Christians who breathed a sigh of relief when Constantine proclaimed Christianity the state religion, believing this would end the bloodshed and martyrdom. But it was all too short a time until they were facing persecution once more — from others who claimed to be Christian.
When Christianity became the state religion, many people adopted it for political reasons. Others adopted it without truly understanding it. Under these circumstances heresy found fertile ground. One of the most powerful heresies was Arianism which claimed that Jesus was not God (a heresy that has never completely died out). The Arians were powerful people, including nobles, generals, emperors. They commanded armies and senates. True Christianity was in real danger of being stamped out once again.
Eusebius had learned how to stand as a Christian from his father, who died a martyr in Sardinia. After his father’s death, he grew up in Rome where he was ordained a lector. This was a time when bishops were elected by the people and local clergy. When the people of Vercelli saw how well he served their Church, they had no doubt about choosing him as bishop.
Pope Liberius also noticed his abilities and sent him on a mission to the Emperor Constantius to try to resolve the troubles between Arians and Catholics. Seeming to agree, Constantius convened a council in Milan in 355. The powerful Arians however weren’t there to talk but to force their own will on the others. A horrified Eusebius watched as his worst fears were confirmed and the Arians made this peace council into a condemnation of Saint Athanasius, their chief opponent. Eusebius, unafraid of their power, slapped the Nicene Creed down on the table and demanded that everyone sign that before condemning Athanasius. The Nicene Creed, adopted by a council of the full Church, proclaims that Jesus is one in being with the Father — directly contradicting the Arian teaching.
The emperor then tried to force Eusebius, Saint Dionysius of Milan, and Lucifer of Cagliari to condemn Athanasius under pain of death. They steadfastly refused to condemn a man who far from being a heretic was supporting the truth. Instead of putting them to death, the emperor exiled them.
In exile in Scythopolis in Palestine, Eusebius lived with the only Catholic in town. Any comfort he had from visits of other saints was destroyed when the local Arians stripped him half naked and dragged him through the streets to a tiny cell. The Arians finally let him go after he spent four days without food. But a few weeks later they were back, breaking into his house, stealing his belongings and food, and imprisoning him again.
Eusebius was exiled to two other places before Constantius’ successor Julian let him and the other exiled bishops return home in 361. The problem was not over and Eusebius spent his last years working hard to counteract the damage the Arians had done and continued to do. After working with Athanasius and taking part in councils, he became a latter-day Saint Paul traveling all over in order to strengthen the faith and spread the truth.
Eusebius died on August 1, 371.
In His Footsteps
How much do you know about your faith? Could you defend it against powerful argument? Read the section on the Trinity and Christ’s divinity in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraphs 238 through 256).
Saint Eusebius, help us to have a desire to learn more about our faith, the wisdom to discern the truth, and the strength to defend it. Amen