Commemorated November 17
by Fr George Poulos
The odds against anyone born Christian in the early third century, particularly in the city of Neocaesaria, were staggering; but there was born in that city in A.D. 203 a man who reversed those odds in Christianity's favour and who, as events bore out, made the number seventeen a special number. It was by coincidence that the number seventeen marked milestones in an illustrious career, but divine design that diverted a pagan from a course that would have led to oblivion to a course which led to sainthood and glory. The name of this saint has come to us as Gregory the Wonderworker, but he was born with the given name of Theodore in Neocaesaria, in the province of Pontos. From birth his pagan parents saw to his every need, save the spiritual, providing the tutors an easy task of a brilliant pupil whose education was aimed at making him a man of law and letters.
It was in Alexandria that young Theodore came upon the renowned Christian teacher Origen, recognised as the leading religious and philosophic figure who gathered the brightest students from all parts of the empire. Influenced by this masterful mentor, Theodore absorbed the teachings of Christianity, and in due course was converted with the given name of Gregory. As Gregory, he became a familiar figure in religious circles, displaying a wisdom beyond his years and an ever-increasing devotion to Jesus Christ, the Saviour who had been denied in his native city. He did not return to Neocaesaria until the year 288 AD, by which time his fame had preceded him. Rather than take up the practice of law as had been originally intended, he sought out the Christians with a determination to swell their ranks.
The word was sent to followers of Christ to assemble in secret, and was prevailed upon by those who gathered to become their bishop. Gregory assented and must have assumed that those present were but a contingent. When told that every Christian of the city was there, the dumbfounded Gregory counted heads, and there were exactly seventeen assembled. A lesser man would have been disillusioned, but the scant number only served to make Gregory all the more determined to bring more into the Christian fold. Ever the optimist, known for his cheerful outlook and good humour, St Gregory remarked there would be no challenge if the entire city were Christian and that the thousands of pagans represented an inspiration to serve God and man. He was ordained bishop of Caesaria by Bishop Phaidimos of Amasia and plunged into his task of conversion with a zeal that was so contagious that he was not many weeks in making the vast majority of the city Christian.
Pagan revelries gave way to the celebration of Christian holidays made both cheerful and solemn by the city's extremely popular bishop. The task was not an easy one, and on many occasions the growing number of Christians were put to flight only to return and gather more members when tempers had cooled. The transformation of an entire city by a single person was so remarkable that it was written about years later by such great hierarchs as St Basil the Great and St Gregory of Nyssa, both of whom not only recounted the exploits of their predecessor, but called attention to his magnificent writings and homilies as well.
Seldom in Christian history has the conversion of an entire city been attributed largely to the efforts of one spiritual leader. The missionaries of old who covered vast territories were responsible for bringing Christ to larger numbers, but the uniqueness of Gregory's mission was his concentration on one city. In the end, however, not even the presence of a Christian populace could prevent the persecution of Bishop Gregory. He fell victim to the state whose leaders were largely pagan and who engaged in sporadic raids on unsuspecting Christians. Bishop Gregory was occupied in a successful defense of the faith against the heresy of Paul of Samosata when a handful of hardened pagans, under the protection of soldiers provided by the provincial governor, succeeded in seizing the bishop for trial and sentencing. Before he died, he was told that there were only seventeen pagans left in the city, the same number of Christians he had found at the outset. Gregory died for Christ on November 17.