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Saint Gregory of Nazianzus

Bishop & Father of the Church
Born 329 - died 25 January 389; from Cappadocia (now Turkey)
Feast day - 2nd January

Catecheses by Papa Benedict XVI
1) St Gregory - his Life & Writings
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear brothers and sisters,
Last Wednesday, I talked about St Basil, a Father of the Church and a great teacher of the faith. Today, I would like to speak of his friend, Gregory of Nazianzus; like Basil, he too was a native of Cappadocia. As a distinguished theologian, orator and champion of the Christian faith in the 4th century, he was famous for his eloquence, and as a poet, he also had a refined and sensitive soul.

Gregory was born into a noble family in about 330 AD and his mother consecrated him to God at birth. After his education at home, he attended the most famous schools of his time: he first went to Caesarea in Cappadocia, where he made friends with Basil, the future Bishop of that city, and went on to stay in other capitals of the ancient world, such as Alexandria, Egypt and in particular Athens, where once again he met Basil. Remembering this friendship, Gregory was later to write: "Then not only did I feel full of veneration for my great Basil because of the seriousness of his morals and the maturity and wisdom of his speeches, but he induced others who did not yet know him to be like him.... The same eagerness for knowledge motivated us.... This was our competition: not who was first but who allowed the other to be first. It seemed as if we had one soul in two bodies." These words more or less paint the self-portrait of this noble soul. Yet, one can also imagine how this man, who was powerfully cast beyond earthly values, must have suffered deeply for the things of this world.

On his return home, Gregory received Baptism and developed an inclination for monastic life: solitude as well as philosophical and spiritual meditation fascinated him. He himself wrote: "Nothing seems to me greater than this: to silence one's senses, to emerge from the flesh of the world, to withdraw into oneself, no longer to be concerned with human things other than what is strictly necessary; to converse with oneself and with God, to lead a life that transcends the visible; to bear in one's soul divine images, ever pure, not mingled with earthly or erroneous forms; truly to be a perfect mirror of God and of divine things, and to become so more and more, taking light from light...; to enjoy, in the present hope, the future good, and to converse with angels; to have already left the earth even while continuing to dwell on it, borne aloft by the spirit."

As he confides in his autobiography, he received priestly ordination with a certain reluctance for he knew that he would later have to be a bishop, to look after others and their affairs, hence, could no longer be absorbed in pure meditation. However, he subsequently accepted this vocation and took on the pastoral ministry in full obedience, accepting, as often happened to him in his life, to be carried by Providence where he did not wish to go. In 371, his friend Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, against Gregory's own wishes, desired to ordain him Bishop of Sasima, a strategically important locality in Cappadocia. Because of various problems, however, he never took possession of it and instead stayed on in the city of Nazianzus.

In about 379, Gregory was called to Constantinople, the capital, to head the small Catholic community faithful to the Council of Nicea and to belief in the Trinity. The majority adhered instead to Arianism, which was "politically correct" and viewed by emperors as politically useful. Thus, he found himself in a condition of minority, surrounded by hostility. He delivered 5 theological orations in the little Church of the Anastasis precisely in order to defend the Trinitarian faith and to make it intelligible. These discourses became famous because of the soundness of his doctrine and his ability to reason, which truly made clear that this was the divine logic. And the splendour of their form also makes them fascinating today. It was because of these orations that Gregory acquired the nickname: "The Theologian". This is what he is called in the Orthodox Church: the "Theologian". And this is because to his way of thinking theology was not merely human reflection or, even less, only a fruit of complicated speculation but rather, sprang from a life of prayer and holiness, from a persevering dialogue with God. And in this very way he causes the reality of God, the mystery of the Trinity, to appear to our reason. In the silence of contemplation, interspersed with wonder at the marvels of the mystery revealed, his soul was engrossed in beauty and divine glory.

While Gregory was taking part in the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, he was elected Bishop of Constantinople and presided over the Council; but he was challenged straightaway by strong opposition, to the point that the situation became untenable. These hostilities must have been unbearable to such a sensitive soul. What Gregory had previously lamented with heartfelt words was repeated: "We have divided Christ, we who so loved God and Christ! We have lied to one another because of the Truth, we have harboured sentiments of hatred because of Love, we are separated from one another." Thus, in a tense atmosphere, the time came for him to resign. In the packed cathedral, Gregory delivered a farewell discourse of great effectiveness and dignity. He ended his heartrending speech with these words: "Farewell, great city, beloved by Christ.... My children, I beg you, jealously guard the deposit [of faith] that has been entrusted to you, remember my suffering. May the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all." 

