Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (January 1)

St. Basil the Great

(d. 379) Bishop of Caesarea and Doctor of the Church who was noted, with St. Athanasius, as a great defender of Christian orthodoxy against Arianism. With his brother St. Gregory of Nyssa, and St. Gregory Nazianzus, Basil is one of “The Three Cappadocians” who distinguished themselves in Church history. Basil was the son of St. Basil the Elder and Emmelia, the daughter of a martyr, and was one of ten children, three of whom — Basil, Gregory, and Macrina — became saints. Largely raised by his grandmother, he studied at Caesarea, his native town, and at Constantinople, where he developed his long friendship with Gregory Nazianzus. Having obtained a superb education, he returned to Caesarea as a teacher. He soon also underwent a profound spiritual transformation, embarking on a journey in 357 to the monasteries of Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia. Returning, he founded a monastic community near Annesi where his sister Macrina had already established a religious house. Basil’s innovations within the monastic community, especially his rule, earned him the title Father of Eastern (or Oriental) Monasticism. The rule of St. Basil is still followed by the members of the religious life in the lands of the Orthodox Churches.

In 360, he was finally convinced to depart his hermitage and take part in a council at Constantinople. Subsequently ordained with great reluctance, he played a major role in the administration of the diocese of Caesarea under Bishop Eusebius, so much so that the two entered into a dispute. Basil withdrew to his monastic community but was recalled in 365 at the insistence of Gregory Nazianzus. In 370, he was chosen to succeed to the see of Caesarea that had by now acquired the status of metropolitan. His appointment was a great pleasure to St. Athanasius but was greeted with suspicion by the ardent Arian Emperor Valens (r. 364-378). Over the next nine years he was conspicuous for his care of the poor, his efforts at the defense of ecclesiastical rights, and most of all, for his steadfast opposition to heresy, especially Arianism. When defending himself before Valens, Basil was so fiery that a courtier questioned his nerve, to which the saint gave his famous reply: “Perhaps you are not familiar with a proper bishop.” Owing to the controversy over Melitius, bishop of Antioch, and the efforts of Valens to reduce Basil’s power, his friendship with Gregory was severely strained. He died on January 1, 379, at a time of terrible upheaval in the Roman Empire both politically (because of the Goths) and religiously (because of the Arians). Because he was so beloved, his funeral was attended by a large weeping crowd, including Christians, Jews, and pagans.

Basil was revered for his spiritual achievements and his vast contributions to Christian culture in the fourth century. His letters reveal a remarkably holy and eloquent person, who, while never strong physically, was utterly fearless in defense of orthodoxy or in the face of imperial threats and pressures to conform to the doctrinal trends of the day. Some three hundred sixty-six letters are extant, most from the time after his elevation to the episcopacy. His other writings included: a treatise, On the Holy Spirit; three books against Enomius, an outspoken Arian bishop of Cyzicus; a compilation with Gregory Nazianzus from the works of Origen in the Philocalia. He is also the ascribed formulator of the Liturgy of St. Basil, still used on certain days in the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church. He is patron of the Order of St. Basil and a holy hierarch in the East. In liturgical art, he is depicted as a bishop. 

Feast day: January 2

St. Elizabeth Ann Seton

(1774-1821) The first American-born saint, founder of the Sisters of Charity.

Born in New York, she was the daughter of non-Catholics; her father was a professor of anatomy at Columbia College and an official of the health authority of the Port of New York, and her mother was the daughter of an Anglican minister.

Married to William Magee Seton in 1794, she performed assorted missions of charity with her sister-in-law. Financial difficulties soon beset her life — her father-in-law died in 1798, followed by her own father in 1801 — and her husband’s health deteriorated rapidly. He died at Pisa in 1803 while on a trip to recover his vigor.

Elizabeth survived through the kindness of the business friends of her husband, the Italian Filicchi brothers, and their family. During this time, she was drawn to the Catholic faith, finally entering the Church on March 14, 1805, with the aid of Antonio Filicchi and Louis Lefebvre de Cheverus, the first bishop of Boston.

Elizabeth opened a boarding school for her children, but her progress and the conversion of her sister-in-law Cecilia Seton in 1806 caused such a storm of anger and outrage by the Protestants of New York that her family and their powerful friends made moves to have her expelled from the city.

