Byzantium was a little Greek colony that sat rather proudly on the western shore of the Bosphorus Strait. For almost a thousand years this classical settlement posed, unappreciated, upon one of the most strategic geographic locations in the world. Lying, as it did, between Europe and Asia, and connecting the northern countries of the Black Sea with the Mediterranean world, portwise, it seemed to defy any harbor then existing to match it for commercial potential. Add to this, a year-round temperate climate, enchanting scenic surroundings, and other alluring factors, and one can understand why the Roman Emperor Constantine, the son of St. Helena, in the year 330, moved the seat of his vast empire from Rome to this ideal spot. The ancient site was royally embellished and renamed Constantinople.
Although the new city was the gateway to Asia, it was also the gateway to Europe, depending upon which side of the fence you were on. In 1453, the warring Ottoman Turks crossed over the Bosphorus from the East and conquered the capital in the name of Islam. Overnight, the Cross was replaced by the crescent; the beautiful basilica of the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was turned into a Moslem mosque; and the name of the city was changed to Istanbul, by which it is known to this day.
So, it is little wonder that when the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, entered this historical metropolis last November, his presence aroused a great deal of excitement. The ruling Moslems seemed to sense the danger: What would happen to the Islamic world if the Orthodox churches ever resubmitted to the authority of the Pope? Such a united Christendom would certainly pose a very real threat to the domination that the “religion of the sword” exercises over half a billion souls in the Near East.
In the year 381, two hundred years before the infamous Mohammed was born, an ecumenical (or universal) council convened in the city of Constantine. It was summoned primarily to convince the Christian world once and for all that the faith of the East was not Arian but Catholic. The Pope at the time was St. Damasus I, a Spaniard; the Emperor, a friend of the Supreme Pontiff and fellow countryman, was Theodosius the Great.
Arianism was an early heresy that denied the divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. It had been vigorously condemned by the fathers at the First Council of Nicaea (325), who clearly demonstrated that the new doctrine was opposed to the teaching of the apostles and in contradiction to the words of Sacred Scripture, as well as being destructive of the very purpose of the Incarnation — to make us children of God! That synod also issued a creed that contained a consecrated test-word by which the faith of every cleric could be ascertained until the end of time. The word was homoousion! In English, it is translated “consubstantial” or “of the same substance.”
Every Catholic professes his belief in the consubstantiality of the three Divine Persons every Sunday when at Mass the Nicene Creed is read. Yet, one wonders how many of the faithful even realize what their ancestors had to suffer in order to preserve for them this “Pearl of great price” — our holy Catholic Faith — “without which, it is impossible to please God.” How many of us have ever stopped to think that were it not for the zealous resolution that certain men and women made in their hearts to become saints, today you and I would have no faith at all? Most likely we would be wallowing in some sort of idolatry or other, either worshipping nature, like the Buddhists, or perhaps bending the knee to our own self-righteous or personal opinions as do those who follow the thousand and one man-made varieties of Christianity, from Billy Graham’s right on down to Reverend Healer’s soul-savin’ station by the side of the road.
In short, were it not for the work the doctors of the Church and holy theologians have done to protect the true faith in every age, heaven would be as unknown to us as the most distant star, and ….as unreachable!
How grateful we should be to hear the voice of sound doctrine! Imagine what it would be like if we had to live in a world that didn’t even know there was a Blessed Trinity! There would be no Blessed Virgin Mary — because there would be no God the Father for Whom she could be the perfect daughter, no God the Son for Whom she could be the perfect Mother, and no God the Holy Ghost for Whom she could be the perfect Spouse; there would be no Church, no Sacraments, no Holy Sacrifice — in which God is offered to God by God for us; no priesthood — in which men become “other Christs,” no monasteries nor convents — because there would be no Eternal Spouse to Whom a boy or girl would consecrate body and soul; no holiness — because no Sanctifier; no charity which proceeds from the love of God; no joy, no hope, no, not even tears, for the world would have lost its sensibility: without the Trinity there would be nothing but emptiness and despair.
