St. Basil the Great
‘He Shows Us How to Be Real Christians’
BY John Lilly
July 15-21, 2007 Issue | Posted 7/10/07 at 4:45 PM
Pope Benedict delivered his audience July 4 before a packed audience in Paul VI Hall, focusing on St. Basil of Caesarea (between 329 and 333 - Jan. 1, 379).
Today we remember one of the great Fathers of the Church, St. Basil, described by Byzantine liturgical texts as a “light of the Church.”
He was a great bishop of the fourth century, to whom the
Churches of the East and West look with great admiration because of the holiness
of his life, the excellence of his doctrine and the harmonious synthesis of his
speculative and practical talents.
He was born around the year 330 to a family of saints, “a true domestic Church,” who lived in an atmosphere of profound faith. He carried out his studies with the best teachers of Athens and Constantinople. Unfulfilled by his worldly successes, and aware of having wasted much time in vain pursuits, he himself confesses: “One day, as if waking up from a deep sleep, I turned to the wonderful light of the truth of the Gospel … and cried over my miserable life” (see Letters 223: PG 32, 824a). Attracted by Christ, he began to look to him and listen to him alone (see Moralia 80, 1: PG 31, 860bc).
He dedicated himself with determination to the monastic life in prayer, meditation on the sacred Scriptures and on the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and to the exercise of charity (see Letters 2 and 22), following the example of his sister, St. Macrina, who was already living monastic asceticism. He was later ordained a priest and then, in 370, bishop of Caesarea of Cappadocia in what is present-day Turkey.
Through preaching and writing, he carried out intense pastoral, theological and literary activities. With wise balance, he was able to blend service to souls with dedication to prayer and meditation in solitude. Taking advantage of his own personal experience, he favored the foundation of many “fraternities” (Christian communities consecrated to God), which he frequently visited (see Gregory Nazianzen. Oratio 43,29 in Laudem Basilii: PG 36,536b).
Through his words and his writings, many of which still exist today (see Regulae brevius tractatae, Proemio: PG 31,1080ab), he exhorted them to live and to grow in perfection. Several legislators of ancient monasticism including St. Benedict, who considered St. Basil his teacher (see Regula 73:5), drew from his writings.
In reality, St. Basil created a special kind of monasticism, not closed off from the local Church; but open to it. His monks were part of the local Church; they were its enlivening core. Preceding others of the faithful in following Christ and not merely in having faith, they showed firm devotion to him — love for him — above all in works of charity. These monks, who ran schools and hospitals, were at the service of the poor and showed Christian life in its fullness.
The Servant of God, John Paul II, speaking about monasticism, wrote: “Many believe that monasticism, an institution so important for the whole Church, was established for all times principally by St. Basil — or that, at least, the nature of monasticism would not have been so well defined without Basil’s decisive contribution” (Patres Ecclesiae, 2).
As bishop and pastor of his vast diocese, Basil constantly worried about the difficult material conditions in which the faithful lived; he firmly condemned evils; he worked in favor of the poorest and the marginalized; he spoke to rulers in order to relieve the sufferings of the people, above all in moments of disaster; he looked out for the freedom of the Church, going up against those in power to defend the right to profess the true faith (see Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 43: 48-51 in Laudem Basilii: PG 36,557c-561c).
To God, who is love and charity, Basil gave worthy witness
by building hospitals for the needy (see Basil, Letters 94: PG 32,488bc), much
like a city of mercy, that took its name Basiliade from him (see Sozomeno,
Historia Eccl. 6,34: PG 67, 1387a). It has been the inspiration for modern
hospital institutions for the recovery and care of the sick.
Aware that “the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the font from which all her power flows” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 10), Basil, though he was concerned to practice charity, the countersign of faith, was also a wise “liturgical reformer” (see Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 43,34 in Laudem Basilii: PG 36,541c).
He left us a wonderful Eucharistic prayer (anaphora) which is named after him, and helped to organize the prayer and the psalmody.
Because of his motivation, the people loved and knew the Psalms, and came to pray them even during the night (see Basil, In Psalmum 1,1: PG 29,212a-213c). And so we see how liturgy, adoration and prayer go together with charity, and depend upon each other.
With zeal and courage, Basil opposed the heretics who denied that Jesus Christ is God like the Father (see Basil, Letters 9,3: PG 32,272a; Ep. 52: 1-3: PG 32,392b-396a; Adv. Eunomium 1,20: PG 29,556c). In like manner, against those who denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit, he taught that the Spirit also is God, and “must be numbered and glorified with the Father and the Son” (see De Spiritu Sancto: SC 17bis, 348). Because of this, Basil is one of the great Fathers that formulated the doctrine of the Trinity: The one God, because he is love, is one God in three persons, who form the most profound unity that exists: divine unity.
In his love for Christ and his Gospel, the great Cappadocian also strove to heal the divisions within the Church (see Letters 70 and 243), working so that all might be converted to Christ and his word (see De Iudicio 4: PG 31,660b-661a), a unifying force that all believers must obey (see ibid. 1-3: PG 31,653a-656c).
In conclusion, Basil spent himself completely in faithful service to the Church and in his multifaceted episcopal ministry. According to the plan laid out by him, he became an “apostle and minister of Christ, a dispenser of the mysteries of God, a herald of the Kingdom, a model and rule of piety, an eye of the body of the Church, a pastor of Christ’s sheep, a merciful physician, a father and nurse, a coworker with God, God’s farmer and builder of God’s temple” (see Moralia 80: 11-20: PG 31: 864b-868b).
This is the plan that the holy bishop entrusts to those who proclaim the word — as much yesterday as today — a plan that he himself generously strove to put into practice. In 379, Basil, not yet 50 years old, worn out by hard work and asceticism, returned to God, “in the hope of eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ” (On Baptism 1,2,9).
He was a man who truly lived with his gaze fixed on Christ, a man of love for his neighbor. Full of the hope and the joy of faith, Basil shows us how to be real Christians.
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