At the invitation of Bishop John Carroll of Baltimore, Elizabeth went to Baltimore in 1808, opening a school next to the chapel of St. Mary’s Seminary. She was soon joined by other women, and from this group was formed the Sisters of Charity, receiving approval from Archbishop Carroll in January 1812. Elizabeth was elected the first superior against her will, and she continued to work for the growth of the order right up until her death at Emmitsburg on January 4, 1821.

Beatified in 1963, she was canonized in 1975 by Pope Paul VI (r. 1963-1978).

Feast day: January 4

Epiphany of Our Lord

Solemnity (Is. 60:1-6; Eph. 3:2-3a, 5-6; Mt. 2:1-12).

Celebrated Jan. 6, or [in the U.S.] a Sunday between Jan. 2 and 8, solemnity. Commemorates the manifestation of the divinity of Christ. It is one of the oldest Christian feasts, with an Eastern origin traceable to the beginning of the third century and antedating the Western feast of Christmas. Originally, it commemorated the manifestations of Christ's divinity -- or Theophany -- in his birth, the homage of the Magi, and baptism by John the Baptist. Later, the first two of these commemorations were transferred to Christmas, when the Eastern Church adopted that feast between 380 and 430.

The central feature of the Eastern observance now is the manifestation or declaration of Christ's divinity in his baptism and at the beginning of his public life. The Epiphany was adopted by the Western Church during the same period in which the Eastern Church accepted Christmas. In the Roman rite, commemoration is made in the Mass of the homage of the wise men from the East [Mt. 2:1-12].)

Celebrated January 4, 2015

St. Anthony

(d. 356) One of the founders of monasticism, called also Anthony of Egypt. He was born in the Faiyum area of Upper Egypt, near Heracleopolis Magna, around 251, and was twenty when his parents died. Soon after inheriting the family estate, he gave away everything he owned, placed his sister in a convent, and started an eremitical — a hermit’s — life in an ancient tomb near his village. After fifteen years of prayer during which time he endured assaults by demons and temptations, Anthony went to a mountain fort at Pispir, now Deir el-Memun, where he took up a solitary residence for twenty years. Local supporters threw food over the walls of the fort, keeping him alive, but in all that time he did not see a human face. Slowly, other ascetics built a community in huts or in nearby caves. They begged Anthony to come out of seclusion to direct their prayers and observances.

In 305, Anthony emerged, remarkably vigorous and healthy. He stayed with these hermits for five years, regulating communal worship and work and penance schedules. Then he went out into the desert between the Nile and the Red Sea, at a site called Mount Kalzim. A monastery, Dier Mar Antonios, was raised on the spot.

This period of seclusion was not as strict as the previous one. Anthony went to Alexandria in 311 to comfort the martyrs of the persecutions taking place, and he returned years later to argue against the Arian heresy, at the side of St. Athanasius of Alexandria. Anthony was not alone in his desert retreat. He had a companion and disciple, Macarius.

Anthony was known as a kindly man who displayed courage, common sense, and loyalty and was not prone toward excess or ostentation. St. Athanasius is credited with a biography of Anthony that provides details of his sufferings and miracles. Anthony was a friend of St. Paul of Thebes, called "the Hermit," who was reputedly fed half a loaf of bread a day by ravens. When Anthony came to visit, the ravens brought a full loaf. Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306-337) was among thousands who sought Anthony for wisdom and inspiration.

Anthony wrote letters and introductory lessons for young hermits. The life written by St. Athanasius also provides many of Anthony’s sermons and discourses. A monastic rule dating to that era is believed to contain his ideals and ideas. Anthony died on January 17, 356, and was buried in an unmarked grave, as he had requested. In 561, his relics were discovered and translated, or taken, to Alexandria. Constantinople and La Motte, the motherhouse of the Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony, founded about 1100, claimed to have relics as well. Anthony’s remains are believed to have been saved from the Arab invasions and taken to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) in 635. Relics of this saint are also said to be in Siena, Italy, and Burgundy, France.

Anthony is patron of several orders of canons and knights as well as the poor, the sick, swineherds, butchers, and domestic animals. He is invoked against fires and plagues. He is also called upon to ensure good harvests. In liturgical art, Anthony is shown as a hermit or as a monk of the Order of St. Anthony. The pig and the bell are associated with him, and, as a result the Order of Hospitallers of St. Anthony, circa 1100, was granted the privilege of allowing their pigs to roam the streets of any city in which they had houses. Members of the order rang small bells to beg alms. St. Anthony is also depicted with a T-shaped staff and a bell, a symbol of the hermit.