How greatly must God, Who is Truth Itself, detest this attitude so prevalent today in which dogma has been replaced by sincerity. “All religions are good,” the liberal heretics say. “We all worship the same God, don’t we?” No, actually, we do not! If a man worships any God other that the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, then he is worshipping a false god, an idol, and that is against the First Commandment. This language should be on the lips of every Catholic who takes his Faith seriously. It was the way the saints spoke, and it is the reason why they are canonized! With these important realizations in mind perhaps the following conciliar history will be more appreciated and the persons responsible for the council’s success more loved.
Now, whereas the Council of Nicaea condemned Arianism pure and simple, those who said unqualifiedly that Jesus was not God, the Council of Constantinople anathematized all those who held any of the equally offensive springs of the heresy, from semi-Arianism to Macedonianism. This latter “ism” was even more ungodly in that it not only denied Our Lord’s divinity, but went on to proclaim that the Spirit of Truth Himself, the Holy Ghost, was created by the created Son. Thus, a hierarchy was established among the divine Persons! This impiety took its name from its author, Macedonius, who was Bishop of Constantinople from 342-360.
After the Faith had been put on a firm foundation at Nicaea, the Arians were sent into exile and forced to smoulder underground — and smoulder they did! But, even kindling ashes will soon enough die out unless they are agitated or fed with fuel. Well, the agitation came sooner than expected; so did the fuel. Consequently, the heresy, instead of dying, came back to life! In fact, it grew into such an inferno that nearly the entire Church got caught up in the conflagration.
So powerful had the heretics become after resurfacing that for forty years (340-379) Constantinople, the capital of the eastern empire, had not so much as seen a Catholic bishop nor were the faithful souls there even allowed a church in which to worship. The Arians not only dominated the imperial city but their wave of attack spread from that base throughout the entire East and even to the remote corners of the West. Loyal Catholics looked on in sheer disbelief while their shepherds, in numerous regional councils (not ecumenical), renounced the faith of Nicaea by signing ambiguous creeds that deliberately omitted the crucial word consubstantial. True, some of the bishops had succumbed to pressure, fearing what repercussions might fall upon them from the hand of the Arian emperor Constantius who had already killed at least one Catholic prelate. Others, however, signed the new formulas due to a lack of conviction as to the worth of the word consubstantial itself. When the last of these traitorous local synods (Rimini, 359) had done its cowardly work, St. Jerome, a doctor of the Church, sadly recorded: “At that moment the ousia (substance) was abolished: the Nicene faith stood condemned by acclamation. The whole world groaned, and was astonished to find itself Arian.”
Arius, the author of the new religion, would hardly have been recognized among those who took pride in his name. Every Arian had his own ideas, his own brilliant theories concerning the reality of Our Lord. But no two Arians were ever in exact agreement as to what that reality was. Was it strictly human? Somewhat angelic? “Like to God’s?” Or perhaps some kind of strange mixture of these? No one seemed to know for sure. One thing was certain however, that a religion as “substanceless” as Arianism, would have died in its cradle had it not been for the support the sect received from the emperors.
Then again, with a strong Pope in Rome in the person of St. Damasus (elected in 366), the power of the keys began to produce salutary effects. Coming out in defense of consubstantiality, the Pontiff authoritatively reproclaimed it as a standard of Faith, and excommunicated the principal Arian ringleaders. The restoration of doctrinal certitude was slow, but gradually, thanks to this worthy successor of St. Peter, and the writing and preaching of such brilliant saints as Ambrose in Milan, the already mentioned Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, the previously quoted Jerome, and three Cappadocian doctors, the weaker bishops, who before had abandoned the creed of Nicaea, now came to realize that only by returning to the same, could orthodoxy and unity be restored,. Then, there were Theodosius and Gratian, the Catholic co-Emperors. Under their protective rule, not only was the true religion tolerated but it was proclaimed by imperial edict to be the official religion of the empire. Issued in 380, this decree, known as the Theodosian Code, forbade the Arians and indeed all heretical sects to call themselves Catholic Christians and moreover their meeting places were no longer to be even named churches.
