Today we commemorate one of the Greats of the Church and the Father of Eastern Monasticism – Saint Basil. He is described as “a luminary of the Church” in the Byzantine liturgy texts. Although he hails from the Eastern lung of the Church, both the Eastern and Western churches find him to be of great importance and an exceptional Bishop of the fourth century.
Saint Basil was born at Caesarea in Cappadocia in the year 330 A.D. His family was devout and rooted in the teachings and prayers of the Church. He was privileged to study under the best teachers of the times in both Constantinople and Athens. Although he received an excellent education, Basil found his studies and the ways of the world to be frivolous. He was a man of vanity and it disgusted him. Realizing the sinfulness of his nature, he immediately turned his life around and returned to Jesus Christ.
Attracted to the life of Christ, he joined the monastic life where he devoted himself to deep prayer, prayed with the Sacred Scriptures, studied the writings of the Church Fathers, and the practiced charity. His sister, Saint Macrina, was an example for him as well. She was a nun living the ascetic life.
In the year 370 A.D., after being a priest for some time, he was raised to the episcopate and made Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia (modern day Turkey). Saint Basil was an incredible Bishop who stayed busy with a variety of activities, which included the pastoral rule of his diocese and his theological and literary writings. He was a lover of souls and sought to save as many souls as he could for Jesus Christ. He developed Christian communities or fraternities for his people and often encouraged them with his own writings that spoke of striving for perfection.
Even though he was Bishop, he continued to oversee the monastic life at Pontus. His monasticism was unique since it was open to all in the local church at Caesarea. The monks under Saint Basil were great men of God. They cared for the faithful, loved the poor, ran hospitals, and educated the youth. They were the example of Christian integrity.
As Bishop of such a large diocese, Basil was always concerned for those under his care. He renounced the evils that could face his flock, he cared for the poorest of the poor, he observed the Church’s freedom, and he would stand against the powerful who opposed the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church. For the poor and needy, he built a “city” of mercy called “Basiliade” after him. Essentially, this is the first development of the hospital, a place sick people could go for treatment.
As much as Basil cared for the poorest of the poor and those marginalized, he was a great and wise reformer of the liturgy. He knew the importance that proper liturgy played in the life of the Church. Still to this day, we have a Eucharistic Prayer (or anaphora) that is attributed to him and takes its name from him. It unites prayer and the psalmody (praying of the psalms) with eloquence. With Saint Basil, “we see how liturgy, worship, prayer with the Church, and charity go hand in hand and condition one another” (Church Fathers, Pope Benedict XVI). Furthermore, he truly loved the Holy Eucharist, had a devotion to it, and said that one should receive it daily. He believed the Eucharist to be the food of the Baptized, which gives us the strength to live lives for God and our fellow man.
Not only did he care for the poor and loved the liturgy, he also fought against the Arian heretics who denied that Jesus Christ was the same substance as the Father. He fought with great courage against those who believed the Holy Trinity was not divine. St. Basil is considered one of the great Early Church Fathers who helped the Church develop the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He was a major contributor at the Council of Constantinople in 381-382. It was at this council where the Nicene-Constantinople Creed was finalized.
Within his own diocese, he also aided in the mending of divisions and sought to bring all to Jesus Christ and His Church. He used the Word of God – the Scriptures and Tradition, as a twofold deposit which all were bound to live by. He preached the importance of human dignity and how looking at Jesus Christ is the perfect example of that dignity. To the young, he spoke of living a life of virtue and living the right way of life.
Without a doubt, Saint Basil was one of the greatest men to hold the episcopacy in the early life of the Catholic Church. He truly lived his life as servant of God and servant to the people. He was a shepherd, a herald of God’s love, doctor to the spiritually sick, a loving father, and builder of the kingdom. Basil “put on” Jesus Christ everyday! He lived his life as an apostle and follower of Our Lord and Savior.
Not yet fifty years old, Saint Basil the Great, in the year 379 A.D., entered Heavenly glory. During his life, he was a man of vast learning, immense writing, and lover of the poor and souls. Many of his writings contributed to the early teachings and doctrines of the Catholic Church. He was a good friend and companion to today’s other Doctor of the Church, Saint Gregory Nazianzen.
Pope Benedict XVI. Church Fathers – From Clement of Rome to Augustine. Ignatius Press, 2008.
Walsh, Michael. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.