear children, to keep my instructions in your hearts. May the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, remain with you all. Amen!”

How deeply affected all his hearers were, was plainly perceived by their tears and their emotion. Well had they reason to be grieved, for they had possessed in St. Gregory a most tender father for their needy widows and orphans, an invincible protector of their faith, a teacher whom God had gifted with unusual wisdom, a careful, never weary pastor, and almost perfect model of all virtue. They tried in every possible way to prevent his leaving, but he was not to be persuaded to change his resolution, but went on board the ship, which was ready to set sail and returned to his home. On his arrival, he settled himself upon his parental estate, Arianzum, with the intention of then passing the remainder of his life in solitude, and in the exercise of virtue.

This intention he carried out, and prayers and devout meditation were his greatest comfort, until, failing health owing to excessive labor, besides old age and sickness, kept him for the greater part of the time in bed. Sometimes, however, he took the pen in hand and wrote several works to confute the doctrine of the heretics, and to strengthen and confirm the Catholics. God permitted that the holy man, who had lived until now so pious and pure a life, should endure most fearful temptations from the Evil One. Constant calling on God, austere fasting prayers, reading devout books and severe study, were the weapons he used against the enemy of man, and he always conquered. The Most High also permitted that some men, envious and devoid of conscience, should calumniate the Saint everywhere and even falsely accuse him of some great crimes to the Bishop of Tianea. The holy man was not angry, but, while defending his honor, prayed God to bestow His grace upon his enemies and to pardon them. Omitting much that might still be related of this Saint, I will only mention one instance of his solicitude to avoid sin and to do penance. He thought that he had spoken in a certain affair more than was necessary, and punished himself by remaining forty days without uttering a single word to any one.

At length he expired happily, in the 90th year of his age, having labored and suffered much for the honor of the Almighty and the protection of the true church. (2)

by Dom Prosper Gueranger 1870

Side by side with Athanasius, a second Doctor of the Church comes forward, at this glad Season, offering to the Risen Jesus the tribute of his learning and eloquence. It is Gregory of Nazianzum, the friend of Basil; the great Orator; the admirable Poet, whose style combines energy of thought with a remarkable richness and ease of expression; the one among all the Gregories who has merited and received the glorious name of Theologian, on account of the soundness of his teachings, the sublimity of his ideas, and the magnificence of his diction. Holy Church exults at being able to offer us so grand a Saint during Easter Time, for no one has spoken more eloquently than he on the Mystery of the Pasch. Let us listen to the commencement of his second Sermon for Easter; and then judge for ourselves.

I will stand upon my watch, says the admirable Prophet Habacuc (Hab. ii.1). I, also, on this day, will imitate him; I will stand on the power and knowledge granted me by the favor of the Holy Ghost, that I may consider and know what is to be seen, and what will be told unto me. And I stood and I watched: and lo! a man ascending to the clouds; and he was of exceeding high stature, and his face was the face of an Angel, and his garment was dazzling as a flash of lightning. And he lifted up his hand towards the East, and cried out with a loud voice. His voice was as the voice of a trumpet, and around him stood, as it were, a multitude of the heavenly host, and he said: ‘Today is salvation given to both the visible and the invisible world. Christ hath risen from the dead: do ye also rise. Christ hath returned to Himself: do ye also return. Christ hath freed Himself from the Tomb: be ye set free from the bonds of sin. The gates of hell are opened, and death is crushed; the old Adam is laid aside, and the new one is created. Oh! if there be a new creature formed in Christ, be ye made new!’

Thus did he speak. Then did the other Angels repeat the Hymn they first sang when Christ was born on this earth, and appeared to us men: Glory be to God in the highest, and peace on earth, in men of good will! I join my voice with them, and speak these things to you: oh! that I could have an Angel’s voice, to make myself heard throughout the whole earth!

It is the Pasch of the Lord! the Pasch! in honor of the Trinity, I say it a third time: the Pasch! This is our Feast of Feasts, our Solemnity of Solemnities. It is as far above all the rest, not only of those which are human and earthly, but of those even which belong to Christ and are celebrated on his account, yea, it as far surpasses them all, as the sun surpasses the stars. Commencing with yesterday, how grand was the Day, with its torches and lights! * * But how grander and brighter is all on this morning! Yesterday’s light was but the harbinger of the great Light that was to rise; it was but as foretaste of the joy that was to be given to us. But today, we are celebrating the Resurrection itself, not merely in hope, but as actually risen, and drawing the whole earth to itself (Oraiio II. in sanctum, Pascha).

This is a sample of the fervid eloquence, wherewith our Saint preached the Mysteries of Faith. He was a man of retirement and contemplation. The troubles of the world, in which he had been compelled to live, damped his spirits; the duplicity and wickedness of men fretted his noble heart; and leaving to another the perilous honor of the See of Constantinople, which he had reluctantly accepted a very short time previously, he flew back to his dear solitude, there to enjoy his God and the study of holy things. And yet, during the short period of his Episcopal government, notwithstanding all the obstacles that stood in his way, he confirmed the Faith that had been shaken, and left behind him a track of light, which continued even to the time when St. John Chrysostom was chosen to fill the troubled Chair of Byzantium.  (2)

Image: Crop of Saint Gregory of Nazianzus. By Francesco Bartolozzi after Domenichino. (7)

Research by REGINA Staff





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