Saint Basil the Great
Bishop & Doctor of the Church
Born ca 330 - died 1 January 379
From Caesarea, Cappadocia (now Turkey)
Feast day - 2nd January
Catecheses by Papa Benedict XVI
1) St Basil - his Life and Writings
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish
"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Let us remember today one of the great Fathers of the Church, St Basil, described by Byzantine liturgical texts as "a luminary of the Church". He was an important Bishop in the 4th century to whom the entire Church of the East, and likewise the Church of the West, looks with admiration because of the holiness of his life, the excellence of his teaching and the harmonious synthesis of his speculative and practical gifts. He was born in about 330 AD into a family of saints, "a true domestic Church", immersed in an atmosphere of deep faith. He studied with the best teachers in Athens and Constantinople. Unsatisfied with his worldly success and realizing that he had frivolously wasted much time on vanities, he himself confessed: "One day, like a man roused from deep sleep, I turned my eyes to the marvellous light of the truth of the Gospel..., and I wept many tears over my miserable life." Attracted by Christ, Basil began to look to Him and listen to Him alone. He devoted himself with determination to the monastic life through prayer, meditation on the Sacred Scriptures and the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and the practice of charity, also following the example of his sister, St Macrina, who was already living the ascetic life of a nun. He was then ordained a priest and finally, in the year 370, Bishop of Caesarea in Cappadocia in present-day Turkey.
Through his preaching and writings, he carried out immensely busy pastoral, theological and literary activities. With a wise balance, he was able to combine service to souls with dedication to prayer and meditation in solitude. Availing himself of his personal experience, he encouraged the foundation of numerous 'fraternities', in other words, communities of Christians consecrated to God, which he visited frequently. He urged them with his words and writings, many of which have come down to us, to live and to advance in perfection. Various legislators of ancient monasticism drew on his works, including St Benedict, who considered Basil his teacher. Indeed, Basil created a very special monasticism: it was not closed to the community of the local Church but instead was open to it. His monks belonged to the particular Church; they were her life-giving nucleus and, going before the other faithful in the following of Christ and not only in faith, showed a strong attachment to him - love for him - especially through charitable acts. These monks, who ran schools and hospitals, were at the service of the poor and thus demonstrated the integrity of Christian life. In speaking of monasticism, John Paul II wrote: "For this reason many people think that the essential structure of the life of the Church, monasticism, was established, for all time, mainly by St Basil; or that, at least, it was not defined in its more specific nature without his decisive contribution" (Apostolic Letter Patres Ecclesiae, 1980).
As the Bishop and Pastor of his vast diocese Basil was constantly concerned with the difficult material conditions in which his faithful lived; he firmly denounced the evils; he did all he could on behalf of the poorest and most marginalized people; he also intervened with rulers to alleviate the sufferings of the population, especially in times of disaster; he watched over the Church's freedom, opposing even the powerful in order to defend the right to profess the true faith. Basil bore an effective witness to God, who is love and charity, by building for the needy various institutions, virtually a "city" of mercy, called "Basiliade" after him. This was the origin of the modern hospital structures where the sick are admitted for treatment.
Aware that "the liturgy is the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed", and "also the fount from which all her power flows", and in spite of his constant concern to do charitable acts which is the hallmark of faith, Basil was also a wise "liturgical reformer". Indeed, he has bequeathed to us a great Eucharistic Prayer [or anaphora] which takes its name from him and has given a fundamental order to prayer and psalmody: at his prompting, the people learned to know and love the Psalms and even went to pray them during the night. And we thus see how liturgy, worship, prayer with the Church and charity go hand in hand and condition one another.
With zeal and courage Basil opposed the heretics who denied that Jesus Christ was God like the Father. Likewise, against those who would not accept the divinity of the Holy Spirit, he maintained that the Spirit is also God and "must be equated and glorified with the Father and with the Son. For this reason Basil was one of the great Fathers who formulated the doctrine on the Trinity: the one God, precisely because he is Love, is a God in three Persons, who form the most profound unity that exists: divine unity.
In his love for Christ and for his Gospel, the great Cappadocian also strove to mend divisions within the Church, doing his utmost to bring all to convert to Christ and to his word, a unifying force which all believers were bound to obey.
To conclude, Basil spent himself without reserve in faithful service to the Church and in the multiform exercise of the episcopal ministry. In accordance with the programme that he himself drafted, he became an "apostle and minister of Christ, steward of God's mysteries, herald of the Kingdom, a model and rule of piety, an eye of the Body of the Church, a Pastor of Christ's sheep, a loving doctor, father and nurse, a cooperator of God, a farmer of God, a builder of God's temple".
