Doctors of the Church: St. Hilary of Poitiers

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Mosaic of St. Hilary from the Cathedral of Monreale, completed in 1185

So far, we’ve been focusing mainly on the Doctors of the Eastern Church, that part of the Roman Empire along the Mediterranean coast from Greece down to Egypt. Many, if not most, of the early Doctors come from this area, but today’s Doctor is the first (chronologically) to come from the Western Church.

St. Hilary (his Latin name is Hilarius, hahaha!) was born in Poitiers in what is today west-central France around 310. He belonged to a very influential pagan family, which provided him with a great education, particularly in the area of Greek philosophy. Hilary studied many of the works of Plato and his successors, and it was in reading Plato that he was drawn to Christianity. He was baptized around 345 at the age of 35, and only eight years later, was ordained and elected bishop of Poitiers.

As you remember, Arianism was rampant around this time, particularly in the Western Church, and even good bishops were becoming convinced of this Arian theology, creating a lot of division within the Church. St. Hilary called a synod of the bishops of Gaul (modern-day France) in order to discuss things and bring about some unity. Ironically, despite his calling the synod, it ended with some of the Arian bishops colluding with the emperor to exile Hilary!

He was banished to Phrygia (in modern-day Turkey), where he suffered greatly. But despite his distance from his home and his diocese, Hilary continued to love his people and serve them from afar. He spent much of his time writing commentaries on the Gospels and Psalms, and in fact, his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew is the oldest-known commentary on that Gospel in Latin.

It was also during this time that he wrote his greatest work, entitled De Trinitate (On the Trinity), which revolved around our baptismal profession of faith in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hilary wrote a collection of twelve books, in which he first outlined his own journey of faith, especially through philosophy and Scripture, before providing a defense of the Church’s teaching on the Trinity, addressing many of the Arian arguments based in Scripture. He pointed out that while most of the time we think of the Son of God being connected mainly to the New Testament, the mystery of Christ is very clearly present in the Old Testament as well. Hilary outlined the way in which the Scriptures speak to different aspects of Christ. For example, some passages emphasize Jesus as God, while others focus on his humanity. And yet, while there are many emphases at different points, all Scripture gives testimony that Jesus is truly divine.

Hilary returned to Poitiers four years later, and worked tirelessly for the fidelity and unity of his diocese and the bishops of Gaul. After many years of faithful ministry, St. Hilary went to his reward around the year 367. Even as we reflect on Scripture today, let us remember the contributions of St. Hilary of Poitiers, and the fidelity and courage that made him a great teacher of the faith!

Doctors of the Church: St. Ephrem the Syrian

Mor_Ephrem_iconOur next saint and Doctor of the Church is one of my personal favorites, St. Ephrem the Syrian. He was born around 306 in Nisibis, which would have been on the southern border of present-day Turkey. Not much is known about his family or young life. Some traditions hold that his parents were both Christians and part of the growing Christian community in Syria, while others say that his father was a pagan priest.

We do know that St. Ephrem served as a deacon in the Church in Edessa. In one of his writings, Ephrem stated that if his bishop was the “shepherd,” then he was the “herdsman” of the flock. He showed a great desire to serve the Church in cooperation with the bishop, even as our deacons at Ascension do today. There is some question whether he at any time lived as a monk, but one thing that is certain is that he lived the monastic virtues of chastity and poverty.

St. Ephrem is a different sort of Doctor of the Church. As we remember that “doctor” primarily means “teacher,” it is very easy to infer that the Doctors were predominantly focused on writing tracts and treatises on doctrine. Ephrem was certainly very knowledgeable and orthodox in his theology, but his primary means of propagating it was through beauty. Certainly, some of his works are commentaries and treatises, as we would expect, but most of his works consist of poetry and hymns. In fact, St. Ephrem even used to write his homilies in verse, and sing them to his congregation (and you thought my homilies could be long!). Thus, Ephrem is fittingly nicknamed the “Harp of the Spirit.”

St. Ephrem’s poetry and hymns are very strong in Incarnational and Marian theology. Proponents of Arianism (which, you might recall, was very influential at the time) would deny Jesus’ divinity, and thus would deny Mary’s dignity as the Mother of God. One collection of Ephrem’s works, therefore, was called the Hymns against the Heresies, in which he would draw from hymns and tunes used by the various heretical sects and change the words to preach orthodoxy! It’s along the same lines as “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” being drawn from the tune for “God Save the Queen,” but about theology!

