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SAINT GREGORY NAZIANZEN

Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, c-329-390

In the bitter fourth-century struggle against Arianism, much of the effective opposition to the heresy came from Cappadocia, a rocky province in Asia Minor. One of the greatest "Cappadocians" was Saint Gregory Nazianzen, born about 329 in the small village of Arianzus, near the city of Nazianzus. The saint's father, Gregory the Elder, was a former pagan; he had been converted by his wife after their marriage and had perfected his conversion, in those days of the noncelibate clergy, by becoming a priest.

Gregory's parents gave him the best of education's, sending him to study first at Caesarea in Cappadocia and then in Palestine, and at Alexandria and Athens. A natural student, the young man enjoyed learning and also became strongly drawn to the religious life. On his return home, at about the age of thirty, Gregory retired to Pontus on the Black Sea with Saint Basil, another Cappadocian and a close friend of Gregory's from their school days. The young men, eager for a life of spiritual perfection, were planning their future in terms of the monastic life, when Gregory was suddenly called back to Nazianzus by his father, now bishop of that city. The elder Gregory, an old man at the time, was incapable of controlling his heresy-ridden diocese and needed assistance. To ensure Gregory's staying with him, his father brought him to the cathedral on a feast day and there ordained him a priest, oblivious of Gregory's protests at this high-handed treatment. The young man was genuinely shocked at the incident, for he had always thought himself unworthy of the priesthood; however, after a period of reflection back at Pontus, he accepted his father's action as the will of God and returned to Nazianzus.

In the next few years he helped his father fend off the Arians, was consecrated a bishop, and began to acquire a reputation as a writer and orator. A distressing incident during this period was a quarrel with his friend Basil. In 370 Basil had been appointed bishop of Caesarea and was given power to appoint other bishops; when he asked Gregory to occupy the see of Sasima in Arian territory, Gregory refused to go there, saying he did not care to fight for a church. Basil reproached him for adopting such an attitude, and the friendship between the two was never the same after this. Strengthened in his dislike for public life by this incident, Gregory left Nazianzus for a monastery in Seleucia.

His retirement was cut short in 379, when the Arian emperor Valens died. Church leaders, sensing an opportune moment for a decisive blow at the Arians, asked the best of their clergy to invade the Arian strongholds and make a concentrated drive against the heretics. When Gregory was requested to go to Constantinople, the peace-loving man at first refused, but then, realizing it was for the good of the Church, he gave his consent. When he arrived in the city, he was greeted with all the abuse he had expected and was forced to hold services in a private home, all the churches being occupied by the opposition. Gregory met the vicious tactics of the heretics (they even made attempts on his life) with the only weapons at his disposal-holiness and learning. He began to give a series of sermons on the root problem of the heresy-the dogma of the Trinity. These sermons, known today as the Theological Discourses, contain some of the most profound and moving theological exposition ever produced in the Church. With matchless eloquence, the bishop poured out in these addresses all the wisdom gained from his years of study, all the love he felt for the truths of his religion; and when he had finished the series, the Arians were finished, too. They continued to cause trouble in the city, but their arguments had been punctured by Gregory, and the people no longer gave their support to Arian leaders. When Emperor Theodosius, who was a Christian, came to Constantinople in 380, he ousted the Arian patriarch and arranged for Gregory to replace him.

Gregory's hour of triumph came and went; immediately after his consecration as patriarch of Constantinople in the great church of Sancta Sophia, ecclesiastical quarrels surged up around him again, this time among men of his own camp. Sickened by the petty squabbling, Gregory went before the Council of Constantinople, which was meeting at the time, and resigned his see with a last, moving plea for peace in the Church. Returning to Nazianzus, he served again briefly as its bishop, then went to his birthplace at Arianzus, where he spent the last six years of his life. There, free from all disturbance at last, he prayed, composed poetry, wrote letters, and undoubtedly thought hopefully of the coming time when he and his friend Basil (who had died in 379) would meet in heaven, all their differences forgotten.

In 390 Gregory died and was buried in Nazianzus; later, his body was brought to Constantinople and then to Saint Peter's in Rome, where it remained. The Church remembers this gentle man of learning and holiness as one of her four great Greek Doctors and also has given him the title of "The Theologian," a title he shares with only one other man Saint John the Evangelist.

 

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