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St. Basil: a Voice for Today

Weekly General Audience August 1, 2007

BY John Lilly

August 12-18, 2007 Issue | Posted 8/7/07 at 2:19 PM

 

More than 5,000 pilgrims gathered in Vatican City’s Paul VI Hall for Pope Benedict XVI’s general audience on Aug. 1. Continuing his series of teachings on the Fathers of the Church, the Holy Father concluded his teaching on St. Basil, which he began at his last general audience on July 4. He highlighted Basil’s call to meditate on the mystery of God, his appeal to care for our neighbor and his concern for young people.

After a three week break, we are resuming our customary Wednesday gatherings. Today, I would like to refer back to my last catechesis, which focused on the life and the writings of St. Basil, a fourth-century bishop of Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey.

The life and the works of this great saint abound with ideas for reflection and with teachings that are relevant even today.

First of all, his references to the mystery of God are, for all men and women, both vital and significant. The Father is “the origin all things and the cause for everything that exists, the root of living things” (see Homelia 15, 2 de fide: PG 31, 465c), and, above all, he is “the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (see Anaphora sancti Basilii).

As we rise up to God through his creation, we “become conscious of his goodness and his wisdom” (see Contro Eunomium 1, 14: PG 29, 544b). The Son is the “image of the Father’s goodness, the seal bearing his perfect likeness” (see Anaphora sancti Basilii).

Through his obedience and passion, the Word Incarnate fulfilled his mission as the redeemer of mankind” (see In Psalmum 48, 8: PG 29, 452ab; see also De Baptismo 1, 2: SC 357, 158).

Later he speaks at length on the Holy Spirit, to whom he dedicated an entire book. He tells us that the Spirit gives life to the Church, pouring out his gifts upon it and making it holy. The glorious light of the divine mystery is reflected in man, the image of God, thereby giving man his dignity.

Gazing upon Christ, man’s dignity is fully appreciated. As Basil exclaims, “You must realize how great you are by reflecting on the price that was paid for you; look at the price that was paid for your ransom and acknowledge your dignity!” (In Psalmum 48, 8: PG 29, 452b). In particular, Christians who are living according to the Gospel recognize that they all are brothers, that life consists of administering the goods they have received from God for which each person is responsible before the others, and that those who are rich must “carry out the orders of God, who is the benefactor” (Homelia 6 de avaritia: PG 32, 1181-1196).

We all should help each other and work together as members of one body (Epistola 203, 3). In his homilies, Basil spoke out courageously on this point. Indeed, whoever desires to love his neighbor as himself as God commands “must never possess more than his neighbor has” (Homelia in divites: PG 31, 281b).

Love of Neighbor

In times of famine and disaster, this holy bishop passionately exhorted the faithful “not to be the cruelest of beasts … appropriating for oneself what belongs to all and possessing for oneself what belongs to all” (Homelia tempore famis: PG 31, 325a).

Basil’s profound thoughts are well represented by the following thought-provoking words: “Every person in need gazes upon our hands as we ourselves gaze upon God’s hands when we are in need.” Thus, the eulogy that Gregory Nazianzen made after Basil’s death was well-deserved: “Basil showed us that we, being men, ought not to despise our fellow men nor dishonor Christ, the one head of all, by our inhumane treatment of them, but to use the misfortune of others as an opportunity for establishing our own lot and to lend to God that mercy that we stand in need of at his hands” (Gregory Nazianzen, Oratio 43, 63: PG 36, 580b).

These words are very timely. We see how St. Basil is truly one of the Fathers of the Church’s social doctrine.

Importance of the Eucharist

Moreover, Basil reminds us that in order to keep our love of God and of man alive within us we need the Eucharist, which is ample nourishment for those who are baptized and is capable of nourishing the new energy that we derive from Baptism (see De Baptismo 1, 3: SC 357, 192).

Being able to partake of the Eucharist is reason for immense joy (Moralia 21, 3: PG 31, 741a) since it was instituted “in order to safeguard throughout the ages the memory of he who died for us and rose for us” (Moralia 80, 22: PG 31, 869b).

The Eucharist, which is God’s greatest gift, safeguards within each one of us the reminder of our baptism and allows us to fully and faithfully live out the grace of our baptism. For this reason, this holy bishop recommends frequent Communion — even daily: “Taking Communion even daily and receiving the holy body and blood of Christ is good and useful, since he himself tells us clearly: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have eternal life’ (John 6:54). Who then can doubt that frequently receiving this Communion of life is living life to the fullest?” (Epistola 93: PG 32, 484b). In short, the Eucharist is necessary so that we might welcome within us true life and eternal life (see Moralia 21, 1: PG 31, 737c).

A Concern for Youth

Finally, Basil was also naturally interested in that segment of God’s chosen people that is the future of society — the youth. He addressed a discourse to them on how to overcome the pagan culture of that time. With a great deal of balance and openness, he recognized that examples of virtue are found in classical Greek and Latin literature. These examples of a righteous life can be useful for Christian youth who are seeking the truth and a righteous way of living (Ad Adolescentes 3).

Therefore, we need to take from the classical authors everything that is appropriate and that conforms to truth. In this way, with a critical yet open attitude, with what is, in fact, genuine and proper “discernment,” young people can grow in freedom.

Using that famous image of the bees that take only what is useful for making honey from the flowers, Basil makes the following recommendation: “Just as the bees know how to make honey from the flowers, as opposed to other animals that limit themselves to enjoying the scent and the color of the flowers, likewise from these writings … we can derive some enjoyment for the spirit. We ought to make use of these books by always following the example of the bees. They do not go to every flower without distinction and neither do they seek to take away everything from every one on which they alight. Rather, they only take away that which is useful in producing honey and leave behind the rest. If we are truly wise, we will take from these writings everything that is applicable to us and that conforms to truth while leaving behind the rest” (Ad Adolescentes 4).

Above all, Basil recommends that young people grow in virtue and in a righteous way of living: “While other goods … pass from one to another as in a game of dice, only virtue is an inalienable possession and remains so throughout life and after death” (Ad Adolescentes 5).

Dear brothers and sisters, it seems to me that we can say that this Father from the distant past speaks to us today and tells us some important things. First of all, he speaks to us about an attentive, critical and creative approach to today’s culture. Secondly, he speaks to us about social responsibility. This is a time in which, in an increasingly global society, even those people who are geographically distant from us are really our neighbors.

Then he talks to us about friendship with Christ, a God with a human face. Finally he speaks to us about knowledge and recognition of God the Creator, the Father of us all. Only by openness to this God, our common Father, can we build a world that is just and a world of brotherhood.

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