Filed under: Patristics
Well, the Pope is all over the news treading the tarmac in Turkey’s capital, Ankara, and visiting tombs there. So the Buckeye Banshee Maureen coaxed me out of my cave to give a brief tour of the city known to readers of the Fathers as Ancyra.
The pope knows as well as Maureen that he is walking on holy ground, sanctified by the blood of martyrs, sacred to the memory of the Fathers. Ancyra was the site of three important gathering of bishops. The old Catholic Encyclopedia summarizes them briefly and well. The first Synod of Ancyra came in 314 A.D., just after the most severe and thoroughgoing persecution of the early Church, the persecution of Diocletian. The bishops gathered to settle a number of disciplinary questions, perhaps most importantly the question of the readmission of the “lapsi,” those who had renounced faith under torture or threat of death. That council produced twenty-five canons. Nine deal with conditions for the penance and reconciliation of the lapsi. All in all, an important meeting of leaders proven by fire, resulting in good guidance for the Church, and a monument of the early Church’s administration of the sacrament of penance.
The synod of 358 was not so good. It was a Semi-Arian gathering, and while the bishops there condemned the grosser Arian blasphemies, they set forth a poor remedy — a compromise proposition that the Son was similar to the Father, but not identical in substance. Homoousios meant “same in substance” (or “one in being,” as we recite in the Sunday Mass translation of the creed). Homoiousios — the word the semi-Arians promoted — meant “similar in substance.” This comporomise caused no end of difficulty for the good guys, like St. Athanasius. Homoousios, homoiousios: it was just one iota’s difference. But that was all the difference in the world, and good men were willing to die for the sake of the difference.
In 375, Arian bishops met at Ancyra and deposed several bishops, among them the brilliant St. Gregory of Nyssa. He was an incompetent administrator. We know this from his own admissions and from the exasperation of his brother St. Basil the Great. But he was an effective teacher, and this was surely the cause of his deposition.
One of Ancyra’s most famous sons was the fourth-century bishop Basil, a member of the homoiousian party — in fact, he was the very man who presided over the semi-Arian synod in 358. (Basil of Ancyra is not to be confused with Basil the Great, who was an early associate of his.) This lesser Basil opposed the hardline Arians, but opposed Athanasius too, and he ardently promoted the use of terms of compromise in the creed.
History was to prove him badly mistaken. Yet, in spite of his linguistic failings, Basil certainly loved Christ and His Church. When the persecutions returned, ever so briefly, under the ex-Christian emperor Julian, Basil was forbidden to preach or preside at the liturgy. He did so anyway. He was captured, tried, and tortured at Ancyra. Julian himself, when passing through the city on his way to Antioch, tried to persuade Basil to give up the faith. Julian, who had written one of antiquity’s most famous anti-Christian tracts, told Basil: “I myself am well skilled in your mysteries; and I can inform you, that Christ, in whom you place your trust, died under Pilate, and remains among the dead.” Basil didn’t buy it. He replied: “You are deceived; you have renounced Christ at a time when he conferred on you the empire. But he will deprive you of it, together with your life. As you have thrown down his altars, so will he overturn your throne.” Enraged, Julian condemned Basil to be flayed alive. And he was. The bishop of Ancyra was hung up, first by the wrists, and then upside down by his ankles. His body was torn with rakes and finally pierced by hot iron spikes.
Julian the Apostate continued on his way to the empire’s frontier, where he would soon die in battle during his Persian campaign.
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