St Gregory Nazianzen and the Crisis in the Church

“A consolatory thought for those who see their span of life crumbling away under their feet – and they, apparently, doing nothing.”

Image: Rubens, St Gregory of Nazianzus Wiki Commons CC

Editor’s Note: St Basil and St Gregory had a lifelong friendship, which nonetheless included tension towards the end of St Basil’s life. In 379, after St Basil died (and on his recommendation), Gregory was asked to go to Constantinople – a hotbed of heresy and schism at that time – in order to win it back to the orthodox doctrine of Nicaea.

St Gregory Nazianzen’s career had already appeared to have ended, but in some ways had not yet begun. He set up his chapel, preached the true faith, the force of which gathered souls around him.

It was not for him to resolve, single-handedly and totally, the crisis faced by this city – and he ultimately had to resign, depart, and die back in Nazianzus.

Nonetheless, his humble example in the crisis-ridden city of Constantinople is instructive and interesting for us today, in a crisis-ridden world. Some like to compare the clergy working for the true Faith with St Athanasius: but perhaps the quiet heroism of St Gregory Nazianzen is another appropriate example to which we can look.

Consider the following from the Catholic Encyclopaedia, especially in light of the traditionalist apostolate following Vatican II:

“Three weeks after Basil’s death, Theodosius was advanced by the Emperor Gratian to the dignity of Emperor of the East. Constantinople, the seat of his empire, had been for the space of about thirty years (since the death of the saintly and martyred Bishop Paul) practically given over to Arianism, with an Arian prelate, Demophilus, enthroned at St. Sophia’s. 

“The remnant of persecuted Catholics, without either church or pastor, applied to Gregory to come and place himself at their head and organize their scattered forces; and many bishops supported the demand. After much hesitation he gave his consent, proceeded to Constantinople early in the year 379, and began his mission in a private house which he describes as ‘the new Shiloh where the Ark was fixed’, and as ‘an Anastasia, the scene of the resurrection of the faith’. [Emphasis added.]

“Not only the faithful Catholics, but many heretics gathered in the humble chapel of the Anastasia, attracted by Gregory’s sanctity, learning and eloquence; and it was in this chapel that he delivered the five wonderful discourses on the faith of Nicaea — unfolding the doctrine of the Trinity while safeguarding the Unity of the Godhead — which gained for him, alone of all Christian teachers except the Apostle St. John, the special title of Theologus or the Divine. He also delivered at this time the eloquent panegyrics on St. Cyprian, St. Athanasius, and the Machabees, which are among his finest oratorical works.”

Hunter-Blair, O. (1910). St. Gregory of Nazianzus. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved May 9, 2023 from New Advent

Here are some reflections on his life from Cardinal Newman.

S.D. Wright

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The Rise and Fall of St Gregory Nazianzen

It often happens that men of very dissimilar talents and tastes are attracted together by their very dissimilitude. They live in intimacy for a time, perhaps a long time, till their circumstances alter, or some sudden event comes to try them. Then the peculiarities of their respective minds are brought out into action; and quarrels ensue, which end in coolness or separation. […]

This contrast of character, leading, first, to intimacy, then to differences, is interestingly displayed, though painfully, in one passage of the history of Basil and Gregory;—Gregory the affectionate, the tender-hearted, the man of quick feelings, the accomplished, the eloquent preacher,—and Basil, the man of firm resolve and hard deeds, the high-minded ruler of Christ’s flock, the diligent labourer in the field of ecclesiastical politics.

Thus they differed; yet not as if they had not much in common still; both had the blessing and the discomfort of a sensitive mind; both were devoted to an ascetic life; both were men of classical tastes; both were special champions of the Catholic creed; both were skilled in argument, and successful in their use of it; both were in highest place in the Church, the one Exarch of Cæsarea, the other Patriarch of Constantinople.

Gregory triumphing where Basil had not

Gregory disliked the routine intercourse of society; he disliked ecclesiastical business, he disliked publicity, he disliked strife, he felt his own manifold imperfections, he feared to disgrace his profession, and to lose his hope; he loved the independence of solitude, the tranquillity of private life; leisure for meditation, reflection, self-government, study, and literature. He admired, yet he playfully satirized, [St Basil’s] lofty thoughts and heroic efforts.

Yet, upon Basil’s death, Basil’s spirit, as it were, came into him; and within four months of it, he had become a preacher of the Catholic faith in an heretical metropolis, had formed a congregation, had set apart a place for orthodox worship, and had been stoned by the populace.

Was it Gregory, or was it Basil, that blew the trumpet in Constantinople, and waged a successful war in the very seat of the enemy, in despite of all his fluctuations of mind, misgivings, fastidiousness, disgust with self, and love of quiet? Such was the power of the great Basil, triumphing in his death, though failing throughout his life.

Within four or five years of [St Basil’s] departure to his reward, all the objects were either realized, or in the way to be realized, which he had so vainly attempted, and so sadly waited for. His eyes had failed in longing; they waited for the morning, and death closed them ere it came.

