St. Basil the Great
Born: 329 AD in Caesarea, Cappadocia (Modern Day Turkey)
Died: January 1, 379 AD.
Feast Day: January 2nd (In the Eastern Catholic and Orthodox Churches, St. Basil’s Feast Day is often celebrated on January 1st)
Patronage: The region of Cappadocia in Turkey, hospital administrators, Monastic reformers.
Among the many blessing of being a diocesan priest is the opportunity to minister in various parishes. As your bishop calls you to move from one parish to another, you have the blessed opportunity to take upon yourself the patronage of the saint to whom your parish is dedicated. It seems that St. Basil is a patron who will be a part of my priestly ministry for some time! During my time in Lethbridge, I was blessed to serve in St. Basil’s Church, one of the three church communities that make up All Saints Roman Catholic Parish. I am now blessed with the opportunity to serve in St Basil’s School in the Tuscany neighbourhood of Calgary. Since it seems St. Basil will be interceding for me for some time, I thought it important to share a little bit about the life of this remarkable saint.
This past year saw Louis and Zelie Martin, the parents of St. Therese of Lisieux, raised to the altars as canonized saints of the Catholic Church. While it has been many years since a married couple was acclaimed to be saints, it is not the first time in the Church’s history that this occurred.
It just so happens that the parents of St. Basil the Great are also revered as saints of the Church. St. Basil’s father, St. Basil the Elder, suffered under the persecution of the Emperor Maximinus Galerius (305-314 AD) and was known for his outstanding virtue and witness as a teacher of the Christian faith. St. Basil’s mother, St. Emmelia, was the daughter of a Christian martyr and the mother of 10 children, three of whom (Gregory, Peter and Basil) eventually all became bishops.
The saintly witness of his parents left a profound impression on St. Basil from a young age. Noted for his academic prowess, St. Basil began school in Caesarea and then in Athens and the imperial capital of Constantinople. It was here that he met St. Gregory Nazianzus, who became an inseparable friend and theological ally when the two became bishops and were tasked with defending the Catholic faith against popular heresies of the 4th century AD.
In time, St. Basil became renowned both as a master of theology and of secular disciplines such as philosophy, astronomy, rhetoric, geometry and even medicine. But his academic success led St. Basil to adopt, in the observation of another saintly companion, St. Gregory of Nyssa, a spirit of worldliness and self-sufficiency. Providentially, it was around this time that St. Basil met Dianius, the Bishop of Caesarea, who encouraged the brilliant young scholar and professor to turn his mind to spiritual matters. This eventually led to St. Basil being baptized and bestowed with the minor order of lector in the church of Caesarea.
It was also around this time that he was inspired by the example of his sister, St. Macrina, who had founded a religious community on their family estate. His sister’s pursuit of holiness caused a profound conversion in St. Basil, who remarked: “Then I read the Gospel, and saw there that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one’s goods, the sharing of them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy towards things of earth.”[i] St. Basil’s desire for spiritual perfection convinced him to visit the monasteries of Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia to learn how to found his own monastic movement. It is for this reason that St. Basil is often called the founder of Oriental (or Eastern Christian) Monasticism, centuries before St. Benedict would introduce Western Europe to the richness of the Monastic vocation.
After composing a Rule for Monks and bringing able men to his monastic community, St. Basil was unexpectedly drawn into the theological controversies that marked the Christian experience of the 4th century AD. The aftermath led him to be (reluctantly) ordained a priest by the new bishop of Caesarea, Eusebius, and to be immediately given administration of a large portion of the diocese. The Catholic Encyclopedia described the priestly ministry of St. Basil in the following words:
“He laid down the law to the leading citizens and the imperial governors, settled disputes with wisdom and finality, assisted the spiritually needy, looked after the support of the poor, the entertainment of strangers, the care of maidens, legislation written and unwritten for the monastic life, arrangements of liturgical prayers, adornment of the sanctuary, and in the time of famine, he was the saviour of the poor.”[ii]
In the year 370 AD, St. Basil became the bishop of Caesarea, which made him the spiritual leader of nearly half of Asia Minor. His election won the support of other outstanding bishops of the day, like St. Athanasius of Alexandria, and the scorn of heretical emperors like the Arian Valens, who knew that St. Basil’s commitment to orthodoxy and spiritual discipline would prevent the Arian heresy to gain further momentum in the provinces of Asia Minor.
We know from his letters that the episcopal ministry of St. Basil was far from being that of an aristocrat who cared little for the pastoral needs of his people. Rather, he sought to exercise his role as bishop and shepherd in such a way that he did not neglect to teach, with authenticity and unshakeable orthodoxy, the teachings of the Catholic Faith, while also attending to the pastoral needs of his people. He sought to remove any unfit candidates from holy orders, to halt simony and the sale of ecclesial offices among his fellow bishops, and to defend the faithful against the Arian heresy that denied the divinity of Christ, be it promoted by a renegade priest or the Emperor Valens himself.
When he was not seeking the reform of the clergy and the defense of the truths of the Catholic faith, St. Basil was known for his love for the poor and afflicted. One of his most important contributions to the care of the poor was the building of the Ptochoptopheion, a house for the care of strangers, the medical treatment of the sick, and the industrial training of the unskilled. In time, similar houses began to be built throughout Asia Minor as reminders to wealthy Christians of their obligation to assist the poor and afflicted.
Despite his many accomplishments as a priest and bishop, St. Basil also experienced his own sharing in the Cross of Christ. He witnessed a rise in Arianism in his diocese that led much of his flock astray. He saw Gothic invaders ravage the cities in his pastoral care. He was also suspected of a lack of fidelity to the Catholic faith, thought by Pope St. Damasus I to have succumbed to heresy, and accused by St. Jerome of being a man of sinful pride. St. Basil in turn wrote a number of disgruntled letters to fellow bishops about his treatment by the Pope, expressing how hurt he felt for being accused of drifting away from the truths of the Catholic faith. Moreover, his warnings to the Pope about other heretics in Asia Minor were ignored and he was frustrated that little was done to chastise them. However, despite whatever disagreements St. Basil had with Pope St. Damasus I, he never entered into schism and remained in communion with the Vicar of Christ to his death.
It was during this difficult period of St. Basil’s life that he died on January 1, 379, an event that saw the Christians, Jews and Pagans of Asia Minor enter into a period of public mourning for so noble a bishop and leader.
Even though St. Basil’s relationship with the See of Rome and Western Church was at times strained, his sanctity was soon to be regarded throughout the entire Church, ranking him among the most notable bishops in the Church’s history and widely revered as a saint.
I am grateful that St. Basil has followed me during the early years of my priestly ministry. His tireless dedication to upholding the truths of the Catholic Faith, of seeking to serve the poor and destitute of his diocese, and his willingness to be faithful to the Church when personally attacked by even the Pope himself offers us a portrait of a saint and bishop who modeled his life after the witness of the Good Shepherd and the Apostles.
Fr. Nathan Siray
[i] All historical information for this article is from the Catholic Encyclopedia entry on St. Basil the Great http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02330b.htm