Basil of Caesarea and His Leprosarium

Basil’s work was revolutionary in a Christian context, as he reinterpreted the prevalent drive to monasticism as a commitment to help others rather than as a life of seclusion.

In a day when charities abound, it’s difficult to understand how revolutionary Basil’s work was in his day. While charity was certainly extolled by some Greco-Roman philosophers and applied in some measure by the Roman government, the idea of giving of one’s properties and time without expecting anything in return was still generally alien.

 

Basil of Caesarea is mostly known for his theological clarity at a time when important Christian doctrines on the Trinity and the nature of Christ were being debated and refined. A few know him for his charitable works on behalf of the poor and ill.

In a day when charities abound, it’s difficult to understand how revolutionary Basil’s work was in his day. While charity was certainly extolled by some Greco-Roman philosophers and applied in some measure by the Roman government, the idea of giving of one’s properties and time without expecting anything in return was still generally alien.

In 361, Emperor Julian found Christian charity to be a major obstacle to his plan of leading the empire back to its pagan traditions. The poor and needy, which constituted the majority of the population, flocked to Christian institutions where they received acceptance, love, and assistance. In response, he tried to teach his pagan priests to do the same, but didn’t live long enough to see his dream come true.

In any case, Christians like Basil who built charitable institutions had to overcome centuries of public indifference, as demonstrated in the pleading sermons given by Basil, his brother Gregory, and other preachers of their times, such as Gregory Nazianzen and John Chrysostom. These sermons aimed at shaking the wealthy from their complacency and denouncing the hoarders and profiteers.

Basil’s work was also revolutionary in a Christian context, as he reinterpreted the prevalent drive to monasticism as a commitment to help others rather than as a life of seclusion.

With this concept in mind, he built one of the first hospitals for lepers (later known as Basilias) on the outskirts of his bishopric in central Turkey. It was an impressive complex, which included an actual hospital, a convalescent home, an orphanage, and residences for the staff (physicians, nurses, and clergy). Assistance to lepers included a program for recovery and a vocational training to reintegrate them into society. All care was rendered free of charge.

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