This is the programme which the holy Bishop consigns to preachers of the Word - in the past as in the present - a programme which he himself was generously committed to putting into practice. In 379 AD Basil, not yet 50, consumed by fatigue and asceticism, returned to God "in the hope of eternal life, through Jesus Christ Our Lord". He was a man who truly lived with his gaze fixed on Christ. He was a man of love for his neighbour. Full of the hope and joy of faith, Basil shows us how really to be Christians."
"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
From the life and writings of St Basil - this was the subject of our previous reflection - we can draw some important messages and valid for us today.
First of all is the reference to God's mystery, which is still the most meaningful and vital reference for man. The Father is "the principal of all things and the cause of being of all that exists, the root of the living"; above all, he is "the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ". Ascending to God through his creatures, we "become aware of his goodness and wisdom". The Son is the "image of the Father's goodness and seal in the same form" (cf Anaphora of St Basil). With his obedience and his passion, the Verb incarnate carried out his mission as Redeemer of man.
Basil is widely prominent in the teaching of the Holy Spirit. "From Him, Christ, shone the Holy Spirit: the Spirit of truth, the gift of filial adoption, the pledge of future inheritance, the first fruits of eternal good, the life-giving power, the source of holiness" (cf Anaphora of St Basil). The Spirit animates the Church, fills her with his gifts, and sanctifies her. The beautiful light of the divine mystery is reflected in man, the image of God, and exalts his dignity. Looking at Christ, one fully understands the dignity of man. Basil exclaims: "[Man], be mindful of your greatness, remembering the price paid for you: look at the price of your redemption and comprehend your dignity!" Christians in particular, conforming their lives to the Gospel, recognize that all people are brothers; that life is a stewardship of the goods received from God, so everyone is accountable to others, and whoever is rich must be as it were an "executor of the orders of God the Benefactor". We must all help one another and cooperate as members of one body.
Works of charity are necessary to manifest faith: by means of these men serve God. In this regard, some texts from Basil's homilies even today remain courageous and exemplary, "Sell what you have and give to the poor "(Matthew 19:22) ... because, even if you have not murdered or committed adultery or stolen or born false testimony, you do not need to anything if you do the rest: only in this way you can enter the kingdom of God "(Homily against the rich 1). For who, according to the commandment of God, wants to love his neighbor as himself, "must not have anything more than that he has his neighbour". "Are you poor?" Asked, "the other is poorer than you. You have the bread for ten days, only one for him. That which you have in advance and abundance, this you - as a good and benevolent person - equally divide with those in need. Do not hesitate to give your little, do not precede any public emergency your advantage! If your food is reduced to a single break bread and a beggar at the door, pull out your pantry and one bread, it was laid on hands and looking to the sky, 'and loving in a plaintive voice: "I have only this' one bread that you see, O Lord, and of course the danger of famine is looming. I put myself in front of your command and I offer my small part to the hungry brother. Now you yourself come to the aid of your servant at risk. I know your goodness, I trust in your strength '"(Homily in famine and drought 6).
Therefore, Gregory of Nazianzus' praise after Basil's death was well-deserved: "Basil convinces us that, being men, we must neither despise men nor offend Christ, the common Head of all, with our inhumanity to man, but rather, we ourselves must benefit by learning from the misfortunes of others and must lend God our compassion, for we are in need of mercy." These words are still very current. We see that St Basil is truly one of the Fathers of the social doctrine of the Cburch.
Basil also reminds us that to keep alive in us our love for God and for men, we need the Eucharist, the appropriate food for the baptized, which can nourish the new energies that derive from Baptism. It is a cause of immense joy to participate in the Eucharist, instituted "to preserve unceasingly the memory of the One who died and rose for us." The Eucharist, an immense gift of God, preserves in each of us the memory of the baptismal seal and makes it possible to live fully and faithfully the grace of Baptism. For this reason, the holy Bishop recommended frequent, even daily, Communion: "Communicating even daily, receiving the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, is good and useful, because He said clearly: "He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life "(Jn 6:54). Who would doubt that communicating continuously with life were not to live in fullness?" (Ep 93). The Eucharist, in a word, is necessary for us if we are to welcome within us true life, eternal life.
