On January 2nd, we celebrated the feast of St. Basil and St. Gregory Nazianzen. They were bishops in Cappadocia (modern-day Turkey) during the stormy period of the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Despite the strong affirmation by the Council of Nicaea, the Arian heretics did not desist. Saints Basil and Gregory were strong forces for truth in the long battle to stamp out the heresy. When the emperor, Julian the Apostate, sought to compel bishops to admit Arian heretics to Holy Communion both these bishops refused to comply.
An interaction between St. Basil and the local prefect of the emperor shows forth an image of a strong bishop that is rare today. Encountering St. Basil’s resistance, the prefect said,
“Are you mad, that you resist the will [of the emperor] before which the whole world bows? Do you not dread the wrath of the emperor, nor exile, nor death?”
“No,” said Basil calmly, “he who has nothing to lose need not dread loss of goods; you cannot exile me, for the whole earth is my home; as for death, it would be the greatest kindness you could bestow upon me; torments cannot harm me: one blow would end my frail life and my sufferings together.”
“Never,” said the prefect, “has anyone dared to address me thus.” “Perhaps,” suggested Basil, “you never before measured your strength with a Christian bishop” (from Butler’s Lives of the Saints).
The emperor backed down.
The lives of early bishops were filled with suffering, exile, and martyrdom. Thirty of the first thirty-three popes were martyred, two died in exile, and only one died in his own bed. It was a similar story with many ancient bishops, for example Athanasius, Chrysostom, Basil, and Gregory. It’s hard to imagine many among the current leaders of the Church enduring such suffering. Many bishops and higher clergy today live comfortable, protected lives. Even less elevated clergymen live fairly insular lives, shielded from the ordinary struggles of the laity. Many of us have healthcare, housing, laundry services, prepared meals, and staff to handle many day-to-day matters. God bless all of our staff and God’s good people, who care for us so well.
There comes a point, though, when we clergy become soft, no longer able to relate to even small sufferings, let alone larger ones that might come from preaching the Gospel in an uncompromising and clear way. Failing to accept this suffering in our own lives, we fear to preach it to others.
Unlike St. Basil, who had felt he had nothing to lose, we modern clergy often think we have too much to lose. Indeed, the whole Church (at least in the prosperous West) fears we have too much to lose. We fear the loss of popularity, political power, and access; we fear the impact on our careers; we fear the loss of buildings, institutions, and programs as well as the money and power needed to sustain them. We seem to fear just about everything except the loss of our faith, which we are too willing compromise, ignore, or water down in order to keep the lesser things.
Ultimately, however, this world and the devil will never be satisfied with compromises we make until every last bit of our integrity is gone. Whatever time we buy through compromise is temporary; it is a pyrrhic “victory.” Despite all our attempts to fit in with the modern world, we are still closing churches and schools; Catholic charities are losing contracts; our members are continuing to drift away. The world cannot save us; being popular or up to date does not inspire faith or attract converts. Owning nice buildings is worthless if they are empty.
We end with a paradox. Acting out of fear that we have too much to lose will mean that we lose everything. Freely accepting that we have nothing to lose will mean that we gain everything, for we gain Christ Jesus and all that He promises us here and in the life to come.
But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be added unto you(Matt 6:33).
And anyone who does not take up his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it(Matt 10:38-39).
May St. Basil, St. Gregory, and all the heroes and martyrs pray for us, clergy and laity alike!