St. Eusebius of Vercelli

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis.

weekly general audience october 17, 2007

Pope Benedict XVI spoke about St. Eusebius of Vercelli during his general audience on Oct. 17, continuing his series of teachings on the early Fathers of the Church. He opposed Arianism and suffered exile as a result. His pastoral zeal greatly influenced many of his contemporaries, including St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Maximus of Turin. He maintained a close relationship with the people of his diocese, both Christians and non-Christians alike, and never bowed to external pressure in his faithful service to the Gospel.

This morning, I would like to invite you to reflect with me on St. Eusebius of Vercelli, the first bishop in northern Italy on whom we have any reliable information.

Born in Sardinia at the beginning of the fourth century, he moved to Rome with his family when he was still quite young. Later he was instituted as a lector, thereby becoming part of the clergy in Urbe, an area in which the Church at that time was experiencing serious challenges from Arianism.

Since people had a great deal of respect for Eusebius, he was elected bishop of Vercelli in 345. The new bishop immediately began an intense work of evangelization in a region that was, to a large extent, still pagan, especially in the rural areas.

Inspired by St. Athanasius — who had written The Life of St. Anthony, the founder of Eastern monasticism — he founded a community of priests in Vercelli that was similar to a monastic community. Because of their monastic life, the clergy in northern Italy was marked by an apostolic sanctity that inspired many important bishops, such as Limenio and Honoratus, Eusebius’ successors in Vercelli, Gaudentius in Novara, Exuperantius in Tortona, Eustasius in Aosta, Eulogius in Ivrea, and Maximus in Turin — all of whom the Church venerates as saints.

Defender of the Faith

Solidly formed in the faith of the Nicene Creed, Eusebius defended the full divinity of Jesus Christ, which the Nicene Creed described as “of the same substance” as the Father, with all his might. Thus, he joined forces with the great Fathers of the Church in the fourth century — especially St. Athanasius, the standard bearer of Nicene orthodoxy — against the emperor’s political agenda, which favored Arianism.

In the emperor’s eyes, the simplistic faith of Arianism, as an ideological agenda for the empire, seemed more politically expedient. For him, truth did not count as much as political opportunity: He wanted to capitalize on religion as a bond of unity for the empire.

However, these great Fathers of the Church resisted him and defended truth over politics.

For this reason, Eusebius was exiled like many other bishops in the East and in the West, including St. Athanasius and St. Hilary of Poitiers — of whom we spoke last time — and Osius of Cordoba.

While he was in exile at Scythopolis in Palestine from 355 to 360, Eusebius’ accomplishments were significant. He founded a monastic community there with a small group of disciples and corresponded with the faithful back in the Piedmont region of Italy, to which the second of Eusebius’ three letters that are recognized as being authentic especially give witness.

Later, sometime after 360, he was exiled to Cappadocia and to Thebaid where he suffered serious physical mistreatments.

When Constantius II died in 361, he was succeeded by Julian the Apostate, who was not interested in having Christianity as the faith of the empire but who wanted instead to restore paganism. He ended the exile of these bishops and, as a result, Eusebius was able to take possession once again of his diocese.

In 362, Athanasius invited him to take part in the Council of Alexandria, which decided to grant pardon to the Arian bishops provided that they were laicized. For a decade before his death, Eusebius was able to exercise his ministry as bishop and was able to form a model relationship with his diocese, which served as inspiration for pastoral service for the other bishops in northern Italy, like Ambrose of Milan and Maximus of Turin, whom we will consider in future catecheses.

A Shepherd’s Heart

Two testimonies in writing shed some light on the relationship between Eusebius of Vercelli and his diocese. The first is found in the letter already cited, which Eusebius wrote from exile in Scythopolis “to the brethren in whom I delight and the priests whom I love so dearly, as well as the holy people of Vercelli, Novara, Ivrea and Tortona, who are so firm in the faith” (see Epistola secunda, CCL 9, pg. 104).

These opening words, which express the emotion of a good shepherd as he addresses his flock, are reflected once again at the end of his letter, as the father warmly bids farewell to each and every one of his sons and daughters in Vercelli with enthusiastic words of love and affection.

