This text is comprised of excerpts from: John Paul II. The Apostolic Letter, “Patres Ecclesiae” on the 16th Centenary of the Death of St. Basil. Pub. Catholic Truth Society, August 1980.
Basil, who among the Greek Fathers is called the ‘Great’, is invoked in Byzantine liturgical texts as ‘light of piety’ and ‘luminary of the Church’. He did, in fact, illuminate her, and still does: no less because of ‘the purity of his life’ than for the excellence of his doctrine. For the first and greatest teaching is always their life.
The following are his words, in which, towards the end of his life, he recalled the event of his conversion. ‘I had wasted a great deal of time in vanity, losing nearly all my youth in the empty work to which I applied myself to learn the teachings of that wisdom which God has made foolish; 1 until one day, as if waking up from a deep sleep,I looked at the wonderful light of the truth of the Gospel, and considered the uselessness of the wisdom of the princes of this world who are doomed to pass away.2 Then I wept a great deal over my wretched life.’3
He was very soon called to the ministry. But also in the service of souls, he was able to balance untiring and wise preaching with periods of solitude and frequent recourse to interior prayer. He regarded this, in fact, as absolutely necessary for the ‘purification of the soul’4 so that the proclamation of the word might always be confirmed by the ‘evident example’ of life.5
In this way he became both pastor and at the same time, in the real sense of the term, a monk. Indeed, he was certainly among the greatest of the pastor-monks of the Church: singularly perfect as a bishop, and a great promoter and legislator of monasticism.
Various legislators of monasticism have drawn on these writings, not least St Benedict himself, who considers Basil his teacher.6 Likewise, these writings –directly or indirectly known- have inspired most of those who embraced the monastic life, in the East as in the West.
For this reason many people think that the essential structure of life of the Church, the 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.
Basil lived at a difficult time, and suffered a great deal on account of the evils under which the people of God groaned.7 He denounced them frankly and, with lucidity and love, detected their causes, in order courageously to set about the vast work of reform.
In pastoral work, in fact, it is fitting that concern for the liturgy holds first place and occupies it as the summit, as it were, of all other undertakings. The liturgy, indeed –as the Second Vatican Council recalls- is ‘the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; it is also the fount from which all her power flows,’8 so that ‘no other action of the Church can equal its efficacy.’9 Basil was perfectly aware of this: and the ‘legislator of the monks’10 was also a wise ‘liturgical reformer’. 11
Moreover, he was one of the greatest inspirers and architects of the fundamental arrangement of psalmodic prayer. 12 Thus, particularly owing to the impulse given by him, psalmody –‘spiritual incense’, the breath and comfort of the people of God13– was greatly loved by the faithful in his Church, and became known to children and adults, to the learned and uneducated.14 As Basil himself says: ‘Here the people get up at night to go to the house of prayer…and spend the night singing psalms and praying in turn.’15 The psalms, which resounded in the churches like thunder, 16 could be heard ringing out also in the houses and squares.17
Basil loved the Church with a jealous love, 18 and, knowing that her virginity is her faith itself, he was an extremely watchful guardian of the purity of this faith. For this reason he had to, and did, fight courageously: not against men but against every falsification of the Word of God.19
Thus, from the beginning to the end of his ministry, he fought to preserve intact the full meaning of the Nicaean formula regarding the divinity of Christ ‘consubstantial’ with the Father; 20 and at the same time he fought to prevent the glory of the Spirit from being diminished, for since He ‘belongs to the Trinity and is of its divine and blessed nature’, 21 He must be numbered and glorified with the Father and Son.22
Basil’s severity against heresies and tyrants was not exceeded by his severity against ambiguities and abuses within the Church: in particular, against worldliness and attachment to property.
The texts of some of his addresses are memorable in this connection, and remain exemplary:’ “Sell what you have and give it to the poor”; 23.… because, even if you have not killed or committed adultery or stolen or borne false witness, it will be of no use to you if you do not also do rest: only in this way will you be able enter the Kingdom of God.’24 In fact, he who, in accordance with God’s commandment, wishes to love his neighbour as himself, 25 ‘must not possess anything more than his neighbour possesses.’26
Basil paid testimony to the Gospel, which orders love and service of the poor, not only with these words but with great works of charity; such as the construction, outside the city walls of Caesarea, of a gigantic hospice for the needy27: a real city of mercy, which was named Basiliade after him, 28 and which was also an authentic part of one evangelical proclamation.
In this work and this struggle –arduous, painful, without respite- Basil offered his life29 and wore himself out in sacrifice. He died before reaching the age of fifty, exhausted by toil and asceticism.
Abbreviations: PG Patrologia Graeca, J. P. Migne (161 volumes, 1857-1865).
PL Patrologia Latina, J. P. Migne (217 volumes, 1878-1890).