Many of his writings against these heresies were very strong in praise of Mary, because praise of Mary is first and foremost praise of Christ. In one of his hymns, St. Ephrem comes very close to articulating the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which doesn’t seem like a big deal until you consider that it was 1500 years before the doctrine was solemnly declared by Pope Pius IX in 1854!

St. Ephrem certainly helps us grow in our appreciation for the beauty of our faith and the beauty of truth. As we draw to a close, I invite you to reflect on one of his hymns on the Nativity of Jesus:

“The belly of your Mother changed the order of things, O you who order all! Rich he went in, he came out poor: the High One went into her [Mary], he came out lowly. Brightness went into her and clothed himself, and came forth a despised form. He that gives food to all went in, and knew hunger. He who gives drink to all went in, and knew thirst. Naked and bare came forth from her the Clother of all things [in beauty].”

Doctors of the Church: St. Athanasius

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One of my favorite icons of St. Athanasius at the Council of Nicaea, and yes, that is Arius he is standing on!

It’s appropriate that the first Doctor of the Church in this series is arguably one of the greatest – St. Athanasius of Alexandria. He was born around 296 in Alexandria to a Christian family, and would have been about 7 years old when the co-emperors Diocletian and Maximian began the fiercest persecution in Church history.

Athanasius wanted to be a priest from an early age, so much so that there is a story of him as a boy pretending to be a bishop and baptizing his pagan friends in the sea. When the bishop found out and reasoned that the baptisms might actually be valid (hey, there’s water, intention, and the right words!), he told Athanasius that he probably shouldn’t be stealth-baptizing his friends! Not bad evangelization for a kid!

A very well educated young man, Athanasius became secretary to Bishop Alexander before being ordained a priest, and eventually named Bishop of Alexandria himself. Even as a bishop with many responsibilities in one of the greatest cities in the world, Athanasius was a great teacher and a holy man, even developing a relationship with the desert monk St. Anthony. Athanasius’ respect for monasticism and the ideals of St. Anthony continued to guide him the rest of his life.

I mentioned about the growing threat of Arianism in my last column, and perhaps what Athanasius is best known for is being the greatest defender of the Church’s teaching against this heresy in his generation. He wrote and preached fervently against Arianism through most of his priesthood, and was especially influential at the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). Athanasius and Santa Claus (St. Nicholas of Myra) led the defense of the Church and worked tirelessly against Arius and his followers. When the Council came to an end, he thought the fight was over.

But in truth, that battle had just begun for Athanasius. Some of his well-connected enemies (who also happened to be admirers of Arius), convinced the Emperor Constantine to exile Athanasius to Germany, which was about as far from Alexandria as one could get at the time. Athanasius returned in 338 only to be banished again…and again…and again – five times altogether! All the while, he was preaching and teaching the truth that we take for granted today. Eventually, this holy servant of the truth returned to Alexandria and spent his final years cleaning up what had been done in his absence, until he died in 373. His relics had been reposed in Venice, but in 1973, Pope Paul VI donated some of them to the Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria, and they are preserved in Cairo today.

St. Athanasius was a prolific preacher and writer, even in exile, and his teaching has certainly impacted us today. At the Council of Nicaea, he was partly responsible for the development of the Greek term “homoousios,” now known to us as “consubstantial,” used to describe the fact that the persons of the Trinity share the same substance, or being. They are three distinct persons, but one supreme Godhead. This teaching is wonderfully summed up in the “Shield of Athanasius,” seen below. Even though Athanasius probably didn’t design the image itself, it is a great tribute to his gift of explaining our understanding of God!

Doctors of the Church: Know Your Enemy

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Jolly Old St. Nicholas…Smacking Arius!

Before I actually write about the Doctors of the Church, I think it’s important to realize what they were up against!

I can imagine that the faith journey of the Early Church might have been similar to many of us as we grew up. The experience I have of children learning their faith is that from Kindergarten through 2nd grade, they are content to just believe – “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!” as the song goes. But as children get older, they start to wonder “why?” and “how?” In the same way, we can probably imagine the excitement of the Early Church hearing this Good News preached by the apostles and witnesses to the Resurrection, but after the initial fervor, they want to know how all this is possible? How is Jesus both God and man? What’s the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.” And that’s exactly what happened! While many remained true to the faith, others wandered from the teaching of the apostles into heresy. Keep in mind, “heresy” isn’t a word used lightly, and it’s more than just making a mistake or having questions about the faith. Heretics are those who, when faced with authentic teaching, refuse to be corrected.

