Bishop of Caesarea, and one of the most distinguished Doctors of the Church. Born probably 329; died January 1, 379. He ranks after Athanasius as a defender of the Oriental Church against the heresies of the fourth century. With his friend Gregory of Nazianzus and his brother Gregory of Nyssa, he makes up the trio known as "The Three Cappadocians", far outclassing the other two in practical genius and actual achievement.
St. Basil the Elder, father of St. Basil the Great, was the son of a Christian of good birth and his wife, Macrina both of whom suffered for the faith during the persecution of Maximinus Galerius (305-314), spending several years of hardship in the wild mountains of Pontus. St. Basil the Elder was noted for his virtue (Acta SS, May, VII) and also won considerable reputation as a teacher in Caesarea. He married Emmelia, the daughter of a Martyr and became the father of ten children. Three of these, Macrina, Basil, and Gregory are honoured as Saints; and of the sons, Peter, Gregory, and Basil attained the dignity of the episcopate.
Under the care of his father and his grandmother, the elder Macrina, who preserved the traditions of their countryman, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus (c. 213-275) Basil was formed in habits of piety and study. He was still young when his father died and the family moved to the estate of the elder Macrina at Annesi in Pontus, on the banks of the Iris. As a boy, he was sent to school at Caesarea, then "a metropolis of letters", and conceived a fervent admiration for the local bishop, Dianius. Later, he went to Constantinople, at that time "distinguished for its teachers of philosophy and rhetoric", and thence to Athens. Here he became the inseparable companion of Gregory of Nazianzus, who, in his famous panegyric on Basil, gives a most interesting description of their academic experiences. According to him, Basil was already distinguished for brilliancy of mind and seriousness of character and associated only with the most earnest students. He was able, grave, industrious, and well advanced in rhetoric, grammar, philosophy, astronomy, geometry, and medicine.
To the successful student and distinguished professor, "there now remained", says Gregory, "no other need than that of spiritual perfection". Basil himself tells us how, like a man roused from deep sleep, he turned his eyes to the marvelous truth of the Gospel, wept many tears over his miserable life, and prayed for guidance from God: "Then I read the Gospel, and saw there that a great means of reaching perfection was the selling of one's goods, the sharing of them with the poor, the giving up of all care for this life, and the refusal to allow the soul to be turned by any sympathy towards things of earth" (Ep. ccxxiii). To learn the ways of perfection, Basil now visited the monasteries of Egypt, Palestine, Coele-Syria, and Mesopotamia. He returned, filled with admiration for the austerity and piety of the monks, and founded a monastery in his native Pontus, on the banks of the Iris, nearly opposite Annesi. Basil became known as the father of Oriental monasticism, the forerunner of St. Benedict. How well he deserved the title, how seriously and in what spirit he undertook the systematizing of the religious life, may be seen by the study of his Rule. He seems to have read Origen's writings very systematically about this time, for in union with Gregory of Nazianzus, he published a selection of them called the "Philocalia".
Basil was drawn from his retreat into the area of theological controversy in 360 when he accompanied two delegates from Seleucia to the emperor at Constantinople, and supported his namesake of Ancyra. There is some dispute as to his courage and his perfect orthodoxy on this occasion (cf. Philostorgius, Hist. Eccl., IV, xii; answered by Gregory of Nyssa, In Eunom., I, and Maran, Proleg., vii; Tillemont, Mém., note XVIII). A little later, however, both qualities seem to have been sufficiently in evidence, as Basil forsook Dianius for having signed the heretical creed of Rimini. To this time (c. 361) may be referred the "Moralia"; and a little later came two books against Eunomius (363) and some correspondence with Athanasius. It is possible, also, that Basil wrote his monastic rules in the briefer forms while in Pontus, and enlarged them later at Caesarea. There is an account of an invitation from Julian for Basil to present himself a court and of Basil's refusal, coupled with an admonition that angered the emperor and endangered Basil's safety. Both incident and correspondence however are questioned by some critics.
In 370 Basil succeeded to the See of Caesarea, being consecrated according to tradition. Caesarea was then a powerful and wealthy city: Its bishop was Metropolitan of Cappadocia and Exarch of Pontus which embraced more than half of Asia Minor and comprised eleven provinces. The see of Caesarea ranked with Ephesus immediately after the patriarchal sees in the councils, and the bishop was the superior of fifty chorepiscopi (Baert). Basil's actual influence covered the whole stretch of country from the Balkans to the Mediterranean and from the Aegean to the Euphrates. The need of a man like Basil in such a see as Caesarea was most pressing, and he must have known this well. Basil had so clearly defined his ideas of discipline and orthodoxy, that no one could doubt the direction and the vigour of his policy. St. Athanasius was greatly pleased at Basil's election; but the Arianizing Emperor Valens, displayed considerably annoyance and the defeated minority of bishops became consistently hostile to the new metropolitan.
Basil's letters tell the story of his tremendous and varied activity; how he worked for the exclusion of unfit candidates from the sacred ministry and the deliverance of the bishops from the temptation of simony; how he required exact discipline and the faithful observance of the canons from both laymen and clerics; how he rebuked the sinful, followed up the offending, and held out hope of pardon to the penitent. His correspondence shows that he paid visits, sent messages, gave interviews, instructed, reproved, rebuked, threatened, reproached, undertook the protection of nations, cities, individuals great and small. There was very little chance of opposing him successfully, for he was a cool, persistent, fearless fighter in defence both of doctrine and of principles. His bold stand against Valens parallels the meeting of Ambrose with Theodosius. The emperor was dumbfounded at the archbishop's calm indifference to his presence and his wishes. The incident, as narrated by Gregory of Nazianzus, not only tells much concerning Basil's character but throws a clear light on the type of Christian bishop with which the emperors had to deal and goes far to explain why Arianism, with little court behind it, could make so little impression on the ultimate history of Catholicism.
While assisting Eusebius in the care of his diocese, Basil had shown a marked interest in the poor and afflicted; that interest now displayed itself in the erection of a magnificent institution, the Ptochoptopheion, or Basileiad, a house for the care of friendless strangers, the medical treatment of the sick poor, and the industrial training of the unskilled. Built in the suburbs, it attained such importance as to become practically the centre of a new city with the name of he kaine polis or "Newtown". It was the motherhouse of like institutions erected in other dioceses and stood as a constant reminder to the rich of their privilege of spending wealth in a truly Christian way. St. Basil was a practical lover of Christian poverty, and even in his exalted position preserved that simplicity in food and clothing and that austerity of life for which he had been remarked at his first renunciation of the world.
In the midst of his labors, Basil underwent suffering of many kinds. Athanasius died in 373 and the elder Gregory in 374, both of them leaving gaps never to be filled. When Emperor Valentinian died and the Arians recovered their influence, all Basil's efforts must have seemed in vain. His health was breaking, the Goths were at the door of the empire, Antioch was in schism, Rome doubted his sincerity, the bishops refused to be brought together as he wished.
By common consent, Basil ranks among the greatest figures in Church
history and the rather extravagant panegyric by Gregory of Nazianzus
has been all but equalled by a host of other eulogists. Physically
delicate and occupying his exalted position but a few years, Basil did
magnificent and enduring work in an age of more violent world
convulsions than Christianity has since experienced. In his hands the
great metropolitan see of Caesarea took shape as the sort of model of
the Christian diocese; there was hardly any detail of episcopal
activity in which he failed to mark out guiding lines and to give
splendid example. Not the least of his glories is the fact that toward
the officials of the State he maintained that fearless dignity and
independence which later history has shown to be an indispensable
condition of healthy life in the Catholic episcopate.