|Pope Benedict XVI
By defending Christ’s divinity and exercising
great pastoral zeal, Eusebius inspires us even today to preserve the
faith, live in peace and pray always
On Wednesday, 17 October , during the General Audience in St. Peter's
Square, the Holy Father commented on Bishop St. Eusebius of Vercelli.
The following is a translation of the Pope's Catechesis, given in
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
This morning I invite you to reflect on St. Eusebius of Vercelli, the
first Bishop of Northern Italy of whom we have reliable information.
Born in Sardinia at the beginning of the fourth century, he moved to
Rome with his family at a tender age.
Later, he was instituted lector: he thus came to belong to the clergy of
the city at a time when the Church was seriously troubled by the Arian
The high esteem that developed around Eusebius explains his election in
345 A.D. to the Episcopal See of Vercelli. The new Bishop immediately
began an intense process of evangelization in a region that was still
largely pagan, especially in rural areas. Inspired by St. Athanasius —
who had written the Life of St. Anthony, the father of
monasticism in the East — he founded a priestly community in Vercelli
that resembled a monastic community. This coenobium impressed upon the
clergy of Northern Italy a significant hallmark of apostolic holiness
and inspired important episcopal figures such as Limenius and Honoratus,
successors of Eusebius in Vercelli, Gaudentius in Novara, Exuperantius
in Tortona, Eustasius in Aosta, Eulogius in Ivrea and Maximus in Turin,
all venerated by the Church as saints.
Defending the divinity of
With his sound formation in the Nicene faith, Eusebius did his utmost to
defend the full divinity of Jesus Christ, defined by the Nicene Creed as
"of one being with the Father".
To this end, he allied himself with the great Fathers of the fourth
century — especially St. Athanasius, the standard bearer of Nicene
orthodoxy — against the philo-Arian policies of the Emperor. For the
Emperor, the simpler Arian faith appeared politically more useful as the
ideology of the Empire. For him it was not truth that counted but rather
political opportunism: he wanted to exploit religion as the bond of
unity for the Empire. But these great Fathers resisted him, defending
the truth against political expediency.
Eusebius was consequently condemned to exile, as were so many other
Bishops of the East and West: such as Athanasius himself, Hilary of
Poitiers — of whom we spoke last time — and Hosius of Cordoba. In
Scythopolis, Palestine, to which he was exiled between 355 and 360,
Eusebius wrote a marvelous account of his life.
Here too, he founded a monastic community with a small group of
disciples. It was also from here that he attended to his correspondence
with his faithful in Piedmont, as can be seen in the second of the three
Letters of Eusebius recognized as authentic.
Later, after 360, Eusebius was exiled to Cappadocia and the Thebaid,
where he suffered serious physical ill-treatment. After his death in
361, Constantius II was succeeded by the Emperor Julian, known as "the
Apostate", who was not interested in making Christianity the religion of
the Empire but merely wished to restore paganism. He rescinded the
banishment of these Bishops and thereby also enabled Eusebius to
reinstated in his See. In 362 he was invited by Anastasius to take part
in the Council of Alexandria, which decided to pardon the Arian Bishops
as long as they returned to the secular state.
Eusebius was able to exercise his episcopal ministry for another 10
years, until he died, creating an exemplary relationship with his city
which did not fail to inspire the pastoral service of other Bishops of
Northern Italy, whom we shall reflect upon in future Catecheses, such as
St. Ambrose of Milan and St. Maximus of Turin.
For his people and his city
The Bishop of Vercelli's relationship with his city is illustrated in
particular by two testimonies in his correspondence. The first is found
in the Letter cited above, which Eusebius wrote from his exile in
Scythopolis "to the beloved brothers and priests missed so much, as well
as to the holy people with a firm faith of Vercelli, Novara, Ivrea and
Tortona (Second Letter, CCL 9, p. 104).