Gregory returned to Nazianzus and for about 2 years devoted himself to the pastoral care of this Christian community. He then withdrew definitively to solitude in nearby Arianzo, his birthplace, and dedicated himself to studies and the ascetic life. It was in this period that he wrote the majority of his poetic works and especially his autobiography: the De Vita Sua, a reinterpretation in verse of his own human and spiritual journey, an exemplary journey of a suffering Christian, of a man of profound interiority in a world full of conflicts. He is a man who makes us aware of God's primacy, hence he speaks also to us, to this world of ours: without God, man loses his grandeur; without God, there is no true humanism. Consequently, let us too listen to this voice and seek to know God's Face. In one of his poems he wrote, addressing himself to God: "May you be benevolent, You, the hereafter of all things."  And in 390, God welcomed into his arms this faithful servant, who with keen intelligence had defended Him in his writings and who with great love had praised Him in his poetry."

2) St Gregory - his Doctrine
- in Croatian, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese & Spanish

"Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the course of portraying the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church whom I seek to present in these catecheses, I spoke last time of St Gregory Nazianzus, a 4th century bishop, and today I would like to fill out this portrait of a great teacher. Today, we shall try to understand some of his teachings. Reflecting on the mission God had entrusted to him, St Gregory Nazianzus concluded: "I was created to ascend all the way to God with my actions." In fact, he placed his talents as a writer and orator at the service of God and of the Church. He wrote numerous discourses, various homilies and panegyrics, a great many letters and poetic works (almost 18,000 verses!): a truly prodigious output. He realized that this was the mission that God had entrusted to him: "As a servant of the Word, I adhere to the ministry of the Word; may I never agree to neglect this good. I appreciate this vocation and am thankful for it; I derive more joy from it than from all other things put together." 

Nazianzus was a mild man and always sought in his life to bring peace to the Church of his time, torn apart by discord and heresy. He strove with Gospel daring to overcome his own timidity in order to proclaim the truth of the faith. He felt deeply the yearning to draw close to God, to be united with him. He expressed it in one of his poems in which he writes: "Among the great billows of the sea of life, here and there whipped up by wild winds... one thing alone is dear to me, my only treasure, comfort and oblivion in my struggle, the light of the Blessed Trinity."

Thus, Gregory made the light of the Trinity shine forth, defending the faith proclaimed at the Council of Nicea: one God in three persons, equal and distinct - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - "a triple light gathered into one splendour" (Hymn for Vespers). Therefore, Gregory says further, in line with St Paul (I Cor 8: 6): "For us there is one God, the Father, from whom is all; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom is all; and one Holy Spirit, in whom is all."

Gregory gave great prominence to Christ's full humanity: to redeem man in the totality of his body, soul and spirit, Christ assumed all the elements of human nature, otherwise man would not have been saved. Disputing the heresy of Apollinaris, who held that Jesus Christ had not assumed a rational mind, Gregory tackled the problem in the light of the mystery of salvation: "What has not been assumed has not been healed", and if Christ had not been "endowed with a rational mind, how could he have been a man?" It was precisely our mind and our reason that needed and needs the relationship, the encounter with God in Christ. Having become a man, Christ gave us the possibility of becoming, in turn, like him. Nazianzus exhorted people: "Let us seek to be like Christ, because Christ also became like us: to become gods through him since he himself, through us, became a man. He took the worst upon himself to make us a gift of the best."

Mary, who gave Christ his human nature, is the true Mother of God, and with a view to her most exalted mission was "purified in advance" (Orationes 38, 13: SC 358, 132) almost as a distant prelude to the Dogma of the Immaculate Conception. Mary is proposed to Christians and especially to virgins as a model and their help to call upon in times of need.

Gregory reminds us that as human persons, we must show solidarity to one another. He writes: ""We are all one in the Lord', rich and poor, slaves and free, healthy and sick alike; and one is the head from which all derive: Jesus Christ. And as with the members of one body, each is concerned with the other, and all with all." He then concludes, referring to the sick and to people in difficulty: "This is the one salvation for our flesh and our soul: showing them charity." Gregory emphasizes that man must imitate God's goodness and love. He therefore recommends: "If you are healthy and rich, alleviate the need of whoever is sick and poor; if you have not fallen, go to the aid of whoever has fallen and lives in suffering; if you are glad, comfort whoever is sad; if you are fortunate, help whoever is smitten with misfortune. Give God proof of your gratitude for you are one who can benefit and not one who needs to be benefited.... Be rich not only in possessions but also in piety; not only in gold but in virtue, or rather, in virtue alone. Outdo your neighbour's reputation by showing yourself to be kinder than all; make yourself God for the unfortunate, imitating God's mercy."

