St. Eusebius of Vercelli

(Died A.D. 371)

In one sense, martyrdom by execution is the easier heroism. The sword slices once, the squad fires once, and all is over. Humanely speaking, there are harder sufferings for the faith than instant death. Lingering death in a forgotten prison must be most agonizing unless God gives (as He surely does) super patience. Even those sent into exile, fined into poverty, mistreated short of death, but then released, suffer raw cruelty.

St. Eusebius of Vercelli, a Sardinian by birth, is said to have had a father who died for the faith as the result of long imprisonment. Eusbius himself is often called a martyr. But his sufferings, though heavy, were not mortal.

The saint’s father would have been a victim of pagan persecutors. Bishop Eusebius, unfortunately, was plagued by Christians. The tyrant in his case was Emperor Constantius, who had rejected the Catholic dogma that Jesus is truly both God and man. Arianism was the name of the heresy that denied Christ’s divinity. It is true that the world’s Catholic hierarchy, meeting at Nicaea, Turkey, in 325, settled the issue doctrinally when they proclaimed the Nicene Creed, in which we still declare, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ … true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father.” But Emperor Constantius itched to cancel this creed, and to strike at St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Egypt, who was its noblest defender.

Eusebius had moved from Sardinia to Rome in his youth and become a cleric of the Roman diocese. Because of his demonstrated ability, around 344 he was appointed bishop of Vercelli in northern Italy. Bishop Eusebius soon distinguished himself as a prelate of sound doctrine, pastoral zeal, and constructive ideas. One of his undertakings was to gather his clergy about him into a sort of religious community, following a rule of life. Out of this little body of clergy came several leading churchmen of the next generation.

In 355, Pope Liberius asked Eusebius and another bishop to entreat Emperor Constantius to assemble a church council that would reconcile Catholics and Arians over the issue of Christ’s divinity. The emperor did call a council at Milan, but it was at once evident that he would tolerate only a pro-Arian solution and that he was out to condemn Athanasius. The gathered orthodox bishops, in the majority, insisted that their first action at the council be to approve the Nicene Creed. Constantius refused, and demanded the condemnation of St. Athanasius. Eusebius said, “You can’t condemn a man without giving him a hearing.” The emperor fumed and threatened to kill Eusebius and the others. He did not carry out his threat, but he did send several into exile.

Eusebius was hurried off from Italy to Scythopolis in Palestine, and placed under the surveillance of a heretic bishop. At first he was treated with some consideration, but this phase did not last. The Arians now began to insult him, dragging him through the streets half-naked. He was shut up in a small room and denied access to his friends. For four days he underwent a sort of “hunger strike.” He was then allowed to return to his lodgings; but three weeks later he was again dragged out, thrashed, robbed and isolated. His persecutors made every effort to get him to conform to Arian doctrine. Later he was transferred from Palestine to Cappadocia, then to Egypt. In his writings of this period, he expressed his desire to suffer death for truth.

Constantius died in 361. His successor, Julian the Apostate, though not even Christian, did allow the exiled bishops to return to their homes. Gradually Eusebius made his way west. How his people at Vercelli rejoiced to have their bishop back! He spent his last years working everywhere to confront Arianism and repromote belief in the Nicene Creed In this work he collaborated particularly with St. Hilary of Poitiers, one of the most ingenious defenders of the divinity of Jesus.

Thus the saintly bishop of Vercelli did not win the crown of martyrdom that he was fully ready to accept. But his “dry death” made him perhaps an even greater hero.

--Father Robert F. McNamara