Every four years, we Americans endure what always seems like an endless political campaign. And then the maneuvering and “wheeling and dealing” of the political arena begin in earnest as a new president-elect makes appointments and congressional leaders seek new alliances. This is normal life for those of us who live in Washington.
There have been dark moments in the life of the Church when the machinations of politics created great divisions and brought about persecution for the saints of God. One such time was the fourth century, during the Arian controversy, when St. Eusebius of Vercelli defended Orthodox Christianity against heresy.
Born around the year 283 in Sardinia, Eusebius became a monk in a monastic community in Rome, where he received the first degree of ordination, that of Lector (or Reader). In December of the year 340, Pope Julius I consecrated Eusebius to be bishop of the city of Vercelli. According to an extant letter of St. Ambrose, Eusebius was the first monk to be made a bishop in the West. The new bishop established a common life for the clergy of the city following the example of the Eastern cenobitic communities.
As the Arian controversy raged and the influence of Arian bishops spread westward, the pope (now Liberius) asked Bishop Eusebius and his fellow bishop, Lucifer of Cagliari, to travel to Arles, where the emperor, Constantius II, was in residence, to request a council to settle the conflict. Constantius agreed and a council was called for Milan for the year 355.
Eusebius became aware of the “behind the scenes” politics leading up to the Council and tried to avoid attending. The Emperor himself was an Arian sympathizer and the majority of the bishops who would attend were also in that camp. After reluctantly agreeing to go to the gathering, Bishop Eusebius was refused admittance to the meeting for ten days while the Arian bishops drew up a document condemning Bishop Athanasius of Lyons, one of the staunchest defenders of Orthodox Trinitarian theology. After being admitted to the Council, Eusebius refused to sign the document and instead, placed a copy of the Nicene Creed before the attendees for them to sign. After chastising the Emperor for using his secular power to influence Church decisions, Bishop Eusebius was sent into exile.
The bishop was first sent to Scythopolis in Syria, where he was dragged through the streets and held captive by the Arian bishop until Eusebius resorted to the age-old tactic of a hunger strike to gain release. He was then sent to Cappadocia and later to Northern Egypt.
When Julian, a pagan, became emperor in 362, he allowed the exiled Christian bishops to return to their churches, but Eusebius remained in the East for some time longer in order to assist in quelling the Arian errors. He helped St. Athanasius with a synod in Alexandria which, while confirming Orthodox theology, decided on leniency for repentant bishops who had been swayed by Arianism. Bishop Eusebius also went to Antioch in an unsuccessful effort to help end a controversy there, and finally returned to his diocese in 363.
Back in Italy, the fight against Arianism continued, as St. Eusebius opposed the Arian bishop of Milan, Auxentius, and assisted St. Hilary of Poitiers, the “Hammer of the Arians,” in his efforts to suppress the heresy.
St. Eusebius fell asleep in the Lord in 371 at nearly 90 years of age. Having “fought the good fight” against those who would corrupt the teachings of the Church, St. Eusebius is often called a martyr for his sufferings. We ask for his heavenly intercessions that the methods of worldly politics may not affect the Church again. Holy Eusebius, pray for us.