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!

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