|Today, Eusebius still asks all believers to
contemplate the great works of God's salvation down through history and
invites us to a conversion of life
On Wednesday, 13 June , at the General Audience in St. Peter's Square,
the Holy Father commented on Eusebius of Caesarea, the first historian of
the Church and best known for his Ecclesiastical History, an invaluable
source of information about the Church in the early centuries. The
following is a translation of the Holy Father's Catechesis, which was
given in Italian.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In the history of early Christianity there is a fundamental distinction
between the first three centuries and those that followed the Council of
Nicaea in 325, the first Ecumenical Council. Like a "hinge" between the
two periods are the so-called "conversion of Constantine" and the peace of
the Church, as well as the figure of Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea in
Palestine. He was the most highly qualified exponent of the Christian
culture of his time in very varied contexts, from theology to exegesis,
from history to erudition. Eusebius is known above all as the first
historian of Christianity, but he was also the greatest philologist of the
It was to Caesarea, where Eusebius was born probably in about the year
260 A.D., that Origen had fled from Alexandria. And in Caesarea, Origen
founded a school and a huge library. A few decades later, the young
Eusebius educated himself with these books. In 325, as Bishop of Caesarea,
he played a lead role at the Council of Nicaea. He signed the Creed and
the affirmation of the full divinity of the Son of God, who is
consequently defined as "one in being with the Father" (homooúsios tõ
Patrí). The Creed we recite every
Sunday in the Holy Liturgy is practically the same.
A sincere admirer of Constantine who had given peace to the Church,
Eusebius in turn was esteemed and respected by Constantine. As well as
with his works, Eusebius also celebrated the Emperor with panegyrics which
he delivered on the 20th and 30th anniversary of his ascendance to the
throne, and upon his death in the year 337. Two or three years later,
Eusebius died too.
Eusebius was an indefatigable scholar. In his numerous writings he
resolved to reflect and to give an up-to-date report on the three
centuries of Christianity, three centuries lived under persecution,
drawing abundantly on the Christian and pagan sources preserved in
particular in the great library of Caesarea.
Thus, despite the objective importance of his apologetic, exegetic and
doctrinal works, the imperishable fame of Eusebius is still mainly
associated with the 10 books of his Ecclesiastical History. He was
the first person to write a history of the Church which continues to be of
fundamental importance, thanks to the sources which Eusebius made
available to us for ever.
With this Chronicle, he succeeded in saving from the doom of oblivion
numerous events, important figures and literary works of the ancient
Church. Thus, his work is a primary source of knowledge of the early
centuries of Christianity.
A comprehensive history
We might wonder how he structured this new work and what his intentions
were in compiling it. At the beginning of his first book, the historian
lists in detail the topics he intends to treat in his work:
"It is my purpose to write an account of the succession of the holy
Apostles, as well as of the times which have elapsed from the days of our
Saviour to our own; and to relate the many important events which are said
to have occurred in the history of the Church; and to mention those who
have governed and presided over the Church in the most prominent dioceses,
and those who in each generation have proclaimed the divine Word either
orally or in writing.
"It is my purpose also to give the names and number and times of those
who through love of innovation have run into the greatest errors, and,
proclaiming themselves interpreters and promoters of a false doctrine
have, like fierce wolves, unmercifully devastated the flock of Christ...
and to record the ways and the times in which the divine word has been
attacked by the Gentiles, and to describe the character of the great men
who in various periods have defended it in the face of blood and of
tortures... and finally, the mercy and benevolence which Our Saviour has
afforded them all" (cf. I, 1, 1-3).
Thus, Eusebius embraced different spheres: the succession of the
Apostles as the backbone of the Church, the dissemination of the Message,
the errors and then persecutions on the part of the pagans, and the
important testimonies which are the light in this Chronicle.
In all this Eusebius saw the Saviour's mercy and benevolence. So it was
that he inaugurated, as it were, ecclesiastical historiography, extending
his account to 324, the year in which Constantine, after defeating
Licinius, was acclaimed as the one Emperor of Rome. This was the year
before the important Council of Nicaea, which subsequently offered the
"summa" of all that the Church — doctrinally, morally and also juridically
— had learned in the previous 300 years.
The citation we have just quoted from the First Book of the
Ecclesiastical History contains a repetition that is certainly
intentional. The Christological title Saviour recurs three times in
the space of a few lines with an explicit reference to "his mercy" and
Thus, we can grasp the fundamental perspective of Eusebian
historiography: his is a "Christocentric" history, in which the mystery of
God's love for humankind is gradually revealed.
Eusebius recognized with genuine amazement that: "Jesus alone of all
those who have ever existed is even to the present day called Christ [that
is Messiah and Saviour of the world] by all men throughout the world, and
is confessed and witnessed to under this name, and is commemorated both by
Greeks and Barbarians and even to this day is honoured as a King by his
followers throughout the world, and is admired as more than a prophet, and
is glorified as the true and only High Priest of God. And besides all
this, as the pre-existent Logos of God, called into being before all ages,
he has received august honour from the Father, and is worshipped and
adored as God. But most wonderful of all is the fact that we who have
consecrated ourselves to him, honour him not only with our voices and with
the sound of words, but also with complete elevation of the soul, so that
we choose to give testimony unto him rather than to preserve our own
lives" (cf. I, 3, 19-20).
Purpose of historical analysis
Another feature thus springs to the fore which was to remain a constant
in ancient ecclesiastical historiography: it is the "moral intention" that
presides in the account. Historical analysis is never an end in itself; it
is not made solely with a view to knowing the past; rather, it focuses
decisively on conversion and on an authentic witness of Christian life of
the part of the faithful. It is a guide for us, too.
Thus, Eusebius strongly challenges believers of all times on their
approach to the events of history and of the Church in particular. He also
challenges us: what is our attitude with regard to the Church's
experiences? Is it the attitude of those who are interested in it merely
out of curiosity, or even in search of something sensational or shocking
at all costs? Or is it an attitude full of love and open to the mystery of
those who know — through faith — that they can
trace in the history of the Church those signs of God's love and
the great works of salvation wrought by him?
If this is our attitude, we can
only feel stimulated to a more coherent and generous response, to a
more Christian witness of life, in order to bequeath the signs of God's
love also to the generations to come.
"There is a mystery", Cardinal Jean Daniélou, an
eminent Patristics scholar, never tired of saying:
"History has a hidden content.... The mystery is that
of God's works which constitute in time the authentic reality concealed
behind the appearances.... However, this history which he brings
about for man, God does not bring about
"Pausing to contemplate the 'great things' worked by
God would mean seeing only one aspect of things. The human response lies
before them" (Saggio sul mistero delta storia, Italian edition,
Brescia, 1963, p. 182).
Today, too, so many centuries later, Eusebius of
Caesarea invites believers, invites us, to wonder, to contemplate in
history the great works of God for the salvation of humankind. And just as
energetically, he invites us to conversion of life. Indeed, we cannot
remain inert before a God who has so deeply loved us. The proper instance
of love is that our entire life should be oriented to the imitation of the
Beloved. Let us therefore spare no effort to leave a transparent trace of
God's love in our life.