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Wednesday's Audience - On Eusebius of Caesarea

6/14/2007 - 5:55 AM PST

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 14, 2007 (Zenit) - Here is a translation of the address Benedict XVI delivered Wednesday at the general audience in St. Peter's Square. The reflection focused on Eusebius of Caesarea.

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Dear Brothers and Sisters:

In the history of ancient Christianity, there is a fundamental distinction between the first three centuries and those following the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council in the year 325. As a "hinge" between the two periods is the so-called change of Constantine and the peace for the Church, as well as the figure of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine.

He was the most qualified exponent of the Christian culture of his time in the most varied of contexts: from theology to exegesis, from history to scholarship. Eusebius is known, above all, as the first historian of Christianity, but also as the greatest philologist of the ancient Church.

In Caesarea, where he was probably born around the year 260, Origen had earlier taken refuge, fleeing from Alexandria. There, Origen had founded a school and a huge library. It is precisely from those books that the young Eusebius would receive his formation some decades later. In the year 325, as bishop of Caesarea, he played a main role in the Council of Nicaea. He authored the Creed and the affirmation of the full divinity of the Son of God, defined by Eusebius as "one in substance with the Father" (homooúsios tõ Patrí). It is practically the same Creed we recite at Mass every Sunday.

A sincere admirer of Constantine, who had given peace to the Church, Eusebius felt esteem and deference toward him. He praised the emperor, not only in his works, but also in his official addresses, delivered on both the 20th and 30th anniversary of the emperor's coming to the throne, as well as after his death in the year 337. Two or three years later, Eusebius would also die.

A tireless academic, Eusebius, in his numerous works, sought to reflect upon and take stock of the three centuries of Christianity, three centuries lived under persecution. He consulted, for the most part, the original Christian and pagan sources that had been preserved in the great library of Caesarea. Thus, despite the objective merit of his apologetic, exegetical and doctrinal work, Eusebius' long-lasting fame is linked, first and foremost, to his 10-volume "Ecclesiastical History." He was the first to write a history of the Church, and to this day his work is still foundational, mainly due to the sources Eusebius puts forever at our disposal. His "History" preserved from sure oblivion numerous events, people and literary works of the ancient Church. His work is therefore a primary source for knowing the first centuries of Christianity.

We may ask how he structured this work and what his intentions were in writing these volumes. At the beginning of the first book, the historian presents the arguments he is going to address in his work: "It is my intention to record the succession of the holy apostles from Our Savior to our day: how many and how important were the events that took place according to the history of the Church, and who were distinguished in their governance and direction of the most notable communities, including those who, in each generation, were ambassadors of the Word of God, either by means of the written word or without it, and those who, motivated by the desire for innovation to the point of error, have become promoters of what they falsely call knowledge, thus devouring the flock of Christ like fierce wolves … also the number, the customs and duration of the pagans that fought against the divine word, and the greatness of those who, because of this, endured the test of blood and torture; noting also the martyrs of our time and the merciful and favorable help which Our Savior offers everyone" (1,1,1-2).

In this manner, Eusebius covers various topics: apostolic succession, as the structure of the Church, the spreading of the Message, errors, persecutions by pagans, and the great testimonies which constitute the shining light of this "History." Amid it all, shine the mercy and goodness of the Savior.

Thus Eusebius inaugurates ecclesiastical historiography. His narrative covers up to the year 324 when Constantine, after the defeat of Licinius, was proclaimed as the only Roman emperor. This is the year that preceded the great Council of Nicaea, which later offered the "summa" of what the Church had learned over those 300 years -- doctrinally, morally and even legally.

The quote we have just mentioned from the first volume of "Ecclesiastical History" contains a repetition that is certainly intentional. In just a few sentences, he repeats the Christological title "Savior" and makes explicit reference to "his mercy" and "his benevolence." Thus we can understand the fundamental perspective of Eusebius' historiography: ...

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