Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On St. Eusebius of Vercelli
"He Governed the Church With the Austerity of Fasting"
H.H. Benedict XVI
October 17, 2007
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 sure knowledge. Born in
Sardinia at the beginning of the fourth century, at a young age he
transferred to Rome with his family. Later he was instituted as a
lector: In this way he came to form part of the clergy of Urbe, during
the time that the Church was suffering the difficult test of the Arian
The great esteem that many had for Eusebius explains his election, in
345, as the bishop of Vercelli. The new bishop immediately began an
intense program of evangelization in a territory that was still to a
large extent pagan, especially in the rural areas.
Inspired by St. Athanasius -- who had written "The Life of St. Anthony,"
founder of Eastern monasticism -- founded in Vercelli a community of
priests, similar to a monastic community. This monastery gave to the
clergy of northern Italy a significant character of apostolic sanctity,
and inspired important bishops such as Limenio and Honoratus, successors
of Eusebius in Vercelli, Gaudentius in Novara, Exuperantius in Tortona,
Eustasius in Aosta, Eulogius in Ivrea, Maximus in Turin, all venerated
by the Church as saints.
Solidly formed in the faith of the Council of Nicaea, Eusebius defended
with all his strength the full divinity of Jesus Christ, defined by the
Nicene Creed as "of the same nature" as the Father. With this objective
he allied himself with the great fathers of the fourth century, above
all St. Athanasius, the herald of the Nicene orthodoxy, against the
pro-Arian politics of the emperor.
For the emperor the simpler Arian faith was more useful politically as
an ideology of the empire. For him the truth didn't count, only the
political opportunity: He wanted to use religion as a tie to unite the
empire. But these great fathers resisted, defending the truth over and
against political domination. For this reason, Eusebius was condemned to
exile, as were other bishops of the East and the West: such as
Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers -- of whom we spoke last week -- and
Osius of Cordoba. At Scythopolis in Palestine, where he was confined
from 355 to 360, Eusebius wrote a wonderful page of his life. Here too
he founded a monastery with a small group of disciples, and from there
maintained correspondence with this faithful in Piedmont, which is
demonstrated best by the second of the three letters of Eusebius that
have been recognized as authentic.
After 360 he was exiled to Cappadocia and in Thebaid, where he suffered
severe physical maltreatment. In 361, Emperor Constantius II died, and
was succeeded by Emperor Julian, known as the Apostate, who was not
interested in Christianity as the religion of empire, but rather wanted
to restore paganism. He ended the exile of bishops and in this way
permitted Eusebius to take back his see.
In 362 Eusebius was invited by Athanasius to participate in the Council
of Alexandria, which decided to pardon Arian bishops provided they
reverted to the lay state. Eusebius was able to exercise his episcopal
ministry for another decade, until he died, establishing with his city
an exemplary relationship, which inspired the pastoral service of other
bishops of northern Italy, whom we shall talk about in future
catecheses, such as 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 testimonies. The first is found in the
letter we already cited, which Eusebius wrote from exile in Scythopolis
"to my most delightful brethren and to my beloved priests, as well as to
the holy peoples of Vercelli, Novara, Ivrea and Tortona, keeping firm in
the faith" ("Ep. secunda," CCL 9, p. 104).
These greetings, which show the emotion of the good shepherd when
speaking to his flock, is confirmed to a large extent at the end of the
letter, in the warm greetings of the father to each and every one of his
sons in Vercelli, with expressions overflowing with affection and love.
One must underline above all the explicit relationship that unites the
bishop to the "sanctae plebes" [holy people] not only of Vercelli -- the
first, and for many more years, the only diocese of the Piedmont region
-- but also of Novara, Ivrea and Tortona, that is to say, those
Christian communities within his diocese that had reached a certain
consistency and autonomy.
Another interesting element can be found in the farewell of the letter:
Eusebius asks his sons and daughters to greet "even those who are
outside the Church, and who have deigned to love us:" (etiam hos, qui
foris sunt et nos dignantur diligere.) This is an evident sign that the
bishop's relationship with his city was not limited to the Christian
population, but also extended to those outside the Church who recognized
in a certain sense his spiritual authority, and loved this exemplary
The second testimony of the singular relationship the bishop had with
his city appears in the letter that St. Ambrose of Milan wrote to the
Christians of Vercelli around 394, more than 20 years after Eusebius'
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 declared that he
couldn't recognize in them "the descendants of the holy fathers, who
elected Eusebius as soon as they saw him, without even having known him
beforehand, passing over even their own fellow citizens." In the same
letter, the bishop of Milan clearly bore witness to his esteem for
Eusebius: "A great man," he wrote decisively, who "deserved to be
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
To begin with, Ambrose noted, the bishop of Vercelli gathered his own
priests into "vita communis" [community life] and educated them "in the
observance of monastic rules, even though they lived in the middle of
the city." The bishop 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 (cf. Hebrews 13:14). Thus
they truly constructed a genuine citizenship in true solidarity with the
citizens of Vercelli.
In this way 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
Among other things, it seems that he set up parish churches in Vercelli
to establish ecclesial services that were organized and stable, and that
he promoted Marian shrines for the conversion of pagan rural
populations. On the contrary, this "monastic character" gave a
particular dimension to 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" (John 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
rather to seek the future city, the definitive Jerusalem in heaven. This
"eschatological dimension" allows the pastors and the faithful to
protect the hierarchy of just values, without giving into the trend of
the moment, or to the unjust demands of political power. The authentic
hierarchy of values, Eusebius' 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 Father in divinity, but at the same time a man
Referring to this scale of values, Eusebius does not tire of
"recommending without reservations" to his faithful to guard, "with
every resource, the faith, to maintain harmony, to be assiduous in
prayer" ("Ep. secunda," cit.).
Dear brothers and sisters, I too recommend to you with all my heart
these perennial values, and I bless and greet you with the same words
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 love us" (ibid.).
[Translation by ZENIT]
[After the audience, the Pope greeted the people in various languages.
In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In our catechesis on the teachers of the ancient Church, we now turn to
Saint Eusebius of Vercelli. Eusebius was born in Sardinia at the
beginning of the fourth century, educated in Rome and eventually elected
Bishop of Vercelli. There he founded a priestly community inspired by
the early monastic communities of Egypt, and helped to spread the ideal
of apostolic holiness throughout northern Italy.
Eusebius tirelessly defended the full divinity of Christ proclaimed at
the Council of Nicaea, even at the cost of exile. His example of
pastoral zeal greatly influenced many of his contemporaries, including
Saints Ambrose and Maximus of Turin. Eusebius' Letters testify to his
closeness to the faithful of Vercelli, as well as his concern for those
who were not of the faith. His episcopal ministry was shaped by his
commitment to the monastic ideals of contemplation and self-discipline.
He thus found the strength to resist every form of external pressure in
his faithful service to the Gospel. May his teachings and example
inspire us, in all our life and activity, to "make every effort to
preserve the faith, to live in harmony and to be constant in the
practice of prayer" (cf. Ep. II).
I warmly greet the Immaculate Heart Sisters from Nigeria who celebrate
the seventieth anniversary of their foundation. I likewise greet the
members of the national pilgrimage of Tanzania. My welcome also goes to
the Lutheran pilgrims from Norway and to the members of Serra
International. Upon all the English-speaking visitors, including those
from England, Scotland, Ireland, Australia, Papua New Guinea, Japan, the
Philippines and the United States, I invoke God's abundant blessings.
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