Saturday, December 16, 2023

St Eusebius of Vercelli

In the common office of a single martyr, the eighth and last responsory of Matins begins with the words, “This man is truly a martyr, who shed his blood for the name of Christ.” Prior to the breviary reform of St Pius X, a rubric was placed after it which read, “The following responsory (which makes no reference to the shedding of blood) is said in the last place on the feasts of the six martyr bishops, Eusebius, Marcellus, John, Silverius, Martin and Pontian.” These names are given in the order in which they occur in the ecclesiastical year, beginning with the Saint whose feast we keep today, Eusebius, bishop of Vercelli, a small city in the Piedmont region of northern Italy. (The other five are all popes.) The rubric was later changed to say that the substitute responsory is to be said on the feast of any martyr who died without shedding his blood.

A superb polyphonic setting of Hic est vere martyr (without the repetitions), by the Spanish composer Sebastián de Vivanco (1551-1622).
℟. Hic est vere Martyr, qui pro Christi nómine sánguinem suum fudit: * Qui minas júdicum non tímuit, nec terrénae dignitátis gloriam quaesívit, sed ad caelestia regna pervénit. ℣. Justum deduxit Dóminus per vias rectas, et ostendit illi regnum Dei. [Qui minas. Glória Patri. Qui minas.] – ℟. This man is truly a martyr, who shed his blood for the name of Christ, * Who feared not the threats of judges, nor sought the glory of earthly dignity, but pressed on unto the kingdom of heaven. ℣. The Lord guided the righteous on right paths, and showed him the kingdom of God. [Who feared not. Glory be. Who feared not.]

