Gregory Picks Up the Fight

After Basil's death, his friend works to combat the Arian heresy -- Part 6

Until Gregory’s father’s death in 374, Gregory stayed in Nazianzus. Despite the rupture between Gregory and Basil, Basil attended Gregory’s father’s funeral. (Gregory’s father had always supported making Basil a bishop; see Funeral Orations, p. 154.) Gregory, his father’s auxiliary bishop, did not want to succeed his father. Because nothing was done, Gregory up and left the area to force the issue and went to a monastery, staying there for three to five years (around 374-378). During this time, Gregory’s sister Gorgonia died. One commentator said Gregory had an apparent mental breakdown.

Not only didn’t Gregory help Basil but, by 376, people in the West were doubting Basil’s faith! Moreover, in the same year, Basil lost the services of Basil’s brother Gregory, bishop of Nyssa, because he had been removed by a synod controlled by Arian heretics on the grounds that he had neglected financial matters. The charges were false, but indeed Gregory of Nyssa was not very good at administration. Fortunately, in the last half of 378, after the death of the Arian Emperor Valens, Gregory of Nyssa was restored to his office.

In these same last months of 378, the government assured religious freedom to worship for all Christian churches. Gregory of Nazianzus agreed to become bishop for the small minority of Catholics (those adhering to the Nicene Creed) in the major see of Constantinople.

Shortly after Gregory arrived in Constantinople, Basil died — in Caesarea on January 1, 379. Basil was about age 50. People were moved to tears by his passing; there was so much emotion that, as Gregory observed, some people died during the funeral procession (Funeral Orations, para. 80, pp. 96-7).

Here is Father (later Cardinal and St.) John Henry Newman’s summary of what occurred with Gregory after Basil’s death:

Gregory [had] disliked the routine intercourse of society; he disliked ecclesiastical business, he disliked publicity, he disliked strife…[H]e loved the independence of solitude, the tranquility of private life…He admired, yet he playfully satirized, Basil’s lofty thoughts and heroic efforts. Yet, upon Basil’s death, Basil’s spirit, as it were, came into him; and within four months of [Basil’s death, Gregory] had become a preacher of the Catholic faith in an heretical metropolis, had formed a congregation, had set apart a place for orthodox worship, and had been stoned by the populace. (Newman, p. 76)

In the next couple years, what Basil had striven for and had failed to achieve came to be. Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, continued Basil’s work in uniting orthodox Christians. He was a leader in the Synod of Antioch held later in 379 and the Synod of Constantinople I of 381. Between synods, in 380, he succeeded his brother as bishop of Caesarea, Cappadocia.

For his part, Gregory of Nazianzus preached eloquently and successfully on the Trinity against the Arian heresy. In 380 new Emperor Theodosius recognized Gregory as patriarch of Constantinople. There was violence in the streets over this decision.

A council in 381 was presided over by the patriarch of Antioch, Meletius. The council accepted what the emperor had done and elected and installed Gregory as patriarch of Constantinople. Shortly afterwards, while the council was still in session, Meletius died. Gregory assumed the post of president of the council.

Participants in the council were in hot debate over who should become patriarch of Antioch to replace Meletius. Added to this confusion, some bishops from Egypt and Macedonia, arriving late for the council, argued that the election of Gregory was illegal because it was contrary to a decree of the Council of Nicaea that forbade a bishop from being transferred (the technical term was “translated”) from one diocese to another. In order to avoid schism, Gregory chose to resign as patriarch of Constantinople.

About his confusing and demanding times in Constantinople, Gregory later wrote, “All of you succeeded in defeating one man who wanted to be defeated” and who wanted to leave evil men for solitude (Concerning His Own Life, l. 1929, p. 130).

In the next part, we’ll look at Gregory’s last years and his funeral oration on the third anniversary of Basil’s death, January 1, 382.


[Ed note: A link to Part 5:

A link to Part 7:]


James M. Thunder has left the practice of law but continues to write. He has published widely, including a Narthex series on lay holiness. He and his wife Ann are currently writing on the relationship between Father Karol Wojtyla (the future Pope) and lay people.

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