Thursday, January 18, 2007

Basilius Cardinal Bessarion

In 1436 he was made Bishop of Nicæa by John VIII Palæologus – though he was not destined to ever see his diocese – and asked to accompany the Emperor to the Council of Ferrara, in part to plead for western support in Constantinople's final struggle against the Ottoman Turks. Here his dignity and touching eloquence, as well as his vast theological erudition, gave him such great authority among the Greek bishops that the happy issue of the council – reunion with the Latin Church – may be attributed in great part to him. This was fully recognized on 6 July 1439, in the cathedral of Florence, to which the council had been transferred, when he was commissioned to read the Greek redaction of the Act of Union.

Bessarion returned to Greece, but during the same year is found once more at Florence with Eugenius IV, who, in the consistory of 18 December, 1439 (according to others 8 January, 1440), created him cardinal of the title of the Twelve Holy Apostles. At the same time another Greek, Archbishop Isidore, received the sacred purple. The brief duration of the union of the churches is well known. Bessarion himself, having changed to the Latin Rite was cordially hated by the dissenting Greeks. This notwithstanding, Bessarion continued to work zealously for the union of the other Oriental churches, the Jacobites and Ethiopians (1442), the Syrians (1444), the Chaldeans and Maronites (1445). At this time, also, to refute the accusations of Marcus of Ephesus, against the council, he wrote the book: "De successu synodi florentinæ".

In July 1463, Pius II sent Bessarion to Venice as papal legate. In order to win the favor of a city notorious for its reluctance to allow credit to any 'foreign' notable, Bessarion donated his celebrated library of Greek manuscripts to the city, where they became the nucleus of the Biblioteca Marciana. All the aspirations of Bessarion, which, more than great, were unique, were absorbed by three ideas: the union of the Oriental Church with the Latin, the rescue of Greek lands from the Muslim yoke, and the triumph of classic literature and philosophy, especially the Greek. If the realization of the first two was only partial or, in a way, temporary, the third was certainly fulfilled to a more complete degree than perhaps Bessarion himself had dared hope.

He died at the Abbey of St. John the Evangelist on 18 November 1472. His body was taken to Rome and interred in a tomb which had been erected in a portico close by the Basilica of the Twelve Holy Apostles. A simple sarcophagus, on which is inscribed a Greek distich of his own composition, contains his remains.


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