Gregory teaches us first and foremost the importance and necessity of prayer. He says: "It is necessary to remember God more often than one breathes", because prayer is the encounter of God's thirst with our thirst. God is thirsting for us to thirst for him. In prayer, we must turn our hearts to God, to consign ourselves to him as an offering to be purified and transformed. In prayer we see all things in the light of Christ, we let our masks fall and immerse ourselves in the truth and in listening to God, feeding the fire of love.

In a poem which is at the same time a meditation on the purpose of life and an implicit invocation to God, Gregory writes: "You have a task, my soul, a great task if you so desire. Scrutinize yourself seriously, your being, your destiny; where you come from and where you must rest; seek to know whether it is life that you are living or if it is something more. You have a task, my soul, so purify your life: Please consider God and his mysteries, investigate what existed before this universe and what it is for you, where you come from and what your destiny will be. This is your task, my soul; therefore, purify your life." The holy bishop continuously asked Christ for help, to be raised and set on his way: "I have been let down, O my Christ, by my excessive presumption: from the heights, I have fallen very low. But lift me now again so that I may see that I have deceived myself; if again I trust too much in myself, I shall fall immediately and the fall will be fatal" (Carmina 2, 1).

So it was that Gregory felt the need to draw close to God in order to overcome his own weariness. He experienced the impetus of the soul, the vivacity of a sensitive spirit and the instability of transient happiness. For him, in the drama of a life burdened by the knowledge of his own weakness and wretchedness, the experience of God's love always gained the upper hand. You have a task, soul, St Gregory also says to us, the task of finding the true light, of finding the true nobility of your life. And your life is encountering God, who thirsts for our thirst."

BXVI - Wednesday General Audiences, 8 & 22 August 2007 - © Copyright 2007 - Libreria Editrice Vaticana

From the addresses of St Gregory Nazienzen:

Acknowledge when you have existence, breath, and understanding. Acknowledge whence you have what is most important of all, your knowledge of God, your hope of the kingdom of heaven, your contemplation of glory which in this life is of course through a glass darkly but hereafter will be more perfect and clearer. Acknowledge that you have been made a son of God, a co-heir with Christ. Acknowledge, and now I speak with daring, that you have been made divine. From where and from whom have all these benefits come to you?

Or, to turn to lesser matters, what you see with your eyes, who gave you the power to gaze on the beauty of the sky, the course of the sun, the circle of the moon, and the multitude of the stars? Who gave you the power to discern the harmony and order that shines out like music in them all?

From whom do you have the rain, agriculture, your food, crafts, dwelling houses, laws and constitutions, civilized life, friendship and intimacy with your relations? To whom do you owe it that some of the animals are tamed and subject to us, and others are given over for our food? Who made you lord and king over everything on earth? Without naming all the individual items, who gave man all the gifts by which he is superior to other living beings?

Surely the answer to all these questions is quite simply God - and God now asks you before all things and in return for all things, to show kindness. When there are so many benefits which we have either received from him or which we hope to receive from him in future, surely we would be ashamed to refuse him this one point in return, namely kindness and love. Although he is our God and our Lord, he is not ashamed to be called our Father, and will we shut ourselves off from those who are related to us?

Brethren and friends, let us by no means be wicked stewards of God's gift to us. If we are, we will have to listen to St Peter saying: Be ashamed, you who hold back what belongs to another, take as an example the justice of God, and no one will be poor.

While others suffer poverty, let us not labour to hoard and pile up money, for if we do, holy Amos will threaten us sharply in these words: Hear this, you who say, When will the new moon be over, that we may sell; and the sabbath, that we may open up our treasures?

Let us imitate the first and most important law of God who sends his rain on the just and on sinners and makes the sun shine on all men equally. God opens up the earth, the springs, the streams and the woods to all who live in the world. He gives the air to the birds, the water to the fish, and the basic needs of life abundantly to all, without restriction or limitation or preference. These basic goods are common to all, provided by God generously and with nothing lacking. He has done this so that creatures of the same nature may receive equal gifts and that he may show us how rich is his kindness.