Saint Gregory was born in the Pont, of distinguished parents who were still engaged in the superstitions of paganism. He lost his father at the age of fourteen, and began to reflect on the folly of idolatry’s fables. He recognized the unity of God and was becoming disposed to accept the truths of Christianity. His father had destined him for the legal profession, in which the art of oratory is very necessary, and in this pursuit he was succeeding very well, having learned Latin. He was counseled to apply himself to Roman law.
Gregory and his brother Athenodorus, later to be a bishop like himself, had a sister living in Palestine at Caesarea. Not far from that city was a school of law, and in Caesarea itself, another which the famous Origen had opened in the year 231 and in which he was teaching philosophy. The two brothers heard Origen there, and that master discovered in them a remarkable capacity for knowledge, and more important still, rare dispositions for virtue. He strove to inspire love for truth in them and an ardent desire to attain greater knowledge and the possession of the Supreme Good; and the two brothers soon put aside their intentions to study law. Gregory studied also in Alexandria for three years, after a persecution drove his master, Origen, from Palestine, but returned there with the famous exegete in 238. He was then baptized, and in the presence of a large audience delivered a speech in which he testified to his gratitude towards his teacher, praising his methods, and thanking God for so excellent a professor.
When he returned to his native city of Neocaesarea in the Pont, his friends urged him to seek high positions, but Gregory desired to retire into solitude and devote himself to prayer. For a time he did so, often changing his habitation, because the archbishop of the region desired to make him Bishop of Neocaesarea. Eventually he was obliged to consent. That city was very prosperous, and the inhabitants were corrupted by paganism. Saint Gregory, with Christian zeal and charity, and with the aid of the gift of miracles which he had received, began to attempt every means to bring them to the light of Christ. As he lay awake one night an elderly man entered his room, and pointed to a Lady of superhuman beauty who accompanied him, radiant with heavenly light. This elderly man was Saint John the Evangelist, and the Lady of Light was the Mother of God. She told Saint John to give Gregory the instruction he desired; thereupon he gave Saint Gregory a creed which contained in all its plenitude the doctrine of the Trinity. Saint Gregory consigned it to writing, directed all his preaching by it, and handed it down to his successors. This creed later preserved his flock from the Arian heresy.
He converted a pagan priest one day, when the latter requested a miracle, and a very large rock moved to another location at his command. The pagan priest abandoned all things to follow Christ afterwards. One day the bishop planted his staff beside the river which passed alongside the city and often ravaged it by floods. He commanded it never again to pass the limit marked by his staff, and in the time of Saint Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote of his miracles nearly a hundred years later, it had never done so. The bishop settled a conflict which was about to cause bloodshed between two brothers, when he prayed all night beside the lake whose possession they were disputing. It dried up and the miracle ended the difficulty.
When the persecution of Decius began in 250, the bishop counseled his faithful to depart and not expose themselves to trials perhaps too severe for their faith; and none fell into apostasy. He himself retired to a desert, and when he was pursued was not seen by the soldiers. On a second attempt they found him praying with his companion, the converted pagan priest, now a deacon; they had mistaken them the first time for trees. The captain of the soldiers was convinced this had been a miracle, and became a Christian to join him. Some of his Christians were captured, among them Saint Troadus the martyr, who merited the grace of dying for the Faith. The persecution ended at the death of the emperor in 251.
It is believed that Saint Gregory died in the year 270, on the 17th of November. Before his death he asked how many pagans still remained in the city, and was told there were only seventeen. He thanked God for the graces He had bestowed on the population, for when he arrived, there had been only seventeen Christians.
Reflection: Devotion to the blessed Mother of God is the sure guarantee of faith in Her Divine Son. Every time we invoke Her, we renew our faith in the Incarnate God, we reverse the sin and unbelief of our first parents, and we establish communion with the One who was blessed because She believed.
Les Petits Bollandistes: Vies des Saints, by Msgr. Paul Guérin (Bloud et Barral: Paris, 1882), Vol. 13