St. Basil the Great — Son and Sibling of Great Saints

Basil gave his brilliant mind, his tireless fervor and his loving heart, all in service of Christ’s Church.

El Greco (1541-1614), “St. Basil”
El Greco (1541-1614), “St. Basil” (photo: Public Domain)

St. Basil the Great is one of those giants in our faith whose words, filled with the fire of conviction, echo across the centuries. A fourth-century bishop, he took up the fight against Arianism after the death of St. Athanasius, defying worldly powers and even pressure from his fellow bishops in order to defend the divinity of Christ. He was fierce in his love for truth and in his desire to serve the poor and the marginalized.

Brilliant though he was, Basil’s holiness did not exist in a vacuum. Our Church history is full of saints who bravely stood alone in their families, forging ahead toward Christ despite protestations from their parents and siblings. That is not Basil’s story. His faith, which so largely impacted the Church, had been shaped by generations of Christians who had given all they had for Christ. Basil’s parents had grown up during the years of Christian persecution in the Roman Empire. His mother had seen one of her parents martyred, and his father had spent years hiding in the mountains with his family.

Today we speak often of the “domestic church,” the way in which we can strengthen the faith within our families and households to serve as a bulwark against the raging tides of our post-Christian culture. The term was revived by St. John Paul II, but its earliest usage dates back to the early Church, when men and women raised their children in a pagan, pre-Christian society. Then, publicly living one’s faith didn’t just make one a social oddity, but was often a matter of life and death, as it tragically remains in many parts of our world today. In the face of hostility and persecution, the members of the domestic church, with the father as the spiritual head, surrounded themselves with prayer, and grew together in God’s grace so they could both remain strong in their faith and serve as witnesses to God’s joy.

Basil’s parents, Sts. Basil the Elder and Emmelia, who had grown up surrounded by brutal persecution, understood the mission of the domestic church clearly. They knew the Christian could never feel quite at peace in this world. We were made for another, and this one can never feel quite like home. As another early Church bishop would note, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The role of the Christian parent is then to make the home a small foretaste of our heavenly home for our children. Within the four walls of their home, and led by the faith of their parents, children can grow with their little souls pointed towards Christ and their eternal reunion with their Creator. The consequent joy and peace then radiates outside of the home, uniting others with them in their mission.

When Basil’s parents married and began their family, they took on this gargantuan responsibility enthusiastically. Blessed with 10 children, they raised their little ones to be fearless in their faith. Three of their children are canonized, as is Basil the Elder, and another son also became a bishop. It was actually Basil the Great’s sister, Macrina, now honored as a saint, who redirected him back to the Church and priesthood after his head had been turned by the glamor and prestige of the secular intellectual circles in which he moved during his education. Years of formation and being open to God’s will emboldened Macrina to confront her brother, who was battling the temptation of worldliness, and steer him back to his vocation, giving the Church one of her greatest defenders and saints.

God did not need Macrina to persuade Basil, and he did not need Basil to defeat Arianism; he could do it all himself. But he wanted them to do these things. God wanted them to unite their wills to his so they could work with him to carry out his plan in the world, a plan to bring his beloved creations back to himself.

St. Basil the Great gave every talent and gift he had to God. He gave his brilliant mind, his tireless fervor and his heart burning with love, all in service of Christ’s Church. But even this great man was once a small child, and God entrusted him to two parents, asking them to raise a little boy and teach him to love God enough to become a great saint. His life reminds us not only to fiercely defend the truth at all times, but also to take each person God places before us, and bring them closer to Christ.

St. Basil the Great, pray for us!