On January 2, the Church celebrates the Memorial of St. Gregory Nazianzen, who was a tireless warrior in the battle against the Arian heresy. Called “The Theologian” by historians, St. Gregory was a modest man reluctant to assume the positions of power that were constantly thrust upon him. His thoughtful scholarship and zealous defense of the doctrine of the Trinity were critical in the development of the Church.
In this post, we invite you to learn more about his life and discover where you can find him portrayed in the art of the Basilica.
Little is known about the early life of Gregory, save that he had a father of the same name, a brother, and a sister. Born in 325, he was baptized at age 30 and studied with his brother in Caesarea, where he met a young man named Basil. At the time, Basil was just a fellow student, but the two would grow to be dear friends, and each a worthy theologian in his own right.
Though Gregory’s studies took him to different places than Basil for a time, they met once again and studied rhetoric together in Athens, where Gregory remained for a decade. Later, Gregory also joined Basil at Neocæsarea, in Pontus, where he helped him edit some of Origen’s exegetical works and compile Basil’s rules for orders, which would prove to be foundational in shaping the structure and practices of religious orders in the centuries to come.
Difficulties at Home
Once this work was complete, Gregory came home to difficulties with his father, who had not only fallen into heresy, but also pressured Gregory into accepting a post as priest. Though Gregory succeeded in convincing his father to abandon his errant theology, he was reluctant to assume a role of leadership. He sought refuge with Basil for some time before returning to Nazianzus to assist his father.
Over the course of a decade, he once again assisted Basil in a number of efforts, including his battles against Arianism and his clashes with the Arian Emperor Valens.
Fighting Valens and the Arians
Unfortunately, Gregory’s desire to help Basil would ultimately culminate in the breaking of their friendship. The emperor Valens, who supported Arianism, grew increasingly weary of Basil’s growing influence. After Basil was named bishop of Caesarea and Metropolitan of Cappadocia, Valens split Cappadocia into two provinces to weaken Basil’s power. In response, Basil established a See at Sasima, where he consecrated Gregory as its first bishop. Gregory, however, was strongly opposed to taking the position and did so only with great reluctance. He soon found himself as ill-suited to it as he had predicted, and left to serve as coadjutor to his father in Nazianzus again.
This decision seems to have been a turning point in his friendship with Basil, whose correspondence appears to have ceased following the incident. In addition to losing this dear friendship, Gregory suffered the loss of both his parents around 374. Yet he did not allow his grief to keep him from serving; he continued his work as coadjutor, eschewing greater office, and dedicated much of his inheritance to the underprivileged.
The Church of the Resurrection
Following the death of Emperor Valens, Arianism no longer received imperial support, leaving greater opportunity for combatting the heresy. Much work remained to be done, particularly in Constantinople, where 30 years of Arian leadership had infected the Church. Despite his reservations, Gregory went to restore truth in the city in 379, preaching on the doctrine of the Trinity at his Chapel of the Resurrection (the Anastasia). These profound sermons would eventually become some of his most well-known works.
He eventually won the support of Peter, the Patriarch of Alexandria. However, during Gregory’s time in Constantinople, his efforts were nearly foiled by a young man named Maximus. Pretending to be a cynic and a convert to Christianity, Maximus took advantage of Gregory’s hospitality and earned his trust and praise. However, in a stunning turn of events, Maximus attempted to take over as Bishop of Constantinople while Gregory was bedridden with illness. It was only with the help of Gregory’s friends that the attempt was quashed and Maximus driven from the city.
The Great Church
The arrival of a new emperor, Theodosius, in 380, brought new changes for Gregory; he was invited in as Bishop of the Great Church at the council of Constantinople. But after technicalities brought his claim to the position into dispute, he chose to step away from the role. Even still, the council followed his lead on significant questions facing the Church at the time, affirming the doctrine of the Trinity as espoused in the Nicene Creed.
Gregory’s Final Days
Following the Constantinople debacle, Gregory returned home to Nazianzen, where he lived peacefully, composing many poems in the final years of his life. He is believed to have passed away around the year 389 or 390. Besides his sermons, his noteworthy works include a nearly 2000-line autobiographical poem, approximately a hundred short poems, and sundry other writings. You can find him portrayed in the Basilica in the baldachin.
“St Gregory of Nazianzus,” Britannica.
“St. Gregory Nazianzen,” CNA.
“Saint Gregory Nazianzen,” Franciscan Media.
“St. Gregory of Nazianzus,” New Advent.