St. Gregory Nazianzen
In the wake of the Arian demise, before Theodosius had arrived in the East, but after the death of the cruel Arian Emperor Valens (379), the downtrodden Catholic population of Constantinople sent a pathetic appeal to a humble yet renowned bishop, living several hundred miles east of there, in a little town called Nazianzen, to come to help them. The recipient of the appeal was considered to be the greatest and most eloquent expounder of Catholic truth alive! His name was Gregory. His home, Nazianzen, was in Cappadocia, which today is eastern Turkey. Two other saints were from the same area. They were brothers and very close friends of St. Gregory: St. Basil the Great, who had just died, and St. Gregory of Nyssa. All three were indefatigable in their zeal in combating Arianism, and they are gratefully referred to by the Church as “the Cappadocian Doctors.”
It is a very rare thing to see a saint just drop in out of the blue. True, the history of the Church will always have it St. Thomas Aquinases or St. Francis of Assisis, both of whom were not known to have been bred in the most pious of homes; nevertheless ninety percent of the time a saint is a product of saintly if not outright sainted parents. Sts. Basil and Gregory Nazianzen are of this latter group, because both their mothers and fathers are canonized. In fact, in the case of Basil, even his grandmother is a saint. Her name is Macrina the Elder. How fondly did this great doctor remember in his latter years those first sentiments of Christian piety he drank in upon these worn and prayerful knees. St. Macrina was privileged in her younger years to hear the preaching of the great wonder-worker St. Gregory Thaumaturgus. With her own eyes she once saw this holy man move a mountain by the power of his prayers because it stood in the way of a church he intended to build. From Macrina sanctity seemed to descend effortlessly upon her son Basil the Elder. His wife Emmelia too is canonized, so is his daughter, Macrina the Younger, and his three sons, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Peter of Sebaste.
On the other family tree the roots of sancity are not so deep, but in certain respects even more impressive. St. Gregory Nazianzen’s father, St. Gregory the Elder, was once a worshipper of the gods. Due to the influence of his holy wife St. Nonna, he was converted and achieved sainthood by an exemplary and mortified life. Gregory’s brother Caesarius also is canonized. A famous physician stationed in the court of the emperor, he left the service of Julian the Apostate rather than endanger his salvation. His sister, St. Gorgonia, is no less distinguished for her great piety.
The friendship between Basil the Great and Gregory went back to their early years when they studied and climbed the mountain of perfection together at rhetorical school in Athens. The two confreres were reunited later when, at Basil’s bidding, Gregory was invited to retire into a monastery he had founded. Almost the entire family of Basil entered the monastic life under his direction. He also encouraged his sister Macrina to head a convent of women united for the same purpose. Into this haven his mother Emmelia retired.
So peaceful and so conducive to holiness was this early “school for piety” that St. Gregory describes the few years he spent there with his friend as the happiest of his life. What a blessing it would be today if we had just a few of these “schools.” There’s no reason why the spirit that motivated these Cappadocian families could not motivate our Catholic families in America. That doesn’t mean that the members of one’s household have to don the monastic habit and take the vows of religion as Basil’s family did. But it does mean that every Catholic home could be a place where piety is taught and encouraged and where nothing displeasing to God is tolerated.
One of the Cappadocian doctors, St. Gregory of Nyssa, has given us an amusing eye-witness description of the religious anarchy that pervaded the eastern capital at the height of its Arian domination, which would be around the time of his namesake’s arrival:
“Everywhere, in the public squares, at crossroads, on the streets and lanes, people used to stop you and discourse at random about the Trinity. If you asked something of a moneychanger, he would begin discussing the question of the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you questioned a baker about the price of bread, he would answer that the Father is greater and the Son is subordinate of Him. If you went to take a bath, the Anomoean (semi-Arian) bath attendant would tell you that in his opinion the Son simply comes from nothing. Must we say these people were out of their heads? At any rate heresy had upset their minds.”