Feast day: January 17

St. Agnes

(d.c. 304) Called Agnes of Rome in some lists, a virgin and martyr, held in esteem by the Church since her death. There is no documented evidence about the martyrdom of Agnes, although her feast day was assigned early and her grave near the Via Nomentana was recognized soon after her death. She was young when martyred; St. Ambrose stated that she was only twelve, and he testified about her death.

Pope Damasus’ inscription has been preserved at her sepulcher and church. This inscription provides information that Agnes declared herself a Christian and suffered martyrdom by fire in the reign of Diocletian (r. 284-305), but that is now doubtful. Stripped naked, Agnes covered her body with her own hair before dying.

An additional episode of the martyrdom was provided by Prudentius, in his Peristephanon. He stated that Agnes was placed in a brothel by the Roman authorities. She remained unharmed because anyone showing desire for her was blinded and knocked unconscious by a divine hand. In this episode, Agnes was seen to endure a double martyrdom: one of modesty violated and the other of physical torment for the faith. A later version of the martyrdom declares that Agnes, standing unharmed in the flames, was decapitated.

During the reign of Emperor Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great (r. 306-337), a basilica was built over her grave, remodeled by Pope Honorius I (r. 625-638) in 630. She is often depicted in flames with a sword at her feet. The lamb, the symbol of purity, represents her virginity. On the feast of St. Agnes, two lambs are solemnly blessed. The wool from these lambs is formed into pallia and distributed to archbishops of the Church.

Feast day: January 21

St. Francis de Sales

Francis de Sales (1567-1622) Bishop, founder, and Doctor of the Church, also the patron of the Catholic press. Francis was born in Savoy, in the Château de Sales. He studied at Annecy, in Paris (1581-1588), and the University of Padua (1588-1592), and received his doctorate in law at the age of twenty-four. He chose to abandon a potentially brilliant secular career to enter the religious life, studying for the priesthood, despite the opposition of his family. Ordained in 1593, he became the provost of Geneva, Switzerland, and went to Chablais. There he undertook his first major mission: he went to the Chablais to preach among the Calvinists. His evangelizing labors lasted for four years and, in the face of great physical danger and challenges, he was largely successful in converting most of the inhabitants.

In 1599, Francis was chosen as coadjutor bishop to Geneva. He succeeded in 1602, and became a leading figure in the Counter-Reformation and was famed for his wisdom and learning. An outstanding confessor, Francis directed Blessed Marie Acarie and St. Jane Frances de Chantal. He also founded schools and stabilized the Church in his region. With St. Jane Frances de Chantal, Francis founded the Order of the Visitation (the Visitandines) in 1610. He died at the Visitandine convent of Bellecour, Lyons, on December 28.
Francis was the author of numerous and extremely popular devotional writings. Chief among these were the Introduction to the Devout Life (1609) and Treatise on the Love of God (1616). The Introduction began as a small manual for the use by Madame de Charmoisy, his cousin’s wife, and was intended to encourage the life of prayer and devotion. It was much respected by a wide cross section of European culture, including King James I of England (r. 1603-1625). One of his most important maxims declared: “It is a mistake, a heresy, to want to exclude devoutness of life from among soldiers, from shops and offices, from royal courts, from the homes of the married.” He was called “the Gentle Christ of Geneva” while he lived and was revered in death. His beatification, held in St. Peter’s in the year that he died, was the first formal beatification to be held in that basilica. He was canonized in 1653 and was declared a Doctor of the Church in 1877. In 1923, Francis de Sales was declared patron of the Catholic press.