[St Basil] died on the 1st of January, 379; on the 19th of the same month the glorious Emperor Theodosius was invested with the imperial purple; by the 20th of April, Gregory had formed a Church in Constantinople; in February, in the following year, Theodosius declared for the Creed of Nicæa; in November he restored the Churches of Constantinople to the Catholics.

In the next May he convoked, in that city, the second General Council, which issued in the pacification of the Eastern Church, in the overthrow of the great heresy which troubled it, and (in a measure, and in prospect) in its union with the West. “Pretiosa in conspectu Domini mors sanctorum ejus.”

It was under such circumstances, when our Saint had passed through many trials, and done a great work, when he, a recluse hitherto, had all at once been preacher, confessor, metropolitan, president of a General Council, and now was come back again to Asia as plain Gregory—to be what he had been before, to meditate and to do penance, and to read, and to write poems, and to be silent as in former years, except that he was now lonely,—his friend dead, his father dead, mother dead, brother Cæsarius, sister Gorgonia dead, and himself dead to this world, though still to live in the flesh for some eight dreary years,—in such a time and in such a place, at Cæsarea, the scene of Basil’s labours, he made [an oration], and invoked Basil’s glorified spirit; and his invocation ends thus:—

“And when I depart hence, mayest thou receive me into thy tabernacles, so that, living together with one another, and beholding together more clearly and more perfectly the Holy and Blessed Trinity, whose vision we now receive in poor glimpses, we may there come to the end of all our desires, and receive the reward of the warfare which we have waged, which we have endured! To thee, then, these words from me; but me who will there be to praise, leaving life after thee? even should I do aught praiseworthy, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory for ever.—Amen.”

The situation in Constantinople

The circumstances which brought Gregory to Constantinople were the following:

It was now about forty years since the Church of Constantinople had lost the blessing of orthodox teaching and worship. Paul, who had been elected bishop at the beginning of this period, had been visited with four successive banishments from the Arian party, and at length with martyrdom. He had been superseded in his see, first by Eusebius, the leader of the Arians, who denied our Lord’s divinity; then by Macedonius, the head of those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit; and then by Eudoxius, the Arianizer of the Gothic tribes.

On the death of the last-mentioned, A.D. 370, the remnant of the Catholics elected for their bishop, Evagrius, who was immediately banished by the Emperor Valens; and, when they petitioned him to reverse his decision, eighty of their ecclesiastics, who were the bearers of their complaints, were subjected to an atrocious punishment for their Christian zeal, being burned at sea in the ship in which they had embarked.

In the year 379, the orthodox Theodosius succeeded to the empire of the East; but this event did not at once alter the fortunes of the Church in his metropolis. The body of the people, nay, the populace itself, and, what is stranger, numbers of the female population, were eagerly attached to Arianism, and menaced violence to any one who was bold enough to preach the true doctrine. […]

The Novatians, who, orthodox themselves in doctrine, yet possessed a schismatical episcopacy, and a number of places of worship in the city;—the Eunomians, professors of the Arian heresy in its most undisguised blasphemy, who also had established a bishop there;—and the Semi-Arians and Apollinarists, whose heretical sentiments have been referred to in my foregoing pages.

This was the condition of Constantinople when the orthodox members of its Church, under the sanction and with the cooperation of the neighbouring bishops, invited Gregory, whose gifts, religious and intellectual, were well known to them, to preside over it, instead of the heretical Demophilus, whom Valens, three years before, had placed there.

The history of Gregory’s doings and fortunes at Constantinople may be told in a few words.

A place of worship was prepared for him by the kindness of a relative.

There he began to preach the true doctrine,—first, amid the contempt, then amid the rage and violence, of the Arian population.

His congregation increased; he was stoned by the multitude, and brought before the civil authorities on the charge of creating a riot.

At length, however, on Theodosius visiting the capital, he was recognized by him as bishop, and established in the temporalities of the see. However, upon the continued opposition of the people, and the vexatious combinations against him of his brother bishops, he resigned his see during the session of the second General Council, and retired to Asia Minor.

What we can learn

I do not intend to say more upon St. Gregory’s public career; but, before leaving the subject, I am tempted to make two reflections.

First, he was fifty years old when he was called to Constantinople; a consolatory thought for those who see their span of life crumbling away under their feet, and they apparently doing nothing. Gregory was nothing till he was almost an old man; had he died at Basil’s age, he would have done nothing. He seems to have been exactly the same age as Basil; but Basil had done his work and was taken away before Gregory had begun his.

The second reflection that suggests itself is this: in what a little time men move through the work which is, as it were, the end for which they are born, and which is to give a character to their names with posterity. They are known in history as the prime movers in this work, or as the instruments of that; as rulers, or politicians, or philosophers, or warriors; and when we examine dates, we often find that the exploits, or discoveries, or sway, which make them famous, lasted but a few years out of a long life, like plants that bloom once, and never again. Their ethical character, talents, acquirements, actions seem concentrated on a crisis, and give no sign of their existence as far as the world’s annals are concerned, whether before or after. Gregory lived sixty years; his ecclesiastical life was barely three.

St Gregory Nazianzen – Pray for us!

John Henry Cardinal Newman – edited selections from The Church of the Fathers (and for UK readers), as revised in 1857. (NB: we receive a small commission from purchases made with these links)


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