Gregory (earlier called Theodore) was the son of prominent pagan parents of Neocaesarea in Asia Minor. He and his brother Athenodorus were sent to Beirut to study civil law. Stopping en route at Caesarea in Palestine, they fell under the spell of Origen the Great, a controversial pioneer Christian scholar. So moved were they by his teaching that both became Christians. In 238, after five years of study with this master teacher, they returned home, intent on working for the Church.
Gregory, still a layman, did start out at Neocaesarea, practicing civil law; but soon the principal bishop of the area invited him to accept consecration as bishop of his home town. It is an interesting illustration of how dioceses were established in early Christian days. When he was consecrated there was only a baker’s dozen of Christian believers in Neocaesarea. On the day of his installation, he won over so many new converts that he decided to open a small church building to accommodate them. Thanks to Bishop Gregory’s persuasive ways, the local faithful quickly built the church with contributions of money and manual labor.
Gregory soon achieved prominence as a bishop. His personal character encouraged the confidence of his growing flock. A man who despised a lie, he restricted himself in speech to the scriptural “yes” and “no”. His lifestyle was simple, his bearing was modest, and he was patient in words and manner. His legal knowledge likewise did him service, for the Christians turned to him confidently as a man of practical wisdom. In 250, when Emperor Decius launched a new persecution designed to persuade Christians to give up their faith, Bishop Gregory advised his people that it would be better to take flight than to risk becoming apostates. That was the scriptural policy he himself adopted for a while. Meanwhile he was cooperating with his fellow bishops of Asia Minor in legislating for the Church. A number of his writings have also come down to us.
History has adorned Gregory with the title “Thaumaturge” (i.e. Wonderworker). Many tales are told about his miracles. Most famous was the story of the church and the mountain. It seems that a projected church could not be built because a mountain intruded too much on the building lot. Having a faith “that moves mountains”, Bishop Gregory prayed, and the mountain moved over … just enough! Whether this account is historical or not, he did have a great reputation for wonderworking. St. Basil later wrote of him, “Such were his signs and wonders that both friends and enemies of the truth looked upon him as another Moses.”
His greatest wonder, however, was a moral miracle, the conversion of his see-city. As he lay dying, St. Gregory as how many non-Christians there were in Neocaesarea.
“Seventeen,” they told him.
“Thank God,” he said. “When I first came here, there were only seventeen Christians!”
–Father Robert F. McNamara