“Basil the Great” received a call to love and serve the disadvantaged and the poor – ‘spiritual orphans’. His initiative, the Basiliad, a large complex for the poor and disadvantaged in his home town, was considered by some at the time as one of the wonders of the world.
He was one of the ‘Cappadocian Fathers’, a church leadership trio in what is now Turkey. The trio included Basil’s brother, Gregory of Nyssa, and friend, Gregory of Nazianzus. They guided the church through turbulent times and their influence was felt for many years to come.
Basil was born in AD 329 at Caesarea (central Turkey). His parents and grandparents were Christians. His grandmother, Macrina, who played a large part in his upbringing, had spent seven years hidden in a forest fleeing persecution and her faith exerted a huge influence on Basil.
A promising career lay ahead for Basil; he was very able but he hated the pride this wrought within him and, encouraged by his friend Gregory and sister Macrina, left aside his career, got baptised, gave his wealth to the poor and dedicated his life to seeking God. Like his friend Gregory, he chose a life of celibacy.
Basil’s mother, Emmelia, and sister, Macrina, had founded a community for women in his hometown. Basil followed their vision, establishing a community of men on the opposite side of the river, which he led for five years until his brother, Peter, took over. Basil founded several other communities in the district, both of men and women, and drew up a rule for them. He was a great believer in community – believing it was better for celibates to live in such a way rather than the solitary existence that monks often led in those days.
Basil felt that caring for disadvantaged people was integral to his calling, a way of loving commanded by Jesus Himself. In his writings and preaching he drew graphic attention to their plight and used all his persuasive powers to encourage the rich to give away their wealth: “For the more you abound in wealth, the more you lack in love,” he wrote.
For Basil, ‘the poor’ were not impersonal recipients of alms and worldly goods given away to rid the soul from that which encumbers. ‘The poor’ had a face and his writings vividly personalized their troubles.
When a sharp famine arose, Basil provided for the destitute out of offerings the rich gave. He distributed bread in person among them, waited upon them at table with an apron wrapped around him and afterwards, washed their feet.
In AD 370, after being appointed Bishop of Caesarea, Basil founded a large complex of hospitals and hostels known as the Basiliad or Ptochoptopheion (New Town). Here the poor, the ill, orphans and old people were able to receive food, shelter, and medical care free of charge and industrial training for the unskilled was given. Its success resulted in other hospitals in Constantinople and Alexandra being built on similar lines. Basil himself lived in a monastic community at the heart of the Basiliad. The Basiliad itself was run by monks and nuns as well as lay people.
After an earthquake Basil worked for days digging through the rubble in order to save those who were trapped; he urged everyone around to share what food they had and organised food to be planted so people would not starve.
Basil encouraged the poor to help those worse off. “Give your last loaf to the beggar at your door,” he urged, “and trust in God’s goodness.”
In AD 378 as he lay dying, the whole city gathered about the door and when he died (on 1 January AD 379, aged 51) huge numbers attended his funeral. Even pagans and Jews wept with the Christians, one commentator noted, lamenting the death of a common father to all.