St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, Bishop of Neocesarea
Meeting a master
Young Theodore – Gregory’s name from birth – was born around 213 in the city of Neoceasarea in Pontus, in present-day Turkey, into a pagan family. At fourteen, shortly after his father’s death, he and his brother Athenodorus set out for Palestine. The two adolescents were escorting their sister to Caesarea in Palestine, where her husband had been appointed a government functionary. But they had also left home with a dream: from Caesarea they would continue onto Beirut and study law in one of the most prestigious schools in the Greek-speaking world. Like many young men, they wanted to make something of themselves and leave a mark on this world.
Once they arrived in Caesarea, however, the young men found that their plans were caught up in a Plan they could not have devised. Origen, the incredibly gifted Christian writer and teacher, the head of the famous catechetical school of Alexandria, was living in that city. Curious as young men are, they went to listen to this “great name.” They were spellbound. There was something more than law here. Beirut soon evaporated from their thoughts. They had not found a famous orator; they had found a master.
A Christian and a bishop
Months of listening, conversing, arguing with this man on fire with the Scriptures did their work. Theodore became Gregory. He and his brother accepted baptism. They were Christians now, disciples of the greatest exegete of the first Christian millennium. Gregory stayed for seven years, studying philosophy and theology, learning not only to hone his skills as a writer and a speaker, but to place them at the service of the “one God” whom Gregory confessed in a remarkable Creed. The “perfect Trinity,” who had so entirely disturbed the youthful ambitions of the pagan Theodore, had made him a believer and a servant.
When Gregory and his brother finally left Caesarea to return to Pontus, ostensibly to practice law there, he was no longer surprised when his plans went awry. He had learned to pay attention to the ways of God, which are not our ways. Years of discipleship had prepared him for a task. At age forty, Gregory was elected bishop of the tiny Christian community of Neocaesarea, which numbered seventeen believers.
For thirty years, Gregory shepherded his flock. He proved a worthy disciple of his master: This bishop could preach, and soon the little flock of seventeen grew by a few souls, then by a few again, until soon they had enough believers and donations to build a new church. A creative bishop, he organized festivals in honor of the martyrs that attracted even curious pagans. He was wise, and people came to him for counsel. For the Christians, he was a strong shepherd and brave, leading them through the Decian persecution. Always he confessed the Father, “who has never been without the Son, nor the Son without the Spirit … this same Trinity … immutable and unalterable forever.”
The word began to spread even among non-believers, who quickly dwindled in numbers in this town: the bishop was a man of God, an extraordinary man with a faith so strong that wonders abounded in his presence. They began to call him “Thaumaturgus,” the “wonder-worker.” He was like a kind of opening onto heaven. But of all the miracles attributed to Gregory, perhaps the most memorable remains this: tradition states that this man, who was consecrated bishop of seventeen believers, left only seventeen non-believers in Neocaesarea at his death. Gregory had once wanted to make something of himself. Instead, the Lord of the universe made something of him: a shepherd and a father who built up the Church of God.