The Catholics who had lived so many years in this strange and violent atmosphere were filled with joy when they heard that the saint from Nazianzen had heard their plea and was coming to relieve them. Remember, Constantinople had not seen a Catholic bishop for forty years! When Gregory arrived in the city, so many impoverished souls flocked to him that he immediately began the construction of a chapel in the home of a relative in order to better accommodate them. “They came to me,” the Saint said, “like parched people seeking a spring to slake their thirst.” St. Gregory called the new chapel the Anastasis, which mans the Resurrection, “for it is this church,” he said, “which has revived the word of God, so long despised in Constantinople.” The year was 379.
Such was the liveliness and depth of Gregory’s knowledge and the overpowering effect of his speech that his popularity could hardly keep from growing. However, when the inevitable happened, that is, the attraction of good souls to the truth, so also did the jealousy of wicked men fume to a pitch. One day a band of Arians appeared at the church of the Anastasis and began hurling stones at the Catholics and shouting, “Down with those who adore three Gods!” One of the parishioners was grievously struck and left for dead and even St. Gregory himself was wounded.
It was about this same time that the Emperor Theodosius finally arrived. Who can adequately express the joy that overflowed from the hearts of these poor Catholic people, who had suffered from the cruelty of the Arians for so long, as they marched out to meet the Catholic emperor, their deliverer, with the holy Bishop Gregory. The combination proved devastating to the Arians. Within one month after his arrival, Theodosius had evicted the heretics from every church in the city….without one incident of violence! However, the air was far from being free of tension. St. Gregory dramatically brings to life the reoccupation of the famed basilica of Saint Sophia:
“A heavy fog covered the city like a sinister veil. Around the basilica, the throng of Arians, evicted from their temple, murmured as though preparing for an outbreak. Cries of rage against me were heard from the midst of the crowd. The Emperor, surrounded by officers, came out of the palace. I preceded him, pale, trembling, scarcely breathing…. Theodosius, calm and undisturbed, advanced. At length, hardly knowing how I reached there, I found myself within the basilica….I intoned, with all the clergy, a canticle of thanksgiving. At that moment, by a heavenly favor, the sun, scattering the clouds, lighted up the temple with a radiant brightness. You would have said that the empire of darkness was at last yielding to the light of Christ. The tabernacle sparkled with a thousand flashes. A unanimous shout burst forth like thunder. ‘Gregory the bishop,’ said the throng, of a sudden converted. This cry was repeated continually.”
The Council Convenes
With the Arians humbled in Constantinople, Theodosius, in concert with his friend Pope Damasus, sent out a personal invitation to all the Catholic bishops of the East requiring their attendance at a council to be convened in the capital city that May, the year of Our Lord 381. Since the synod was not meant to be ecumenical (universal) in the strict sense of the word, as was Nicaea before it, and also since a similar convocation had been planned for the West that same year, the Pope himself did not attend, nor did he think it necessary to send his representatives.
The council was to have a threefold purpose: To confirm the faith of Nicaea; officially to establish St. Gregory as the Bishop of Constantinople; and, by issuing certain regulations, to strengthen the peace the Church was enjoying under Theodosius.
The sessions lasted from May to July with a hundred and fifty bishops attending. This figure does not include the thirty-six Macedonian prelates whom the Emperor had invited to come in the hope of winning them from their heresy concerning the Holy Ghost.
The presidency went to St. Meletius, the Patriarch of Antioch. There, at the council’s insistence, St. Gregory was consecrated officially as the Bishop of Constantinople. The holy doctor was reluctant at first to accept the honor; however, perceiving that in this new capacity he could more effectively influence a solution to the division then upsetting the church of Antioch, he acquiesced.
For twenty years the Syrian Catholics were split into two factions: those who supported St. Meletius as their Patriarch (the same who resided over the synod) and those who followed a priest named Paulinus. The circumstances from which the division emanated are too involved to include in this article; however, the repercussions the schism had upon the universal Church are of great magnitude. Paulinus received the backing of the Pope Damasus and with him the entire West, while Meletius enjoyed the support of practically the entire East, not excluding many great saints.
Whether or not St. Gregory intended to bring the Antiochene problem before the attention of the council is uncertain. However, an unexpected tragedy forced the controversial issue to the front. Shortly after the sessions began, St. Meletius was attacked by a severe illness and within three days he was dead!