Feast day: January 24

St. Paul

(d.c. 67) Apostle of the Gentiles, martyr, and one of the greatest missionaries, mystics, and theologians in the history of the Church. He was born in the city of Tarsus, Cilicia (modern Turkey), of the Jewish tribe of Benjamin. A Roman citizen originally called Saul, he was raised as a Pharisee (the most rigid of the Jewish sects of the period) in Tarsus, learned the craft of tent making (a profession he used in later life while traveling the Roman Empire), and studied Jewish law as well as Greek and Latin. Sent at some time to Jerusalem, he found there a teacher, the famed rabbi Gamaliel, at whose feet (Acts 22:3) he mastered the Torah. After developing strong ties to Jerusalem, he returned to Tarsus — almost certainly before the commencement of Jesus’ public ministry — and there gradually came into contact with the new sect of the Nazarenes, as the early followers of Christ were called, a few years after the crucifixion. Saul became a dedicated opponent of the new Church and was present at the martyrdom of St. Stephen; in fact, he guarded the robes of those who stoned the protomartyr and was “consenting to his execution” (Acts 7:58–8:1). Setting out for Damascus to carry on the persecution of the Nazarenes, he underwent his renowned conversion (Acts 9:1-19; 22:5-16; 26:12-18) while on the road.

Left blind by the light, which he understood to be Christ himself, he was taken to Damascus and sat for three days in the darkness. Baptized by Ananias, his sight restored, he left the city to spend several years in Arabia in prayer and meditation. Returning to Damascus, he took up preaching the faith and met such heated resistance that he had to make a secret escape from the city by being lowered down the city wall in a basket.

He went to Jerusalem where he met with Peter and other skeptical Apostles, convincing them, with the aid of Barnabas, of his sincerity. After preaching in Cilicia (modern Turkey) and Caesarea (modern Israel), Paul embarked on the first of his great missionary journeys in about the year 45. Joined by Barnabas and Mark, Paul (as he was forever after known) sailed to Cyprus and Asia Minor, establishing communities in Antioch, Pisidia, Iconium, and elsewhere. His missionary efforts created much upheaval in some cities — he was even stoned and left for dead by a mob — but they also found fertile spiritual soil among the Gentiles. Paul returned to Antioch (c. 49) with the news that “he had opened a door of faith” (Acts 14:27) to the Gentiles. This opportunity sparked the first major controversy within the Nazarene community, a dispute settled by the Council of Jerusalem circa 49, at which it was decided that conversions should be promoted among the Gentile population. Paul, henceforth, was the most ardent missionary among the pagan populations of the Roman Empire.

About 50, he set out on his second missionary journey with Silas, traveling to Asia Minor and then to Macedonia and Greece. In Athens, he met with Stoic and Epicurean philosophers before moving on to Corinth where he remained a year.

Paul's third missionary journey began circa 55. He journeyed to Asia Minor and Greece, spending two years in Ephesus and visiting Colossa, Philadelphia, Laodicea, and Corinth. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he was attacked by Jewish enemies and was saved from certain death by a squad of Roman soldiers. Charged by the Sanhedrin with bringing Gentiles into the temple of Jerusalem, he used his privileges as a Roman citizen to be sent to Caesarea for trial before the governor. He spent two years in prison, and when the trial was finally held, he appealed to Rome. He was sent by ship to Caesar under a Roman guard, only to be shipwrecked at Malta. Finally tried in Rome, he was acquitted.

Paul’s remaining years are quite obscure. It is believed that he went to Syria, Palestine, Greece, Crete, and Spain. Arrested once more, he was taken back to Rome and placed in close confinement. He wrote of his expected fate in his Second Letter to Timothy (4:6-8). His martyrdom came about the year 67 at the command of Emperor Nero (r. 54-68). Paul was most likely beheaded (as reported by Tertullian); according to the apocryphal Acts of St. Paul, he was slain on the left bank of the Tiber. He was said to have been buried in a cemetery on the Via Ostia owned by a Christian named Lucina, the site where, in later years, the basilica of St. Paolo Fuori le Mure (St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls) was built.

One of the most imaginative, eloquent, and passionate Christian writers, Paul was imprisoned, shipwrecked, beaten, flogged, stoned, banished, and finally martyred for his faith. Throughout his missionary travels, he wrote extensively, and fully one-third of the New Testament is comprised of his letters. His writing had a profound effect on Christian theology, especially Christology, and on the doctrines on grace, predestination, free will, baptism, and the attainment of Christian perfection. His writings are: Romans, First and Second Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, First and Second Thessalonians, First and Second Timothy, Titus, and Philemon.

Liturgically, Paul is commemorated on June 29, with St. Peter, and on January 25, the feast of his conversion. In liturgical art, he is portrayed with a sword or a book, and his symbol is traditionally the book and the sword.

For further reading, check out The Saints Devotional Bible.