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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Saints for Today: Eusebius of Vercelli (283-371)

Feast Day: August 2nd

A native of Sardinia, Italy, Eusebius was born to a family who had suffered persecution for their Christianity. Eusebius was educated in Rome and then served the Church in Vercelli, in north Italy, first as lector and later as its first bishop in 340. Here he instituted a rule for his clergy, living with them a semi-monastic regime similar to that of St. Augustine. St. Ambrose reported that Eusebius was the first bishop in the West to live in a monastic community with some of his priests. Life together with his clergy gave the bishop personal support as well as an opportunity to strengthen his brothers. Eusebius believed that the spiritual health of his flock depended on the quality of his clergy. So he invested himself in training his priests, ensuring their faith, and improving their pastoral care.

That he was a serious scholar is clear from his surviving letters, the Codex Vercellensis, the Latin Gospels (the oldest such manuscripts in existence), and the composition of the Athanasian Creed. From 354 onwards his life and activity were concerned with the wider field of doctrinal orthodoxy. Pope Liberius sent him in 355 to the Emperor Constantius to negotiate for the convoking of a council in Milan to settle the Arian controversy. At this council he refused to sign a condemnation of Athanasius and insisted on all signing their adherence to the Nicene Creed before proceeding further. In the consequent quarrel he insisted that Athanasius should not be condemned unheard and that secular force should not influence ecclesiastical decisions. Outraged, the emperor banished Eusebius and had him sent into exile. Arian jailers imprisoned him in various locations in the East, where they abused him and humiliated him by dragging him naked through the streets. They also made it difficult for him to receive support from his friends, yet he managed to correspond in writing to his community at Vercelli.


Excerpt from a letter written by Eusebius while imprisoned:

When I receive a letter from one of you and see in your writings your goodness and love, joy mingles with tears, and my desire to continue reading is checked by my weeping… Days pass in this way as I imagine myself in conversation with you, and so I forget my past sufferings… Dearly beloved, I rejoice in your faith, in the salvation that comes from faith, in your good works, which are not confined to your own surroundings but spread far and wide. Somehow or other I have managed with difficulty to complete this letter. I asked God constantly to keep the guards away hour by hour, and to allow the deacon to bring you some kind of greeting in writing, not simply news of my suffering. So I beg you to keep the faith with all vigilance, to preserve harmony, to be earnest in prayer, to remember me always, so that the Lord may grant freedom to his church which is suffering throughout the world.”

On the death of Emperor Constantius in 361, Eusebius and other exiled bishops were allowed to return to their sees. The Council at Alexandria, Egypt, in 362, marked Eusebius’ return to active ministry. Again he was called elsewhere: first to Alexandria to concert plans with Athanasius, then to Antioch in the vain hope of ending the schism, then to work with St. Hilary of Poitiers in opposing Arianism in the Western Church.

Nothing is known in detail of Eusebius’ last years but presumably he died a peaceful death in Vercelli. St. Eusebius is sometimes called a martyr, but for his sufferings, not for a violent death.

Bunson, Matthew, Margaret Bunson, and Stephen Bunson. “Encyclopedia of Saints-Revised.” Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003.
Farmer, David. “Oxford Dictionary of Saints.” New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Ghezzi, Bert. “Voices of the Saints.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2000.

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