The question before the floor now was: Who would succeed Meletius as Patriarch of Antioch? No one had any problem as to who should take over as president of the synod — that went to St. Gregory. But, as to the Patriarchate of Syria — that was going to cause a problem — a problem the new president didn’t expect. So, when the Cappadocian suggested that Paulinus be given the See in conformity to an agreement the two contenders had long ago made… the assembly was silent! Obviously they disagreed ! In an attempt to strengthen his proposal, the holy doctor made the fatal mistake of referring to the support Paulinus enjoyed in the West — of course that meant the Bishop of Rome. A murmur of discontent buzzed through the episcopal ranks. A young rebellious prelate shouted: “Was it not in the East that Christ was born?” “Yes!” the Saint replied, quite taken back, “but it was also in the East that He was put to death.” A spirit of insurrection was clearly manifest. The issue between East and West has been the same ever since: Is the Pope the head of the universal Church or isn’t he? After this verbal impasse nothing that Gregory said seemed of any avail; instead of Paulinus the council chose a priest named Flavian and so the Meletian schism was perpetuated.
St. Gregory’s Denouement
It was painfully clear to Gregory that his opinion didn’t carry much weight. Perhaps many of his fellow eastern shepherds disliked his strong loyalty to Rome, and for whatever the Saint once had was gone….and he knew it! More and more he sought to retire; a sickly melancholy enveloped him; he showed up less and less frequently at the meetings; eventually, he stopped attending altogether.
At the height of this crisis the bishops from Alexandria arrived. These haughty men harbored some sort of grudge against St. Gregory and immediately they informed the council that they considered his promotion to the See of Constantinople — uncanonical! The holy doctor received this news with a sigh of relief — it was his passport to freedom! Appearing the next day before his fellow bishops he announced his resignation, both from the synod and from his bishopric — yet not one voice was heard in protest! In fact, with the exception of a few loyal friends, most of the bishops seemed delighted with his decision. Even much later the wound was still fresh in the Saint’s heart: “I must say,” he once confided, “they acquiesced in my decision with more readiness than might have been expected.”
The active career of St. Gregory Nazianzen was over. Calling the council and his spiritual children together in the church of the Anastasis, he gave what was customary in those days, a parting address, only this time the Saint’s lofty soul seemed to break the barriers of flesh as he took leave of all that he loved:
“Farewell to you, Anastasis church, that acquired your name from our devout confidence; farewell, mighty and famous temple, our new conquest….farewell sacred songs, harmony of psalms, gatherings of orphans and widows, the looks of the poor turned toward God and toward me…. Farewell, East and West, for whom I have striven and by whom I am crushed. Farewell, guardian angels of this Church, who protected my presence and will protect my exile….And Thou, Holy Trinity, my thought and my glory. May they conserve Thee, and mayest Thou save them. O Trinity, save my people; may I learn each day that they are growing in wisdom and virtue! Children, may the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.”
From here, Gregory returned to his native Nazianzen where he spent the remainder of his life composing sacred poems far from the ingratitude of men. He has been surnamed by the Church, “the Theologian,” a title which he shares with only one other, and that is the Apostle St. John. Three hundred and eighty-nine was the year of his death; the day was May 9.
The council still had much to do. There were the Macedonians, who had been attending the sessions all along, yet had never once given any indication of a change of heart. After repeated attempts at convincing them of the fallacy of their doctrine, the synod was forced to anathematize them. So stubborn were these “enemies of the Spirit,” as they were called, that they said they would rather join the Arians than accept the doctrine of consubstantiality. Along with them were condemned their Arian friends, only this time the council was careful to add all the various types of the heresy, specifically enumerating each. These anathemas made up the first canon.
The third canon is of special note in that it gave Constantinople a preeminence of honor over the three Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, making it second only to Rome — because, the decree stated, “Constantinople is the New Rome!” Pope Damasus refused to approve the canon which he considered an insult to the dignity of the above-mentioned Sees, each of whom owed their preeminence to apostolic foundation. Canon three, however, lingered on and on until it finally was adopted into the Church’s approved canons by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).