His feast was added to the Roman Rite in the very early 17th century, in Pope Clement VIII’s editorial revision of the missal and breviary of St Pius V, as a simple commemoration. Since he died on August 1 (in the year 371), the feast of both the Chains of St Peter and the Holy Maccabees, it was assigned to the date of his ordination, December 15th. In 1693, this day became the octave of the Immaculate Conception, and so when he was raised to a semidouble in the reign of Benedict XIII (1724-30), it was moved to the following day. The Ambrosian Rite, which has no feast of Peter’s chains, keeps him in a joint feast with the Maccabees.
The Virgin Mary in Glory with the Archangel Gabriel, and Ss Eusebius, Sebastian and Roch. 1724-5, by Sebastiano Ricci (1659–1734). Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Eusebius was born on the island of Sardinia around 283. His father is said to have died while imprisoned for the Faith when he was very young, at which his mother brought him to Rome, where he was ordained lector. No contemporary biography of him exists, and it does not seem to be known how exactly he was chosen to become bishop of Vercelli when he was around 60 years old. But in a letter written to the church of that city many years after his death (classis I, ep. 63, 2), St Ambrose says that the clergy and people, “although before (Eusebius) was unknown to them, put aside their own countrymen, and forthwith approved of him; and required no more than the sight of him for their approval.” (His words are quoted exactly in the Roman Breviary.)
In the same letter, Ambrose says that “Eusebius of holy memory was the first to bring together in the West two different things, so that though he lived in the city, he observed the ways of life of the monks, and governed the Church with the sobriety of asceticism.” Here, the references to “monasticism” and “asceticism” must be understood broadly, not to mean monastic communities formally organized under a rule and an abbot, but rather, the beginnings of the common life among the clergy, what would later be called canons secular. His feast was also kept by many congregations of canons regular, who, although they honored St Augustine as their spiritual founder, saw Eusebius as a precursor, much as Paul the First Hermit was to Anthony.
The chapel of St Eusebius, in the left transept of the cathedral of Vercelli. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Ivan Ruggiero, CC BY-SA 4.0.
However, he is more generally venerated by the Church because of his defense of the orthodox faith during the Arian controversies, by which he earned his title of martyr, although he did not die a violent death. In 354, he was sent by Pope Liberius, along with a fellow Sardinian, Lucifer, bishop of Cagliari, to petition the emperor Constantius to convene a council to settle the matter, even though Constantius himself favored the Arians. This council assembled the following year in Milan, where the Western emperors of that era generally chose to reside.
An aspect of the Arian controversy which is often overlooked is that many bishops in the West understood little to nothing about it, and little to nothing of what was said about it by others, whether in Greek (which most of them did not speak) or Latin. (Eusebius’ contemporary St Hilary of Poitiers, no less ardent a defender of Nicene orthodoxy than its first standard-bearer, St Athanasius, famously stated that he had been a bishop for 20 years before he had even heard of the council of Nicaea.) It was therefore easy enough to misrepresent to them the teachings of Athanasius, and convince them that he ought to be condemned as a dangerous heretic.
The church of “San Giorgio al Palazzo – St George at the palace”, built on the site of the imperial palace in Milan where Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, and his son Constantius ordered the exile of St Eusebius and the other defenders of the orthodox faith. Live by the sword... (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Parsifall, CC BY-SA 4.0
When this condemnation was proposed at the council held in Milan in 355, Eusebius realized that the Arians, backed as they were by the emperor, were well positioned to press their cause, even though they were in the minority. He therefore insisted that everyone present had first to subscribe to the Nicene creed, before the case of Athanasius could even be considered. For this, he was summoned to meet the emperor, along with Dionysius, the bishop of Milan, and Lucifer of Cagliari. Upon their further insistence not only that Athanasius was innocent, and could not be tried in absentia, but also that the emperor had no right to interfere with the proceedings, they were all exiled from Italy.
Eusebius would spend the next several years first in the Roman province of Palestine, then in Cappadocia in Asia Minor, and then Upper Egypt, often suffering outrageous and violent treatment at the hands of the Arians. (All the more so when one considers that he was then over 70 years old; at one point, he was literally dragged half-naked through the streets.) St Hilary preserves for us a letter which he sent during this period to a bishop in Spain, Gregory of Elvira (now Granada), in which he states that “all the hope of the Ariomaniacs hangs not on agreement with them … but on the protection of the secular power…”, a wise observation about heretics in general, and one which the Western church very wisely took to heart. He also writes, “We long to endure in our sufferings, that … we may be able to be glorified in the kingdom” (Rom. 8, 17), words worthy of a martyr in spirit, if not in blood.
Constantius died in early November of 361, and was succeeded by his cousin Julian, who was then military commander in the important province of Gaul, but in open rebellion against him. The latter has long been known to history as “the Apostate”, since he abandoned his family’s Christian faith, and “reverted” to paganism with an enthusiasm embarrassing to the pagans themselves. Shortly after his accession, Julian revoked the sentences of exile of all Christian bishops, apparently hoping that as a result, the Church would tear itself apart in controversy.
Eusebius, however, did not return home at once. He went first to Alexandria to confer with St Athanasius and participate in a council, which in turn sent him to Antioch as part of a mission (unsuccessful, in the end) to heal a long-standing schism. From there he visited several other places before arriving in Italy, where he worked with St Hilary to oppose the Arian bishop of Milan, Auxentius, the predecessor of St Ambrose. St Jerome reports that he translated a commentary on the Psalms by his namesake of Caesarea, the famous Church historian, but this work has been lost. Nothing is known of his life after his return from exile.
The two parts of the 10th century cover of the Codex Vercellensis, now displayed in the treasury museum of the cathedral of Vercelli. Photo by Nicola de’ Grandi.
The cathedral library of Vercelli possesses a manuscript of the Gospels which is traditionally said to have been copied out by St Eusebius himself; modern paleographic analysis confirms that it is certainly of the right age to be his. Sometime within the first half of the 10th century, when it was already well over half a millennium in age, one of the two kings of Italy named Berengar donated a cover for it, made of wooden boards covered in silver plaques chased with gold. One side (now badly damaged) shows Christ with the symbols of the Evangelists, while the other shows Eusebius. The Latin inscription around the latter explicitly states that he made it.
This is the oldest surviving copy of the Old Latin version of the Gospels used before St Jerome’s revision. Some of the pages were given away as relics, and others are now damaged to the point where they can barely be read without special equipment. Nevertheless, it remains a highly important witness to the text of the Gospels, as Eusebius himself was truly a witness (the meaning of the word “martyr”) to the truth of what they teach.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

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