Doctors of the Church: St. Hilary of Poitiers

monreale-cathedral-south-wall-of-the-presbytery-mosaic-of-st-hilary-of-poitiers_medium
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!