During his general audience on Aug. 8, Pope Benedict XVI continued his series of teachings on the early Church Fathers. He offered his reflections on St. Gregory of Nazianzen, a great theologian, preacher and poet from the fourth century who was a close friend of St. Basil the Great. The Holy Father highlighted St. Gregory’s staunch defense of the faith amid strong opposition and his deep love for God that was based on a life of solitude, prayer and holiness and expressed in his poetry.
Brothers and sisters,
Last Wednesday I spoke about St. Basil, a Father of the Church and a well-known teacher of the faith. Today I would like to speak about his friend, Gregory of Nazianzen, who, like Basil, was from Cappadocia. He was a famous theologian, preacher and defender of the faith who was famous for his eloquence. Since he was a poet, he also had a very refined and sensitive spirit.
Gregory was born into nobility. At his birth, which took place around the year 330, his mother consecrated him to God.
After his early formation within the family, he attended some of the most famous schools of the time, first in Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he formed a close friendship with Basil, the future bishop of Caesarea, followed by some time in other cities of the ancient world like Alexandria in Egypt and Athens, where he once again met up with Basil (see Oratio 43, 14-24: SC 384,146-180).
Recalling his friendship with Basil, Gregory later wrote the following: “On this occasion, I not only felt myself overwhelmed with a deep reverence for my friend, the great Basil, but, out of respect for the earnestness of his character and the maturity of his reasoning powers, I also persuaded all the rest of the students, who happened not to know him, to treat him likewise. …The same yearning for knowledge guided both of us. … We each struggled, not to gain the first place for himself but to yield to the other, for we made each other’s reputation our own. We seemed to have one soul, inhabiting two bodies” (Oratio 443, 16.20: SC 384,154-156.164).
These words form, in a sense, a self-portrait of this noble soul. But as you might also imagine, this man, who zealously sought the values that surpass this world, suffered greatly at the hands of this world.A Desire for Monastic Life
Upon returning home, Gregory was baptized and felt attracted to the monastic life: solitude and philosophical and spiritual meditation fascinated him. As he himself wrote: “For nothing seemed to me so desirable as to close the doors of my senses, and, escaping from the flesh and the world, recollected within myself, having no further connection than was absolutely necessary with human affairs, and speaking to myself and to God, to live a life that transcended everything that was visible, preserving within my soul only those divine impressions that were pure and not mixed with the erring tokens of this earthly world and constantly growing more and more to truly be an unspotted mirror of God and things divine, as light is added to light … enjoying already by hope the blessings of the world to come, roaming about with the angels, even now being above the earth by having forsaken it, and transported on high by the Spirit” (Oratio 2, 7: SC 247,96).Relunctant Priest
Gregory confides to us in his autobiography that he was ordained a priest somewhat reluctantly because he knew that he would then have to be a shepherd, taking care of others and their affairs and, therefore, not being able to spend time solely in meditation (see Carmina [historia] 2,1,11 de sua vita 340-349: PG 37, 1053). However, he later accepted his vocation and, with complete obedience, assumed his pastoral ministry, thereby agreeing, as would often occur throughout his life, to let God’s providence take him where he did not wish to go (see John 21:18).
In 371, his friend Basil, the bishop of Caesarea, wanted to consecrate Gregory — against his will — bishop of Sasima, a strategically important region of Cappadocia. However, because of various difficulties, he never took possession of his see and remained instead in Nazianzen.Defender of the Faith
Around 379, Gregory was called to Constantinople, the capital, in order to guide the small Catholic community there that was faithful to the Council of Nicaea and to faith in the Trinity. The majority of the people were Arians because it was “politically correct” and the emperors considered this to be politically useful. Thus, Gregory was part of the minority and found himself surrounded by hostile forces.
In the small chapel of the Anastasis, he gave five theological discourses (see Oratio 27-31: SC 250, 70-343) whose object was to defend belief in the Trinity and to make it more clear. These discourses have remained famous because of their solid doctrine and intelligent reasoning, which truly help us to understand that this is divine logic.
The splendor of their form still fascinates people today. On account of these discourses, Gregory was called a “theologian.” For this reason, the Orthodox Church calls him “Gregory the Theologian.”
For Gregory, theology was not merely human reflection or merely the fruit of complicated speculation. Rather, it was derived from a life of prayer and holiness, from an assiduous dialogue with God. It is in this very way that the reality of God, the mystery of the Trinity, becomes apparent to our reason.
In the silence of contemplation, steeped in awe before the marvels of the mystery that has been revealed, the soul receives its beauty and God’s glory.
While Gregory was taking part in the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, he was elected bishop of Constantinople and assumed presidency of the council. Immediately, however, strong opposition was unleashed against him to the point that the situation became unbearable.
The hostility was intolerable for such a sensitive soul. A situation that Gregory had sadly deplored once before was repeating itself: “We, who loved God and Christ so much, have divided Christ! We have lied to one another based on Truth, we have nurtured feelings of hatred based on Love, and we have become divided one from another” (Oration 6, 3: SC 405,128).
In such a tense atmosphere, the people joined together and demanded Gregory’s resignation. In a cathedral that was overflowing with people, Gregory gave a farewell speech that was very effective and dignified (see Oration 42: SC 384,48-114). He concluded his heartbreaking intervention with these words: “Farewell, mighty Christ-loving city. … My children, keep, I beseech you, the faith that has been entrusted to you (see 1 Timothy 6:20). Remember my suffering (see Colossians 4:18). May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all” (Oration 42, 27: SC 384,112-114).Years in Solitude
Gregory returned to Nazianzen and for nearly two years he dedicated himself to caring for the Christian community there. Then he retired for good to the solitude of nearby Arianzus, the place of his birth, devoting himself to study and to an ascetic life.
During this period of time, he composed the greater part of his poetic works, which, for the most part, autobiographical: His De vita sua recounts is verse his own human and spiritual journey, a journey characterized by a Christian who is suffering, a man with a deep spiritual life amid a world filled with conflict.
This is a man who helps us understand that God is preeminent and, for this reason, he speaks to us and to our world: without God man loses his grandeur; without God, there is no true humanism.
Let us listen, therefore, to this voice and let us seek to know God’s face.
In one of the poems that he wrote, he addressed these words to God: “Look kindly upon us, you who are the life to come for everyone” (Carmina [dogmatica] 1,1,29: PG 37,508).
In the year 390, God welcomed into his arms this faithful servant, who had defended him in his writings with such keen intelligence and who had exalted him with so much love in his poems.