These first words, which demonstrate the deep emotion of the good Pastor
when he thought d his flock, are amply confirmed at the end of the
Letter his very warm fatherly greetings to each and every one of his
children in Vercelli, with expressions overflowing with affection and
One should note first of all the explicit relationship that bound the
Bishop to the sanctae plebes, not only of Vercelae/Vercelli
— the first and subsequently for some years the only Diocese in the
Piedmont — but also of Novaria/ Novara, Eporedia/Irvea and
Dertona/ Tortona, that is, of the Christian communities in the
same Diocese which had become quite numerous and acquired a certain
consistency and autonomy.
Another interesting element is provided by the farewell with which the
Letter concludes. Eusebius asked his sons and daughters to give his
greeting "also to those who are outside the Church, yet deign to nourish
feelings of love for us: etiam hos, qui foris sunt et nos dignatur
diligere". This is an obvious proof that the Bishop's relationship
with his city was not limited to the Christian population but also
extended to those who — outside the Church — recognized in some way his
spiritual authority and loved this exemplary man.
The second testimony of the Bishop's special relationship with his city
comes from the Letter St. Ambrose of Milan wrote to the
Vercellians in about 394, more than 20 years after Eusebius' death (Ep.
extra collecitonem 14: Maur. 63). The Church of Vercelli was
going through a difficult period: she was divided and lacked a Bishop.
Ambrose frankly declared that he hesitated to recognize these
Vercellians as descending from "the lineage of the holy fathers who
approved of Eusebius as soon as they saw him, without ever having known
him previously and even forgetting their own fellow citizens".
In the same Letter, the Bishop of Milan attested to his esteem
for Eusebius in the dearest possible way: “Such a great man”, he wrote
in peremptory tones, "well deserves to be elected by the whole of the
Church”. Ambrose's admiration for Eusebius was based above all on the
fact that the Bishop of Vercelli governed his Diocese with the witness
of his life: "With the austerity of fasting he governed his Church”.
Indeed, Ambrose was also fascinated, as he himself admits, by the
monastic ideal of the contemplation of God which, in the footsteps of
the Prophet Elijah, Eusebius had pursued.
A simple, holy lifestyle
First of all, Ambrose commented, the Bishop of Vercelli gathered his
clergy in vita communis and educated its members in "the
observance of the monastic rule, although they lived in the midst of the
city”. The Bishop and his clergy were to share the problems of their
fellow citizens and did so credibly, precisely by cultivating at the
saint time a different citizenship, that of Heaven (cf. Heb 13:14). And
thus, they really built true citizenship and true solidarity among all
the citizens of Vercelli.
While Eusebius was adopting the cause of the sancta plebs of
Vercelli, he lived a monk's life in the heart of the city, opening the
city to God. This trait, though, in no way diminished his exemplary
pastoral dynamism. It seems among other things that he set up parishes
in Vercelli for art orderly and stable ecclesial service and promoted
Marian shrines for the conversion of the pagan populations in the
countryside. This “monastic feature", however, conferred a special
dimension on the Bishop's relationship with his hometown.
Just like the Apostles, for whom Jesus prayed at his Last Supper, the
Pastors and faithful of the Church "are
of the world" (Jn 17:11), but not "in the world”. Therefore,
Pastors, Eusebius said, must urge the faithful not to consider the
cities of the world as their permanent dwelling place but to seek the
future city, the definitive heavenly Jerusalem.
This “eschatological reserve” enables Pastors and faithful to preserve
the proper scale of values without ever submitting to the fashions of
the moment and the unjust claims of the current political power. The
authentic scale of values — Eusebius' whole life seems to say — does not
come from emperors of the past or of today but from Jesus Christ, the
perfect Man, equal to the Father in divinity, yet a man like us.
In referring to this scale of values, Eusebius never tired of "warmly
recommending" his faithful "to jealously guard the faith, to preserve
harmony, to be assiduous in prayer' (Second Letter, op. cit.).
Dear friends, I too warmly recommend these perennial values to you as I
greet and bless you, using the very words with which the holy Bishop
Eusebius concluded his Second Letter:
"I address you all, my holy brothers and sisters, sons and daughters,
faithful of both sexes and of every age group, so that you may... bring
our greeting also to those who are outside the Church, yet deign to
nourish sentiments of love for us" (ibid.).