Finally, Basil was of course also interested in that chosen portion of the People of God who are the young, the future of society. He addressed a discourse to them on the way to profit from the pagan culture of that time. With great balance and openness, he recognized that in classical Greek and Latin literature are found examples of righteous living. These examples can be helpful to young Christians in search of truth, of the right way of life. Therefore we must take from the texts of classical authors what is good and conforms to the truth: so with a critical and open approach - this is a real "discernment" - young people grow up in freedom. With the famous image of bees that gather from flowers only what they need to make honey, Basil recommends: "Just as bees can make honey from the flowers, unlike other animals which are confined to the enjoyment of the scent and colour of flowers, so also from these writings ... you can draw some benefit for the spirit. We must use all these books, following the example of bees. They should not be on all the flowers indiscriminately, nor try to take everything away from those on which they alight, but take only what they need to make honey, and leave the rest. And we, if we are wise, take from those writings what is appropriate for us, and conforms to the truth, ignoring the rest "(Ad Adolescentes 4). Basil recommended above all that young people grow in the virtues: "While other goods pass from this to that ... like in a game of dice, virtue alone is an inalienable good and remains during life and after death" (Ad Adolescentes 5).
Dear brothers and sisters, I think we can say that this Father from long ago also speaks to us and tells us important things. First of all, attentive, critical and creative participation in today's culture. Then, social responsibility: this is a time when, in a globalized world, even people who are physically distant are really our neighbour. Thus, friendship with Christ, the God with the human face. And finally, knowledge and recognition of God as Creator and Father of us all: only if we are open to this God, Father of all, can we build a just and fraternal world."
BXVI - General Audiences - 4 July & 1 August 2007 - © Copyright 2007 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana
St Basil's Homily on faith, 1-3:
The soul that loves God is never satisfied, yet to speak of God is bold indeed: our minds are very far from so great a matter... The further one goes in the knowledge of God, the more one feels one's powerlessness. This is what it was like for Abraham, this, too, was what it was like for Moses: even though they were able to see God – insofar as that is humanly possible – both made themselves least of all. Abraham referred to himself as «dust and ashes»; Moses said of himself that he was stumbling and slow in speech (Gn 18,27; Ex 4,10). In fact he was giving testimony; the feebleness of his tongue gave voice to the greatness of Him whom his mind grasped. We speak about God, not as he is but insofar as we can grasp him.
As for you, if you want to say or understand something about God, leave your bodily nature behind, forsake your bodily senses... Raise your mind above all created things and contemplate the divine nature: it is there, immutable, indivisible, inaccessible light, shining glory, most desirable goodness, inimitable beauty by which the soul is wounded but unable to put worthily into words.
There is the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit... The Father is the principle of all things, the cause of being of all that is, origin of living creatures. He is the one from whom flows the source of Life, Wisdom, Power, the Image who perfectly resembles the invisible God: the Son, begotten of the Father, living Word, who is God and turned towards the Father (1Cor 1,24; Heb 1,3; Jn 1,1). From this name 'Son' we learn that he shares the same nature: he is not created through an order but unceasingly shines out from within his own substance, one with the Father from all eternity, equal to him in goodness, partaking in his glory... And when our intellect has been purified of all earthly passions and has set aside every sensible creature, like a fish that rises from the depths to the surface, given back to the purity of its creation, it will then see the Holy Spirit where the Son and the Father are to be found. This Spirit, being of the same essence according to its nature, likewise possesses every good: goodness, uprightness, holiness, life... Just as burning belongs to fire and shining to light, so one can no more take away from the Holy Spirit the task of making holy or giving life than of goodness and uprightness.
St Basil the Great - a reading from his homilies:
Let the wise man not glory in his wisdom, let not the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches.
But what constitutes true boasting, and wherein is a man great? 'Let him who glories glory in this,' it is written, 'that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord.'
Herein lies the greatness of man, his glory and his majesty, truly to know what is great, to cling to it, and to seek glory from the Lord of glory. For the Apostle says, 'Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord', in the passage where he writes, 'God made Christ our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, let him who boasts, boast of the Lord.'
A man glories fully and perfectly in God when he does not extol himself on account of his own righteousness, but knows that he is lacking in true righteousness, and that he is really justified by faith alone in Christ.
Paul boasts of the fact that he despises his own righteousness, but seeks that righteousness by faith which comes through Christ, which comes from God, so that he may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible he may somehow attain the resurrection from the dead.
Here all loftiness of pride has fallen. Nothing of which you might boast is left you, O man, so let your boast and your hope be founded on him, so that you mortify all that is yours, and seek your future life in Christ. Since we have the first fruits of this, we are already enjoying it, living totally in the grace and free gift of God.
It is God who is at work with you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. What is more, through his Spirit, God reveals his wisdom, which he predestined for our glorification.
God gives us strength and energy in our toils. 'I worked harder than any of them', says Paul, 'though it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.'
God has freed us from dangers beyond all human hope. 'We felt', he says again, 'that we had received the sentence of death, but that was to make us rely not on ourselves, but on God who raises thedead; he delivered us from so deadly a peril and he delivers us not. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.'