From this synod we also have the immortal Nicaea-Constantinople Creed. this symbol of faith, known simply as the Nicene Creed, is an enlargement upon that which emanated from the first ecumenical council in that it laid special emphasis on the divinity of the Holy Ghost:
“And we believe in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of Life, who proceedeth from the Father; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spoke by the Prophets.”
This formula of faith is read at Mass immediately after the Gospel every Sunday, every major feast day, every feast of an apostle, and in each of the thirty-two Masses honoring a doctor of the church. The only addition holy Mother the Church has seen fit to make to this profession since its promulgation is the insertion of the Filioque (and the Son) in the above text. Thus, concerning the procession of the Holy Ghost, the creed now reads: “who proceedeth from the Father and the Son; “.
In the history of dogma the danger seems to have been to conceive the mission of the Holy Ghost as being one parallel to that of the Son, as if there were two independent processions from the Father. According to this false conception, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity would be just as much a “Son” as the Second Person. The Son’s proper relation to the Father must be protected. If the Holy Ghost proceeded from the Father alone, then how could the Son be the “perfect image” of the Father? In other words how could the Son be identical to the Father if the Father was capable of another generation paralleling that of the Son? This false belief regarding the procession of the Holy Ghost is maintained by the schismatic Orthodox churches today and it is also the root cause of the current confusion in the Catholic Church over the inappropriately named “Pentecostal Movement.” On the contrary, the true Trinitarian doctrine is that the Second Person alone is the unique and “Only-Begotten Son of God.”
How then does the Paraclete proceed? The Holy Ghost does not proceed from either the Father alone or the Son alone, but from both Father and Son as One. The ineffable mystery of the spiration of the Spirit is to be understood as a procession emanating from the reciprocal love being communicated between the first two Persons of the Trinity. The Eternal Lover Who is the Father, eternally begets the Eternal Loved-One, Who is His Only Son, and from the mutual love that eternally flows between the Father and the Son, Who is His Perfect Image, proceeds eternally — or spirates — Love Itself, Who is the Holy Ghost. To explain this beautiful truth in a different sense would be to destroy the right concept of the Unity in the Trinity or the Oneness of Nature in the Three Divine Persons.
The First Council of Constantinople, like Nicaea before it, was a triumph for the true doctrine of the Trinity. Its success, however, was unquestionable owed to St. Gregory Nazianzen, whose empty chair spoke more eloquently than his gifted tongue could ever have hoped to. Like Our Lord, Gregory was humiliated. Yet, what greater victory is there than that which was won upon the shameful wood of the cross? “Unless the grain of wheat falling into the ground die, itself remaineth alone. But if it die it bringeth forth much fruit.” Like the grain of wheat St. Gregory was crushed into the ground, having been rejected even by his friends. As far as the world was concerned the holy doctor was dead. Yet his final humiliation was his greatest exaltation. Like the cross he was lifted above his fellows, and for all eternity he bears the mark of honor upon his forehead: Gregory the “Theologian”! Through his zeal and the council he inspired, the world will forever know that God is a Blessed Trinity!
All the decrees previously mentioned that issued forth from this memorable assembly were stamped with the approval of Peter in the person of Pope St. Damasus except, as was said, the third canon. One might rightly wonder why this synod is considered ecumenical (which means “universal” — not “interfaith” — ) when the West did not attend? In this case its high rank was due rather to the importance that the universal Church attached to the council’s creed. Pope Vigilius (538-555) was the first Pontiff to list it among the three councils then accepted as general: Nicaea, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. Not long after that, Pope St. Gregory the Great placed it among the same when he paralleled the importance of these first four councils with the dignity of honor the four Gospels enjoy among the other inspired books of Scripture.
To be sure, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, was looking over this assembly with a very Personal interest. His protection and presence were clearly manifested in all that concerned the assent of conscience. Our Savior’s words are faithful: the spirit of Truth will be with the Church always, even if those through whom He speaks are many times unworthy of His gifts and consolations.