January 23, 2018

Saint Ascholios, Bishop of Thessaloniki (+ 383)

St. Ascholios of Thessaloniki (Feast Day - January 23);
Icon depicts All Saints of Thessaloniki

Our Holy Father Ascholios (or Acholios) was from Caesarea in Cappadocia (some believe he was from the Peloponnese (Achaia) because there is a reference to him having lived as a monastic there as a boy by Ambrose of Milan, but this is unlikely since monasticism was not established at that time in the Peloponnese, though he may have indeed been a solitary as a boy). Not much else is known of his life until he was appointed Bishop of Thessaloniki by Pope Damasius of Rome, who established the vicariate attached to the Roman see in order to preserve Rome's jurisdiction over the eastern part of Illyria. This was during the time when the Archbishop of Constantinople was trying to enlarge his jurisdiction, since Constantinople was now the capital of the Roman Empire.*

The historian Socrates (Eccles. Hist. 5, 6) refers to how the baptism of Emperor Theodosius I took place in the year 380 at the hands of Saint Ascholios, following his victory over the Goths:

"Theodosius, after erecting a trophy, hastened towards Constantinople, and arrived at Thessaloniki. There he was taken dangerously ill, and expressed a desire to receive Christian baptism. Now he had been instructed in Christian principles by his ancestors, and professed the 'homoousian' faith. Becoming increasingly anxious to be baptized therefore, as his malady grew worse, he sent for the Bishop of Thessaloniki, and first asked him what doctrinal views he held? The Bishop having replied, 'that the opinion of Arius had not yet invaded the provinces of Illyricum, nor had the novelty to which that heretic had given birth begun to prey upon the churches in those countries; but they continued to preserve unshaken that faith which from the beginning was delivered by the apostles, and had been confirmed in the Nicene Synod,' the emperor was most gladly baptized by Bishop Ascholios; and having recovered from his disease not many days after, he came to Constantinople on the twenty-fourth of November, in the fifth consulate of Gratian, and the first of his own."

The Edict of Thessalonica, issued on 27 February 380 by three reigning Roman Emperors (Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II), ordered all subjects of the Roman Empire to profess the faith of the Bishops of Rome and of Alexandria, making Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. The edict came after Theodosius had been baptized by Bishop Ascholios of Thessaloniki upon suffering a severe illness in Thessaloniki. The edict was issued under the influence of Ascholios, and thus of Pope Damasus I, who had appointed him. After the edict, Theodosius spent a great deal of energy suppressing all non-Nicene forms of Christianity, especially Arianism, and in establishing Nicene orthodoxy throughout his realm.

Also in 380, while Theodosius was still in Thessaloniki, Maximus the Cynic took advantage of a sick Gregory the Theologian, who was Archbishop of Constantinople, and supported by some Egyptian ecclesiastics sent by Patriarch Peter II of Alexandria under whose directions they professed to have acted, during the night Maximus was consecrated Bishop of Constantinople, in the place of Gregory. The conspirators chose a night when Gregory was confined by illness. They burst into the cathedral and started the consecration. Maximus was placed on the archiepiscopal throne and just began having his long curls sheared away when the day dawned. The news quickly spread and everybody rushed to the cathedral. The magistrates appeared with their officers and drove Maximus and his consecrators from the cathedral and into the tenement of a flute-player where the tonsure was completed.

This audacious proceeding excited great indignation among the people, with whom Gregory was popular. Maximus fled to Thessaloniki to place his cause before Emperor Theodosius I. He met with a cold reception from the emperor, who committed the matter to Ascholios, charging him to refer the affair to Pope Damasus I of Rome.

In two letters returned from Damasus, the first being to Ascholios and the Macedonian bishops, Damasus condemned those who proposed to consecrate a restless man, an alien from the Christian profession, who was not worthy to be called a Christian, and who wore an idolatrous garb ("habitus idoli") and long hair which Saint Paul said was a shame to a man. In the other letter to Bishop Ascholios, Damasus also asked him to take special care that an Orthodox bishop may be consecrated Archbishop of Constantinople.

The Edict of Thessalonica was followed in 381 by the First Synod of Constantinople, more commonly known as the Second Ecumenical Synod, which affirmed the Nicene Symbol of Faith and gave final form to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Among the Holy Fathers that attended this Synod was Bishop Ascholios of Thessaloniki. In 383, the Emperor ordered the various non-Nicene sects (Arians, Anomoeans, Macedonians, and Novatians) to submit written creeds to him, which he prayerfully reviewed and then burned, save for that of the Novatians. The other sects lost the right to meet, ordain priests, or spread their beliefs. Theodosius forbade heretics to reside within Constantinople, and in 392 and 394 confiscated their places of worship.

Ascholios was a friend of Basil the Great, being both from Caesarea, and they corresponded through letters. In Letter 164 of Basil to Ascholios, he writes how much the letter he received from Ascholios delighted him. He wrote: "It contained love to God; the marvelous description of the martyrs, which put the manner of their good fight so plainly before me that I seemed actually to see it; love and kindness to myself; words of surpassing beauty. So when I had taken it into my hands, and read it many times, and perceived how abundantly full it was of the grace of the Spirit, I thought that I had gone back to the good old times, when God’s Churches flourished, rooted in faith, united in love, all the members being in harmony, as though in one body." In Letter 165 Basil requested of Ascholios "that my soul may be fed by frequent letters from your love in Christ. This has now been granted me on taking your epistle into my hands. I have been doubly delighted at the enjoyment of your communication. I felt as though I could really see your very soul shining in your words as in some mirror; and I was moved to exceeding joy, not only at your proving to be what all testimony says of you, but that your noble qualities are the ornament of my country. You have filled the country beyond our borders with spiritual fruits, like some vigorous branch sprung from a glorious root. Rightly, then, does our country rejoice in her own offshoots." Finally, in Letter 154 Basil praises the zeal of Ascholios against heresy: "Your zeal for the cause of the blessed Athanasius is plain proof of your being sound as to the most important matters."

Bishop Ascholios reposed in the Lord in either 383 or 384 (most likely 383, because his successor Anysios was Bishop there before the death of Pope Damasus in 384).** Saint Ambrose of Milan wrote a warm eulogy (Letter 15) upon news of his death, whom he compares to Elijah, especially in leaving Anysios a successor, like Elisha, endowed with a double portion of his Spirit. He recounts the pleasure which he had felt in his meeting with Ascholios at Rome during a synod there, when they had wept together over the evils of the times, and invokes the blessing of God upon his successor.


* In its early centuries, the see of Thessaloniki was subordinated to the Patriarch of Rome, rising to become the archbishopric of the Eastern Illyricum. Roman control — and the use of Latin as a liturgical language — continued until c. 733, when the see was transferred to the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Under Constantinople, it was reduced in status to a "simple" metropolitan see, with 5 to 12 suffragan sees, although the metropolitans continued to use the title of "archbishop" as well.

** Theodoret therefore (Eccl. Hist. 5, 18) must be wrong in making him the Bishop who wrote to Saint Ambrose an account of the massacre at Thessaloniki, which occurred in A.D. 390. But the passage of Theodoret occurs in only one MS., and is perhaps not genuine.