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St Gregory of Nazianzus, the Teacher of St Jerome

Gregory DiPippo

On the liturgical calendar of the usus antiquior, today is the feast of the bishop St Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the most important theologians of the fourth century. He, his close friend St Basil the Great, and Basil’s younger brother, St Gregory of Nyssa, are collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers, after the region of east-central Asia Minor from which they came, and where they held their respective episcopal sees. Since 1568, he and Basil have been formally recognized as Doctors of the Church in the West.

When he was in his early 40s, under strong pressure from St Basil, he accepted appointment as bishop of a very small town called Sasima, and then of his native place, Nazianzus, but this office was not at all congenial to him, and the appointment was the cause of no small friction between the two friends. As soon as he was able, he retired to a monastery far from either place at Seleucia, on the southern coast of Asia Minor, and took up a quiet life of contemplation and writing. However, in 378, the Emperor Valens, an enthusiastic supporter of the Arian heresy, died, and was succeeded by the orthodox Theodosius. The imperial capital had not had an orthodox bishop in 50 years, and Gregory was persuaded to go there, not to be bishop of the city, but to lead a restoration of the orthodox faith, almost as a private citizen. His work there was met with much opposition, but nevertheless bore very great fruit, such that he was able to withdraw after only a few years, and return to a purely contemplative life. He died about seven years later in 390, at the age of roughly 60.

One of his students during his time in Constantinople was St Jerome. Despite the well-known irascibility of the latter, and Gregory’s peaceable temperament, there is no evidence of any conflict between them, and Jerome always speaks well of him, referring to him as “vir eloquentissimus.” In the Apology Against Rufinus, he writes:

“Numquid in illa epistola Gregorium virum eloquentissimum non potui nominare? Quis apud Latinos par sui est? quo ego magistro glorior et exsulto. – Could I fail to mention in that letter the most eloquent Gregory? Who among the Latins is his equal? And I boast and rejoice that he was my teacher!”

Jerome’s book On Illustrious Men is a collection of notices of important figures in the history of the Church from its beginning to his own time, mostly notable writers. They are very brief, many no more than a single sentence; subtracting the nine Biblical personages at the beginning, they average about 70 words each. It is therefore significant that he devotes more space than typical to his teacher.

“Gregorius, primum Sasimorum, deinde Nazianzenus episcopus, vir eloquentissimus, praeceptor meus, quo Scripturas explanante, didici, ad triginta millia versuum omnia opera sua composuit. … vivoque se episcopum in loco suo ordinans, ruri vitam monachi exercuit. Decessitque ante hoc ferme triennium sub Theodosio principe.

Gregory, bishop first of Sasima, then of Nazianzus, a most eloquent man, and my teacher, from whose explanations I learned the Scriptures, composed works amounting in all to thirty thousand lines, among which are (there follows a list of his more signigficant works, and a mention of a rhetorician whose style Gregory followed). While he was still alive, he ordained his successor in the bishopric, and lived the life as a monk in the country, and died about three years ago in the reign of Theodosius.”

(A twelfth century manuscript of the homilies of St Gregory of Nazianus; Public domain image from the website of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, ms. gr. 550)

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