St Gregory the Wonderworker

Gregory DiPippo

In the Byzantine Rite, and the usus antiquior of the Roman Rite, today is the feast of St Gregory (ca. 215-70), bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Pontus, a region of north-central Asia Minor. One of his disciples, St Macrina the Elder, was the grandmother of Saints Basil the Great (who later held the same see) and Gregory of Nyssa, two of the most important figures in all the history of the Eastern churches, and it is through their writings of that we know of St Gregory’s episcopal career. By the combination of his preaching and miracles, he converted most of Neo-Caesarea to the Faith. When he arrived there as bishop, there were only seventeen Christians in the city; on his deathbed, he asked how many pagans there were left in the city, and the answer was seventeen.

In the Byzantine liturgy, many Saints have special epithets, such as St Andrew the Apostle, known as “the First-Called”, or St John the Evangelist, known as “the Theologian”, since his Gospel is the one that says the most about Christ’s divinity. The miracles of St Gregory of Neo-Caesarea were so many and so impressive that his epithet is “thaumaturgus – the worker of miracles.” This title has long-since been extended to many other Saints, most notably St Nicholas of Myra. It has also been taken into Italian as “taumaturgo”, and is commonly used of certain Saints who are especially popular in Italy such as Anthony of Padua, Rita of Cascia, and more recently Padre Pio.

The most famous of Gregory’s miracles was the moving of a mountain from a place where it obstructed the building of a church, in keeping with the words of Christ which are read in the Gospel of his Mass, Mark 11, 22-24.

“Have the faith of God. Amen I say to you, that whosoever shall say to this mountain, ‘Be thou lifted up and cast into the sea’, and shall not hesitate in his heart, but believe, that whatsoever he saith shall be done, it shall be done unto him. Therefore I say unto you, all things whatsoever you ask when ye pray believe that you shall receive, and they shall come unto you.”

Here is the telling of the miracle in a passage from the commentary on Mark’s Gospel (lib. 3, cap. 11) written by St Bede the Venerable, which is read in the Roman Breviary on his feast day. Bede was born more than 400 years after St Gregory died, and in England, more 2000 miles away from Asia Minor. The endurance of this story over so long a time and such distance makes for another interesting example of how the international and multi-cultural society created by the Roman Empire endured for centuries after its fall, especially within the Church.

(St Gregory depicted in a collection of lives of the Saints known as the Menologion of Basil II, Byzantine emperor from 976-1025. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons. Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any paintings of the most notable episode of Gregory’s life.)

“Solent gentiles qui contra Ecclesiam maledicta scripsere, improperare nostris quod non habuerint plenam fidem Dei, quia numquam montes transferre potuerint. Quibus respondendum est non omnia scripta esse, quæ in Ecclesia sunt gesta, sicut etiam de factis ipsius Christi et Domini nostri Scriptura testatur. Unde et hoc quoque fieri potuisset, ut mons ablatus de terra mitteretur in mare, si necessitas id fieri poposcisset. Quomodo legimus factum precibus beati Patris Gregorii, Neocæsareæ Ponti antistitis, viri meritis et virtutibus eximii, ut mons in terra tantum loco cederet quantum incolæ civitatis opus habebant.

Cum enim, volens ædificare ecclesiam in loco apto, videret eum angustiorem esse … venit nocte ad locum, et, genibus flexis, admonuit Dominum promissionis suæ, ut montem longius juxta fidem petentis ageret. Et, mane facto, reversus invenit montem tantum spatii reliquisse structoribus ecclesiæ quantum opus habuerant. Poterat ergo hic, poterat alius quis ejusdem meriti vir, si opportunitas exegisset, impetrare a Domino, merito fidei, ut etiam mons tolleretur et mitteretur in mare.

Those heathen who have written curses against the Church are wont to reprove against our people that they did not full faith in God, since they have never been able to move mountains. To these it should be answered that not all things that have been done in the Church are written down, as the Scripture also bears witness concerning the deed of Christ our Lord Himself. (John 20, 30 and 21, 25.) Whence this also might come to pass, that a mountain might be lifted up from the earth and cast into the sea, if need so required, as we read was done at the prayers of the blessed father Gregory, bishop of Neo-Caesarea in Pontus, a man outstanding for his merits and virtues, so that a mountain yielded enough space on the land as those who dwell in the city required.

For when he wished to build a church in a suitable place, but saw that it was too narrow … he came  to the place at night, and kneeling down, reminding the Lord of His promise, that He would send a mountain afar, in keeping with the faith of him who asked. And returning in the morning, he found that the mountain had left enough space for the builders of the church as they needed. Therefore this man, or another of the same merit, if the occasion demanded, could obtain of the Lord, by merit of his faith, that even a mountain should be lifted up and cast into the sea.”

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