August 2 – Basil the Blessed; Pope Stephen I

Basil the Blessed, Fool for Christ* (1468–1552) was born in the portico of the Elokhov Church, which may not have been auspicious. His poor parents (whose names are known) apprenticed him to a shoemaker (whose name isn’t), who taught him (of all things) to make shoes. One day a traveling merchant came into the shop and ordered a fancy pair of boots, to be picked up on his next annual pass through town. Basil told him, “Please don’t do that; you’ll never wear them.” When the cobbler asked him what he meant, he predicted the merchant’s death, which occurred just a few days later. Now that was auspicious.

At sixteen he ran away to the big city (Moscow) and began to make a name for himself. In one incident he received a beating for overturning a cart selling kalachi. It turned out later that the kalachi were bad, and he may have saved dozens of people from food poisoning. Another time, a builder having trouble with fallen arches (buildings, not feet) sought Basil for help. He told him to go see John the Cripple, a poor man in Kiev. He did, only to find John rocking an empty cradle. “What’s with the cradle?” the builder asked. “My mother!” cried John. “She went poor raising me.” The builder suddenly remembered his own mother, whom he had unceremoniously thrown to the curb some years prior. He found her, begged her forgiveness, and took her into his home, whereupon his buildings stopped collapsing.

Although he was generally well-loved, Basil’s predilection for calling people out for their secret sins (especially the rich for their treatment of the poor) had something of a dampening effect on his popularity. He once called Tsar Ivan the Terrible to account for woolgathering while he should have been paying attention in church. For once Ivan neglected to hold a grudge; indeed, when Basil died, Ivan acted as one of the pallbearers, carrying the coffin to its resting place in the Kremlin church that now bears Basil’s name. Yes, St. Basil’s Cathedral (officially the Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat) is not (nick)named after the great Cappadocian Father, but after a sixteenth century street beggar. This obscure bit of knowledge may one day help you on Jeopardy. No need to thank me.

Pope Stephen I (d. 257), born in Rome to Greek parents, was archdeacon under Pope Lucius I (Bonfoy), whom he succeeded in Peter’s chair. After the Decian persecutions, some bishops were refusing to grant absolution to people (especially clergy) who had renounced their faith out of fear, then recanted. Unforgivenessism, or Novatianism, was ultimately declared a heresy, and Stephen was firmly on the side of the forgivers. Perhaps he had sinned and been forgiven at some time in his life, although this has not been definitively proven. In keeping with this, he reinstated the bishops of León and Astorga, who had gone over to the dark side then sought to return.

Another controversy of the day involved people who were baptized by schismatics; Cyprian and the African Bishops (somebody simply must use this name for a rock group) insisted they be rebaptized; Stephen argued they need not be if they were baptized with the Trinitarian formula, reasoning that if the status of the baptizer could make a baptism not “take,” then we’re all hosed (to use the technical theological term). In an unrelated ruling, he insisted that priests put on something nice to preside over the mass and not just wear their “street clothes,” and contrariwise shouldn’t wear their somethings-nice on the streets.

Stephen was either martyred (later accounts) or not (earlier accounts). If the former (later) accounts are true, he was beheaded while sitting on the papal throne; if the latter (earlier) accounts are right, he wasn’t. Either way he is the patron of Hvar in Croatia.