It is especially worth noting the explicit relationship that binds the bishop not only to his sanctae plebes in Vercellae (holy people in Vercelli) — the first and for many years thereafter the only diocese of the Piedmont region — but also to Novaria (Novara), Eporedia (Ivrea) and Dertona (Torona), namely, Christian communities within the same diocese that had already acquired their own identity and a certain autonomy.

His closing remarks at the end of the letter furnish yet another interesting detail: Eusebius asks his sons and daughters to greet “those who are outside the Church, who, nonetheless, nourish sentiments of love for us: etiam hos, qui foris sunt et nos disnantur diligere.” This is a clear sign that the relationship of the bishop with his diocese was not limited to the Christian population, but also extended to those who — outside the Church — recognized him in some way as a spiritual authority and loved this exemplary man.

St. Ambrose of Milan

The second testimony of the unique relationship of the bishop with his diocese is found in a letter that St. Ambrose of Milan wrote to the people of Vercelli around the year 394, more than 20 years after Eusebius’ death (Epistola extra collectionem 14: Maur. 63).

The Church in Vercelli was undergoing a difficult crisis; it was divided and without a pastor. In very frank words, Ambrose said he hesitated to acknowledge the people of Vercelli as “the descendants of the holy fathers who approved of Eusebius as soon as they saw him, even without having known him beforehand, to the point of passing over their fellow townspeople.”

In the same letter, Bishop Ambrose of Milan attested in a very clear way to his esteem for Eusebius: “A man as great as he is,” he wrote in a very decisive way, “truly is worthy of being elected by the entire Church.”

Ambrose’s admiration for Eusebius was based above all on the fact that Eusebius of Vercelli governed his diocese through the witness of his own life: “He governed the Church with the austerity of his fasting.”

Indeed, Ambrose himself was fascinated — as he himself admitted — by the monastic ideal of contemplating God, which Eusebius had pursued following in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah. To begin with, Ambrose noted, Eusebius of Vercelli gathered his own priests into a vita communis (communal life) and educated them “in the observance of the monastic rule while living in the midst of a city.”

The bishop and his priests had to share the problems of their fellow citizens, and they did this by cultivating at the same time and in a very credible way a different kind of citizenship, that of heaven (see Hebrews 13:14).

In this way, they truly constructed a genuine citizenship in true solidarity with the citizens of Vercelli.

Monastic Ideals

Thus, while Eusebius championed the cause of the sancta plebs of Vercelli, he lived within the city like a monk, opening the city to God. In no way did this gesture diminish his exemplary pastoral dynamism.

Among other things, it seems, he set up parishes in Vercelli to provide services in an organized and ongoing manner and promoted Marian shrines for the conversion of pagan rural population. Indeed, his “monk-like character” gave a special dimension to the relationship of the bishop with his city.

Like the apostles, for whom Jesus prayed at the Last Supper, the pastors and the faithful of the Church “are in the world” (see John 17:11), but not “of the world.” Therefore, Eusebius reminds us, pastors should exhort the faithful not to consider the cities of this world as their permanent dwelling place, but to seek instead the future city, the New Jerusalem, in heaven.

This “eschatological provision” allows both the pastors and the faithful to safeguard the hierarchy of just values without giving in to current trends or to the unjust demands of political power.

Eusebius’ entire life seems to tell us that an authentic hierarchy of values does not come from the emperors of yesterday or today, but from Jesus Christ, the perfect man, equal to the Father in divinity, but at the same time a man like us.
Referring to this hierarchy of values, Eusebius unceasingly “recommends without any reservations” that his faithful “protect the faith with great care, maintain harmony, and be assiduous in prayer” (Epistola secunda).

Dear friends, I, too, recommend these perennial values to you with all my heart, and I greet you and bless you with the very words St. Eusebius used to conclude his second letter: “I ask all of you, my brothers and holy sisters, sons and daughters, men and women both old and young, to be kind … to give our greetings even to those who are outside the Church, who, nonetheless, nourish sentiments of love for us” (Epistola secunda).

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