January 19, 2018

History of the Relics of Saint Gregory the Theologian

Reliquary of St. Gregory the Theologian in Nea Karvali

By John Sanidopoulos

Following the death of Saint Gregory the Theologian in 389, he was buried either at his estate in Arianzos or in Nazianzos itself or in nearby Gelveri. Oddly, for someone of Gregory's importance, the location of his burial seems to have gone unrecorded. In the early tenth century Niketas the Paphlogonian, in his Encomium to Saint Gregory the Theologian, relates that he was buried in his father's mausoleum, his body covered by a single stone. Before this we have no other text addressing his death and burial, and it seems as if he died unnoticed, with no Oration composed in his honor.

Sometime around 950, Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (913-959) had Gregory's relics brought to Constantinople, where he had once served as Archbishop, for Constantine viewed Gregory as his personal protector. Though we don't know where he obtained the relics, when they arrived in a silver reliquary Constantine personally carried them into the City, and pronounced a panegyric upon their deposition in the Church of the Holy Apostles. This event is commemorated in the Orthodox Church on January 19th, which was probably the date of the deposition, and in the Synaxarion of Constantinople the following iambic verses were composed in its honor:

The beautiful residence possesses you dead,
Beauteous as you are, Father, is the Apostles.

Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite writes that the references to these verses stem from a discourse given by Gregory at the Second Ecumenical Synod, where he refers to the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople as follows: "Rejoice Apostles, the beautiful residence." Further Saint Nikodemos writes that in Iveron Monastery at Mount Athos there was a discourse composed in honor of the translation of the relics of Saint Gregory to Constantinople, which began: "A sacred and most brilliant festival."

The relics - at least part of them - were enshrined inside the sanctuary of the church in an "oblong rectangular sarcophagus of ruddy color," next to those of Saint John Chrysostom. Part of them may have been enshrined in the Church of Saint Anastasia, a church closely associated with Gregory, although Symeon Magister (after 963) provides our only account of this. Russian pilgrims during the Palaiologan period noted that the stone tombs in the Church of the Holy Apostles were empty, because they were taken to Rome in 1204 by Crusaders after the Sack of Constantinople. In Rome the relics of Gregory were situated in the Church of Santa Maria in Campo Martio.

In 1578 Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585) had the relics transferred into the newly-completed Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican - the first relics to be brought in after those of the Apostle Peter himself. They were subsequently enshrined in the Cappella Gregoriana in the gallery of the Basilica, and the transferal was commemorated by a series of topographical frescoes in the Terza Loggia. The transferal was meant to encourage the unity of the Christian Church under the leadership of Rome and reflected Gregory XIII's hope for a closer relationship with the Orthodox Church.

A similar desire of ecumenical communality inspired the most recent transferal. On November 27, 2004, in a gesture of goodwill and towards the healing of the rift between the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church, Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) returned the relics of Saint Gregory - at least part of them - along with those of Saint John Chrysostom to the Greek Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople (Istanbul). They are now displayed in a marble larnax in the north side of Patriarchal Cathedral of Saint George at the Phanar.

Other Portions

There are numerous portions of the relics of Saint Gregory throughout the world, and it would be difficult to trace the history of each. However, the story of a certain portion can be told based on an oral tradition. This tradition comes to us from the Greek-speaking Christian community of Gelveri (modern Guzelyurt) in central Asia Minor, near the historical location of Nazianzos (which is Nenezi, the modern Bekarlar); local Greeks called the place Karvali. In the middle of the eighteenth century, residents of Gelveri said that men came from Constantinople in search of the bones of all the Fathers of the Church. When they asked for the body of Gregory, members of the Ikizoglu and Didymopoulos families (curiously in English both the Turkish and Greek family names translate as "son of the twins") took the body from its burial place and sent the wrong relics to Constantinople; these are now venerated at Mount Athos. The authentic relics were preserved in the Church of the Honorable Wood in Gelveri, whose name was subsequently changed to that of Saint Gregory. A portion of the skull of Gregory is recorded at Vatopaidi Monastery and may be from this translation; it was apparently a gift from the Patriarchate, with a letter to authenticate it. Other pieces of Gregory at the Holy Mountain can be found at Hilandari and Saint Paul's Monasteries which claim to possess one of the Saint's feet. Dionysiou, Koutloumousiou, Xeropotamou, Stavronikita, Xenophontos, Gregoriou and Rossikou claim to have relics as well.

As for the "authentic" relics preserved at Gelveri, these were taken by the residents during the population exchange of 1924 to Nea Karvali, east of Kavala in northern Greece. There the pilgrim will find, along with a Cappadocian Heritage Center, a domed church vaguely resembling that of the Church of Saint Gregory in Gelveri (designed this way by the architect Stelios Stelianou a decade after the population exchange based on a picture of the old church), within which are enshrined the relics of Saint Gregory, his father, and his sister Gorgonia. They are housed in a proskyneterion positioned on the north side of the nave - that is, in the same position it occupied in the church at Gelveri (in the 1980's a newly-assigned priest, unaware of this tradition, tried to move the relics to a new position, but this was quickly stopped by the locals). The relics are still venerated locally. And in recent years, families that came from Gelveri to Nea Karvali have been returning to Gelveri on January 25th to celebrate the feast of Saint Gregory.