The Catholic Church gives the title of ‘Doctor of the Church’ to a few select saints. Today, the Church recognizes 36 saints saints as doctors. The witness of their lives and the depth of their writings are beautifully important to the life of the Church and her doctrine.
Among the saints called doctors, some played key roles in the foundation of the Catholic Church. The four great doctors of the East are John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Athanasius.
But just who were these four Fathers of the East? Here’s a quick introduction to their lives and their amazing witness.
1. Saint John Chrysostom
Chrysostom means “golden-mouthed” in Greek. That’s a name that couldn’t be more fitting for this holy man and his beautiful, direct sermons.
As a young man, John spent time with Libanius, a pagan, learning rhetoric. At the age of 30, he left the city of Antioch to spend the rest of his life as a monk. But, partially due to stomach related health problems, he later returned to the city and became a bishop.
John’s strong stance against the imperial politics of his day gained him many enemies. He called for his parishioners to share their wealth with the poor, and he removed clergy who had bribed their way into their offices.
One of his greatest objectors was the empress Eudoxia. She couldn’t stand his teachings, and brought several false accusations against him. She exiled him to the very edge of the Empire, Pythius. He died on his way to exile on September 14, 407.
Today, John is recognized as a saint in the Oriental Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran churches.
2. Saint Basil the Great
Basil was born in 330. He was one of the ten children born to Saint Basil the Elder and Saint Emmelia. A few of his siblings are also recognized as saints.
After studying law, Basil became a monk and founded his own monastery. He led his community for five years, writing monastic law.
Later, he was made bishop of Caesaria. Basil became famous for his reforming spirit. He valiantly stood against Arianism, a prevalent and dangerous heresy in his time. His words and sermons were often misunderstood and misheard. Eventually, the people started falsely accusing him of heresy. He once said, “For my sins I seem to be unsuccessful in everything.”
But Basil didn’t give up. He was known to preach twice a day to large crowds, he fought against the prostitution of women, and even built a hospital that was recognized as a wonder of the world.
After his death, the Catholic Church recognized him as a “Great”, an honor given to only a few saints. At the Council of Chalcedon, Basil was described as “the great Basil, minister of grace who has expounded the truth to the whole earth.”
3. Saint Gregory Nazianzus
Gregory was a convert, entering the Catholic Church at the age of 30. After his conversion, he joined the monastery of Saint Basil the Great, but was called out of monastic life to help his father.
Although Gregory’s father fell prey to the lies of the Arian heresy, Gregory took a strong stance for the truth of the Catholic Church. He was chosen as Bishop of Caesarea at the age of 41.
After Arianism became less prevalent, Gregory began to rebuild the faith of those living in Constantinople. He devoted his time to lectures about the Holy Trinity, which he is now famous for.
His mission to rebuild the faith in Constantinople was riddled with suffering. He endured lies, insults, and violence against him during his time as bishop. Once, someone even tried to overrule him and take over his role as bishop.
He retired to solitude, and wrote some of the greatest poetic works in Catholic Church history. He wrote poems about his own life, suffering, and ministry. Saint Jerome writes that Gregory died in either the year 389 or 390.
4. Saint Athanasius of Alexandria
Athanasius joins the ranks of the Eastern doctors as a strong warrior against the Arian heresy. His writings in particular earn him the title of doctor.
As a young man, Athanasius was the secretary for Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria. That friendship encouraged Athanasius to enter seminary, become a priest, and eventually become bishop himself.
Following in the footsteps of Alexander, Athanasius spoke out against Arianism. For reasons that are still unknown, Emperor Constantine exiled Athanasius to Gaul. Several scholars have compared Athanasius time of travel and exile to the life of Saint Paul.
Upon Constantine’s death, the new emperor restored Athanasius as bishop. But he was once again banished by a group of Arian bishops. This was the second of five times that Athanasius was exiled for his defense of Christ’s divinity.
The longest period between exile was ten years, which Athanasius spent writing. Perhaps his most well known writing is his “Life of Saint Anthony”, writings that were based on his friendship with the great desert hermit. Monastic orders in both the East and West credit the work as a great aid to their establishment and way of life.
The last years of Athanasius’ life were peaceful. He died in 373 in Alexandria.