In the year 203, a child, who was given the name Theodore, was born to a wealthy pagan couple in Neocaesaria. This child was destined to play an important part in the life of the Christian Church and to be numbered among the saints.
Theodore was an intelligent, precocious child – one who excelled in his studies of Greek and Egyptian philosophy. His family’s intention was for him to become a lawyer and to prepare him for this, Theodore was sent to Alexandria to study while still a teenager. In the fortuitous ways of God, it was there that Theodore met the prominent Christian teacher, Origen.
It was not long before Theodore began to question the pagan religion of his childhood and to desire to become a Christian. He was baptized by his teacher and took the new name of Gregory as he took on the new life of one who would follow Christ.
An incident from his student days shows how Gregory exhibited patience in adversity and forgiveness toward his enemies. Some fellow students, who were jealous of his abilities and ridiculed him for his virtuous living, played a cruel trick on him. They hired a well-known local prostitute to approach Gregory in a public place and demand payment which he owed for her “services”. When Gregory quietly replied that she was wrong, the woman persisted more loudly, attracting a crowd of curious people. To the delight of the perpetrators of this trick, Gregory paid the woman what she was demanding in the hopes of avoiding a further disturbance. Many in the crowd of onlookers were beginning to believe that this outwardly moral young man was not so good after all when the woman fell down, writhing in a violent convulsion. Gregory prayed over her and she soon recovered and apologized for participating in such a sham, restoring his reputation in the eyes of all.
Gregory abandoned the idea of becoming a lawyer and instead, went into the desert to devote himself entirely to contemplating the ways of God, praying and meditating on his goodness and mercy. He spent several years in the practice of extreme asceticism and as word spread of this intense man in the desert, he was sought out for spiritual counsel. When Gregory decided to make a visit to his hometown, the seventeen Christians who lived there gathered in anticipation of meeting him and asking him to become their bishop. In one of the many instances of his gift of foreknowledge, Gregory sensed this and, fearing the responsibility of being a shepherd, he went back deeper into the desert. Eventually, however, he assented to the will of the people and agreed to be consecrated as the bishop for seventeen people in a largely pagan city.
Through the following thirty years, Bishop Gregory was the instrument of God in reversing the make-up of the city of Neocaesaria. He was wise in his dealings with the people of his flock and their pagan neighbors and he was known for his neverwaning optimism. There were many events which could only be explained as miraculous. Once, when he was caught outside during a violent storm, he ran inside the nearest building – a pagan temple. He had to spend the night there and the next day, the pagan priest reported that he was unable to perform any of his usual ceremonies. The priest was so impressed with the Christian bishop’s powers that he sought conversion himself.
Another miraculous story shows how God’s answers to our problems can sometimes be humorous. Two brothers were fighting over their inheritance – a piece of land which included a lake which they both insisted belonged to their portion of the land. They asked the bishop to settle the dispute and after his fervent prayers for a resolution, the lake dried up in a very short time, eliminating the problem!
Bishop Gregory had a vision which greatly influenced his understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. He saw an old man and a woman in his vision. The man told Gregory that he was sent by God to explain the faith to him. The woman, whom Gregory realized was the Blessed Virgin Mary, addressed the man as John (the Evangelist) and asked him to proceed. John then explained to Gregory the relationship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Gregory composed a creed based on this vision which was preserved and in the next century was used in the formulation of the Nicene Creed.
When the persecution of Christians began under the Emperor Decius in 250, Bishop Gregory advised his people to flee the area in order to preserve the Christian community for the future. Although the martyrdoms of many saints in other places and times contributed to the growth of the Church, this was the best plan for this place and time. The bishop and his deacon, who hid in the desert, were saved from discovery by the soldiers because they appeared to them as trees. The persecution ended the next year with the death of Decius, and the bishop and his people were able to return to the practice of their faith.
During his years as bishop, Gregory saw the conversion of so many people that a large church had to be built to accommodate the services for so many. As he lay dying at nearly seventy years of age, St. Gregory asked how many pagans were still left in Neocaesaria. Seventeen, he was told – the exact number of Christians he had first ministered to in this city. On the 17th of November in the year 270, St. Gregory entered the heavenly kingdom, thankful that his labors had changed the course of history in that place. Holy Gregory, pray for us.