The Church commemorates two pastors today, separated by a millennium and a half: The fourth-century Eusebius of Vercelli (+371), the first bishop we know of in northern Italy, who has gone down in history as one of the great foes of the insidious heresy of Arianism, that Christ was not truly God, suffered much for the truth – painful and lonely exiles, at one point even being dragged through the streets, for his resistance to the Emperor’s own support for the heresy. After all, if Christ be not the Almighty – our very Lord and God – then Caesar has no earthly rivals, and he becomes the mediator between God and men. Arianism would have meant not just the death of the Church, but of society, ensuring an unending tyrannical reign of plenipotentiary dictators, as we have seen in so many atheistic regimes. Hence, Eusebius became one of the great supporters of Saint Athanasius and the orthodox teaching of the Nicene Council (325), that Christ truly was homo-ousios, con-substantial, of the same substance and essence as the Father – God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God.
Eusebius was also the first to combine the monastic and priestly life, forming a community of clerics in the pursuit of holiness, and to better regulate their pastoral ministry. He also set up Marian shrines in the countryside, to aid in the devotion of wayfarers, and the conversion of the pagans – literally, those who live in rural areas.
Here is a snippet of Pope Benedict’s own take on this endearing saint, whose personality shines through the ages:
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 heresy. 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.
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.
(For the rest of Pope Benedict’s address, please see here).
We also remember Saint Peter Julian Eymard (+1868), the Apostle of the Eucharist in an age of rising rationalism (Marx’s Communist Manifesto was published in 1858, and Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859). From childhood, Peter Julian had a great devotion to the Eucharist and to Our Lady (the two go together like, say, maple syrup and pancakes, to use a very dim analogy). Peter never deviated from his precocious devotion, and in young adulthood began his formal religious journey in the novitiate of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. But ill health – he suffered from some sort of lung affliction and frequent migraines – forced him to leave, and enter the diocesan priesthood. He reformed a rural parish where there was little faith, but still felt called elsewhere, to some sort of community life, so joined the missionary Order of the Marists – the Society of Mary.
Here he flourished for a time, but again felt called to devote his life to Eucharistic adoration, and received permission to depart and begin his own community, the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament, whose founding is traditionally traced back to January 6th, 1857, when Eymard and a companion, Raymond du Cuers, began their apostolate of adoration at a dilapidated building, whose address ironically was 114 Rue d’Enfers – the road to hell! God does have a sense of humour, and we all know that saying about the gates of hell; certainly, Father Eymard made the street a road to heaven.
After an all-too-brief life of priestly prayer and ministry, he died of a brain hemorrhage on August 1, 1868, a year before the first Vatican Council, and was canonized by Pope Saint John XXIII a century later, on December 9th, 1962, not long before the Second Council at the Vatican. The saints do signify tradition. Pope Saint John Paul II declared Peter Julian Eymard the ‘Apostle of the Eucharist’.
A final historical footnote about Father Eymard: It was under his direction and advice that the sculptor Auguste Rodin – most famed for the ubiquitously-copied-and-parodied ‘The Thinker’ – entered the Catholic Church, becoming a lay brother in the very congregation Eymard had founded. In gratitude, Rodin sculpted a bust of the saint, providing us with his vivid likeness. In the end, Rodin got the better part of that exchange.
Both saints teach us that Christ is the Way, the only path, to heaven. And the more fully and faithfully we trod that road – by Mass, Holy Communion, Eucharistic adoration, devotion to Our Lady and the saints – the more surely we will reach that blessed end of heaven.
Saints Eusebius and Peter Julian, orate pro nobis!