Thursday, October 18, 2007
General Audience: St. Eusebius of Vercelli
Pope Benedict XVI greets people during his weekly general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican October 17, 2007. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianchi
~translated by Papa Ratzinger Forum
Dear brothers and sisters,
This morning, I invite you to reflect on Saint Eusebius of Vercelli, the first bishop of northern Italy about whom we have definite information.
Born in Sardinia at the start of the fourth century, he moved to Rome with his family at a young age. Later, he became a lector, thus becoming part of the clergy of Rome at a time when the Church was sorely tried by the Arian heresy.
The great respect which grew around Eusebius explains his election in 345 to the episcopal seat of Vercelli. The new bishop immediately began an intense work of evangelization in a territory that was still largely pagan, especially in the rural areas.
Inspired by Saint Athanasius - who had written the 'Life of St. Anthony Abbot', founder of eastern monasticism - he founded in Vercelli a priestly community that was similar to a monastic one.
This monastery gave the clergy of northern Italy a significant imprint of apostolic sanctity, and gave rise to important bishop figures, like Limenius and Honoratus, his successors in Vercelli; Gaundentius in NOvara, Esuperantius in Tortona, Eustasius in Aosta, Eulogius in Ivrea, Maximus in Turin - all venerated by the Church as saints.
Solidly educated in the Nicene faith, Eusebius defended with all his strength the full divinity of Jesus Christ, defined by the Nicene creed as 'of the same substance' as the Father. To this end, he allied himself with the great Fathers of the 4th century - especially with St. Athanasius, the leading advocate of Nicene orthodoxy - against the Arian politics of the Roman emperor.
For the emperor, the simpler Arian belief appeared politically more useful as the ideology of the empire. For him, the truth did not matter, but rather, political opportunity - he wanted to use religion as a tool for unifying the empire. But the great Fathers resisted, defending truth from domination by politics.
For this reason, Eusebius was condemned to exile like so many other bishops in both East and West - St. Athanasius himself, St. Hilary of Poitiers, whom we talked about last week; Osius of Cordova.
At Scitopolis in Palestine, to where he was exiled in 355-360, Eusebius wrote an amazing page of his life. Even here, he founded a monastery with a small group of disciples, and from here, he carried on a correspondence with his faithful in Piedmont, demonstrated best by the second of the three Eusebian letters that have been recognized to be authentic.
After 360, he was further exiled to Cappadocia and in the Thebaide, where he underwent severe physical maltreatment. In 361, Emperor Constance II died and was succeeded by Emperor Julian, known as the Apostate, who was not interested in Christianity as the religion of empire, but simply wanted to restore paganism.
He put an end to the exile of bishops and even conceded that Eusebius could take back his seat in Vercelli. In 362, Eusebius was invited by Athanasius to take part in the Council of Alexandria, which decided to pardon Arian bishops provided they reverted to the lay state.
Eusebius was able to exercise the episcopal ministry for another decade at least, until he died, establishing with his city an exemplary relationship which did not fail to inspire the pastoral service of other bishops of northern Italy, whom we shall talk about in subsequent catecheses, like St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Maximus of Turin.
The relationship between the Bishop of Vercelli and his city is made clear above all by two epistolary proofs. The first is in the letter we already referred to, which Eusebius wrote from exile in Scitopolis "to my most beloved brothers and priests, as well as to the holy peoples keeping firm faith in Vercelli, Novara, Ivrea and Tortona" (Ep. secunda, CCL 9, p. 104).
This greeting, which indicated the emotion of the good shepherd when speaking of his flock, has a counterpart at the end of the letter, in the warm greetings of the father to each and everyone of his sons in Vercelli, with expressions overflowing with affection and love.
One must note the explicit relationship between the bishop to the sanctae plebes (holy people) not only of Vercellae/Vercelli - the first, and for many more years, the oly diocese of Piedmont - but also of Novaria/Novara, Eporedia/Ivrea e Dertona/Tortona, those Christian communities within his diocese that had reached a certain consistency and autonomy.
Another interesting element is the farewell with which he concludes the letter: Eusebius asks his sons and daughters to greet "even those who are outside the Church who have sentiments of love for us:
etiam hos, qui foris sunt et nos dignantur diligere". Evident sign that the bishop's relations with his city was not limited to the Christian population, but extended also to those who, from outside the Church, recognized his spiritual authority in some way and loved him as an exemplary man.
The second proof of the singular relationship the bishop had with his city comes from the letter that St. Ambrose of Milan wrote to the people of Vercelli around 394, more than 20 years after Eusebius's death (Ep. extra collectionem 14: Maur. 63).
The Church of Vercelli was going through a difficult time: it was divided and without a bishop. With frankness, Ambrose said he hesitated to acknowledge in them "the descendants of the holy fathers who approved of Eusebius [elected him bishop of Vercelli] as soon as they saw him even without having known him beforehand, to the extent of passing over their own townmates."
In the same letter, the Bishop of Milan attested in the clearest way his esteem for Eusebius: "A man as great as he," he wrote definitively, "truly merits being elected by the whole Church."
Ambrose's admiration for Eusebius was based above all on the fact that Eusebius governed his diocese with the witness of his own life: "He governed the Church with the austerity of fasting."
In fact, Ambrose himself was fascinated - as he himself admitted - by the monastic ideal of contemplating God which Eusebius had pursued in the footsteps of the prophet Elia.
To begin with, Ambrose has noted, the Bishop of Vercelli gathered his own priests into community life and edicated them "in the observance of monastic rules even while living in a city".
The bishopa and his priests had to share the problems of their fellow citizens, and they did this credibly by cultivating at the same time a different citizenship, that of Heaven (cfr Heb 13,14). Thus they truly constructed a genuine citizenship in true solidarity with the citizens of Vercelli.
And so Eusebius, while he took up the cause of the 'sancta plebs' of Vercelli, lived in the midst of the city like a monk, opening his city to God. This trait did not take anything away from his exemplary pastoral dynamism.
It seems, among other things, that he set up parish churches to render stable and systematic church services and that he promoted Marian sanctuaries for the coversion of pagan rural areas. So his monastic 'trait' conferred a particular dimension on the relationship of the bishop with his city.
Like the Apostles, for whom Jesus prayed at the Last Supper, the pastors and the faithful of the Church 'are in the world' (Jn 17,11)but not 'of the world.' Therefore, the pastors, Eusebius reminds us, should exhort the faithful not to consider the cities of the world as their permanent dwelling, but to seek the future city, the definitive Jerusalem in heaven.
This 'eschatological reservation' allows the pastors and the faithful to keep an authentic scale of values, without ever yielding to the fashion of the moment and to the unjust demands of prevailing political power.
The authentic scale of values, Eusebius's whole life seems to tell us, does not come from the emperors of yesterday or today, but from Jesus Christ, the perfect man, equal to the Fahter in divinity, but a man like us.
Referring to this scale of values, Eusebius does not tire of "warmly recommending" to his faithful "to guard the faith with every care, to maintain concord, and to be assiduous in prayer" (Ep. secunda, cit.).
Dear friends, I too recommend to you with all my heart these perennial values, while I greet and bless you with the words which St. Eusebius used to conclude his second letter: "I address you all, my brothers and holy sisters, sons and daughters, the faithful of both sexes and every age ... so that you may bring our greetings even to those who are outside the Church but who deign to nourish sentiments of love for us" (ibid.)