Certainly one of the greatest heresies in the history of the Church was Arianism, which takes its name from Arius, a priest from Alexandria born around 256. We don’t know much about him (none of his writings survived), but what we do know is that he was magnetic. He was tall and dignified, charming, and had an aura of intellectual superiority. He was also by all accounts a very good preacher, speaking intelligently with a melodious voice.

Arius and his followers taught that Christ was the greatest and first of God’s creatures…but he wasn’t God. To the Arians, the Son was created – there was a time when there was no second person of the Holy Trinity. Even in the Scriptures, when Jesus is called the “Son of God,” Arius would say that it is because he somehow participated in or was adopted by the Father, but was still of a lower status than the Father.

Now obviously, this is not what we believe. We understand, and have always taught, that the Son is God, one in being (consubstantial) and co-eternal with the Father, meaning that he’s God, and always has been. But lots of people bought into Arius and his teaching, and saw it as a little easier to grasp. That included Emperors, bishops, priests, and even a majority of the Church at one point. As St. Jerome wrote, “The whole world woke up one morning, lamenting and marveling to find itself Arian.”

But truth isn’t decided by a majority vote, and the Holy Spirit continued to guide the Church, even in those difficult times. In a sense, heresy is medicinal to the Church, in that it forces us to look seriously at what we believe and how we articulate it. And as we’ll see, articulating the Church’s teaching is the forte of our Doctors!

Doctors of the Church: Introduction

Doctors of the ChurchI had a few lists of saints I was considering for this next series, including some great obscure saints (and you know of my love for obscure saints…), but I settled on the Doctors of the Church. When I was younger, I used to think that as “Doctors,” they were the ones people went to for some kind of healing – you know, like St. Luke! He was a physician, right? That’s how we use the word “doctor” today, at least since the 1700’s. But the word actually comes from the Latin word docere, meaning “to teach.”

With the rise of the medieval university system, “doctors” were those considered to be experts in their fields. That’s still very true today: the Doctoral degree is the highest degree of learning, above the Masters and Bachelors degrees. So when we speak of the Doctors of the Church, what we’re really talking about are those who are the greatest teachers of the faith – those who teach us about God and about ourselves in relationship to God through their writings and homilies.

Cardinal Francis George, the former cardinal archbishop of Chicago, wrote that there were four questions the Doctors of the Church strove to answer. The first is “Who is Jesus Christ?”, the question asked in the earliest days of the Church, and notably answered by Sts. Augustine, Basil, Ambrose, and Jerome.

The second is “How do we know Christ?” Great Doctors such as Sts. Augustine and Gregory the Great tried to throw philosophy and reason into the equation to better know Jesus.

The third question is “How do we act as Christ’s disciples?” Once we come to some level of understanding of the first two questions, we begin to wonder about ourselves. Our faith is a relationship, after all, and it takes two to tango, right? Saints like St. Bonaventure and St. Thomas Aquinas addressed the questions “Who are we?” and “How has God created us?”

Lastly, the fourth question is “How are we in Christ?” Here, we are trying to bring together what we know of God and what we know of ourselves to see what our relationship with God should be like and what prayer should look like. Saints who addressed this question were great spiritual masters like Sts. John of the Cross, Francis de Sales, Teresa of Ávila, and Thérèse of Lisieux.

Originally, there were only eight Doctors: four in the West (Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory the Great, and Jerome), and four in the East (Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nanzianzen, and John Chrysostom). But as time passed, it became apparent that some saints deserved to find a place among this ancient rank, and now the pope makes a formal declaration to add saints to the list of Doctors. This has happened as recently as 2015 with Pope Francis!

My goal over the next few weeks (and weeks, and weeks) will be to write a little about the Doctors themselves – their stories, their lives, and their contributions – but also a little about the times they lived in, and the challenges they faced. As Cardinal George wrote, “The mission of the Church in every age is to introduce the world to Christ, its savior. The Church cannot accomplish her mission without learned men and women who are saints of God. These are the Doctors of the Church.”