Tuesday, May 02, 2023

Ss Athanasius of Alexandria and Gregory of Nazianzus

Today is the feast of St Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria and Doctor of the Church, the foremost champion of the true Faith during the great crisis caused by the heretic Arius in the 4th century. May 2nd is universally recognized to be the day of his death; there is a particular fittingness to celebrating him on this date, one week after the feast of St Mark the Evangelist, the founder of the See of Alexandria, as a sign of continuity between the Gospel and Nicene orthodoxy. The Roman Rite shares this arrangement with the Coptic calendar and the Byzantine, although in the latter, today is noted as the feast of the translation of Athanasius’ relics, and his principal feast, which he shares with another Patriarch of Alexandria and Doctor, St Cyril, is on January 18th. Likewise, the western Church keeps the feast of St Gregory of Nazianzus on May 9th, a week after Athanasius, as a sign that he inherited his mantle as the greatest theological writer in the controversies over the Trinity and Incarnation. Also in the Byzantine Rite, his feast is kept one week after Athanasius’, on January 25th.

Ss Athanasius and Cyril, from the Menologion of Basil II, 985 AD: public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
St Athanasius was always known to the western Church from his Life of St Anthony, which was translated into Latin close to the time of death in 373; St Augustine mentions it in the Confessions. However, many of his most important theological works were not known to the West until the 15th century; in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas, for example, St John Chrysostom is mentioned about 20 times more often. His feast does occur in western liturgical books of the pre-Tridentine period, but almost exclusively in France and Spain, and almost never before the later decades of the 15th century; it does not appear to have been kept at all in Rome.

Much the same holds true for St Gregory of Nazianzus. He was known to the West from the mentions of him in the writings of his student, St Jerome, e.g. in the well-known treatise On Virginity against Jovinian, and the book On Illustrious Men, in which he calls him “a most eloquent man.” But again, very little of his writing was translated into Latin, and he is mentioned by St Thomas even less often than St Athanasius. Before the Tridentine reform, his feast was kept almost nowhere outside Spain, and even there, only from the very beginning of the 16th century.

In 1568, when Pope St Pius V, fulfilling a request of the Council of Trent, published a revision of the Roman Breviary, both Saints were included not just as bishops and confessors, but also as Doctors of the Church, and at the highest of three grades of feasts. The same titles and rank were also given to Ss Basil the Great and John Chrysostom; among these four, only Chrysostom had been widely celebrated with a feast thitherto. Up to that point, the title “Doctor”, and the use of the liturgical texts associated with it, had been formally granted to only four Saints whose writings were always particularly influential in the West, Ss Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome.

In the Counter-Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church was greatly concerned to assert that its traditional doctrines were those held “always, everywhere and by all”, and not medieval corruptions, as the early Protestants often claimed. The pairing of four Eastern Doctors with the traditional four Western Doctors therefore asserted the universality of those teachings which were held by Rome and defended by the Council of Trent, and also held by the Eastern churches. The inclusion of St Thomas Aquinas among them then asserted the continuity in teaching between the patristic and medieval Church, also frequently denied by the Protestants. Three of these new Eastern Doctors also have special connections to Rome and the Papacy. During the second of his five exiles, St Athanasius was a guest of Pope St Julius I, who defended him against the Arian heretics; relics of Ss John Chrysostom and Gregory of Nazianzus were saved from the iconoclasts in the 8th century and brought to Rome, later to be placed in St Peter’s Basilica.

The Gregorian Chapel in St Peter’s Basilica, built by Pope Gregory XIII to house the relics of his namesake of Nazianzus, which he translated here from the Roman church of Santa Maria in Campo Marzo in 1580.
Furthermore, these same Fathers are witnesses not just to Catholic teachings that the early Protestants rejected, but to others like the Trinity and Incarnation, which they not only accepted, but considered necessary for salvation. This was of course one of the strongest points in the Catholic Church’s favor during the controversies of the 16th century: if one accepts Athanasius, for example, as a witness to the doctrine of the Trinity, on what grounds does one reject him when he says, “So long as the prayers of supplication and entreaties have not been made, there is only bread and wine. But after the great and wonderful prayers have been completed, then the bread is become the Body, and the wine the Blood, of our Lord Jesus Christ”? If one accepts Basil’s defense of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, on what grounds does one reject his teaching that “It is necessary to confess our sins to those whom the dispensation of God’s mysteries is entrusted”? And more broadly, once the Fathers have been admitted as witnesses to the Christian Faith at all, one has in effect admitted a tradition, by which the teachings of some Christians in antiquity are recognized to be true, and those of others false, a further undermining of the original logical impossibility known as sola Scriptura.

There is an aspect of St Gregory of Nazianus’ career in particular which is less well known than his role as a theologian, and which should perhaps be better known today.

For most of the half century after the death of Constantine in 337, the Roman Emperors were supporters of Arianism, rather than of the orthodox faith. It should therefore not surprise anyone that the see of the imperial capital was dominated for most of that period by Arian bishops. However, with the death in 378 of the Emperor Valens, an enthusiastic persecutor of the orthodox, and the accession of Theodosius I, the tide began to turn strongly against the Arians. St Gregory, having retired some years earlier from a bishopric which he had been practically forced into, was then living a quiet and contemplative life in a monastery near Seleucia on the southern coast of Asia Minor, over 400 miles away from the capital. A number of Catholic bishops, anxious to reestablish the true faith in Constantinople, suggested that he come to the city, not as its bishop, but as a missionary; as with his earlier bishopric, he was prevailed upon to take up this new role only with the greatest reluctance. (Pictured right: Icon of St Gregory of Nazianzus, by Andrej Rublev, 1408, originally in the Dormition Cathedral in Moscow, now in the Tretyakov Gallery; Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

Gregory was accepted by almost none of the city’s clergy, and had access to none of its many churches; as Butler’s Lives of the Saints puts it, he was a bishop in Constantinople, but not the bishop of Constantinople. He therefore opened a small chapel attached to the house of a relative, which he called “Anastasis – the Resurrection”, a sign that it would become the place from which the true faith would rise again. His preaching, and especially the series of sermons on the Trinity, was in fact incredibly effective; more and more people were attracted by his eloquence, and his flock began to grow.

This brought with it many difficulties, of course, including persecution from the Arians and other heretics, which more than once came to physical violence, as well as calumnies and insults. At the Easter vigil during his first year in the city, the Arians broke into his church; Gregory himself was wounded, and another bishop present was killed. But among his many disciples, he would soon come to number not only St Jerome, but also Evagrius of Pontus, who would himself become one of the most influential theologians of the era.

The following year, Theodosius, newly baptized by an orthodox bishop, issued the Edict of Thessalonica, recognizing as the true faith “that religion which was delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, as it has been preserved by faithful tradition, and which is now professed by the Pontiff Damasus and by Peter, Bishop of Alexandria.” Towards the end of the year, on arriving in Constantinople, he expelled the Arian bishop for refusing to embrace the Nicene confession of faith, and set Gregory in his place. It may seem that this victory was short-lived; within a few months, in the midst of every sort of intrigue and new acts of violence, Gregory obtained the emperor’s permission to resign his see and return to Nazianzus. But in point of fact, it did not matter. At the very moment when it seemed that heresy had triumphed in one of the most important and influential sees of Christendom, the true faith was reborn from a single place, and largely through the work of single man. Nor was this the first or last time such an event happened in the life of the Church. Let it therefore be an object lesson to us, never to despair over the sorry condition in which the Church finds itself in a particular time and place, including our own.

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