Doctors of the Church: St. Hilary of Poitiers

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

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

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.”

St. Therese as a Model of Christian Humility


On Saturday, October 3, I was privileged to give a conference for the Women’s Day of Recollection here at Ascension Parish in Chesterfield, Missouri.  Having just celebrated the Memorial of St. Therese of Lisieux on October 1st, I chose to speak on “St. Therese as a Model of Christian Humility.”  The conference is nowhere near a full treatment of this Disciple of Humility, nor on the virtue itself, but simply some reflections to consider.  Enjoy!

St. Lucy: Eye Has Not Seen…

saint-lucy-sassoferatoThe next on our list of “virgin martyr” saints is St. Lucy. Really, all that is known for sure about her is that she was martyred in Syracuse around 304 under the Great Persecution of Diocletian. However, our traditions from the Middle Ages have a lot more to say about her life.

According to these traditions, she was born of a noble family around 283. Her father was Roman, but he died when Lucy was still only five years old, leaving her in the care of her Greek mother, Eutychia. Lucy, like many of the early virgin martyrs, promised herself to Christ at a young age, but her mother had no idea. Imagine: a child not telling her mother about something – I bet that’s never happened before! The tradition also has it that Eutychia suffered from some form of blood disorder, so without a father to protect the family, she likely was looking for some security and stability for her family, which she sought by marrying off her daughter Lucy.

Remember how we mentioned last week that veneration of St. Agatha quickly spread throughout Sicily and the rest of the Church? Well, even a few decades later, Eutychia and Lucy travelled to her shrine in Catania to pray for the saint’s intercession for a cure to Eutychia’s blood disease. St. Agatha came to Lucy in a dream, and told her that because of Lucy’s faith, her mother would be cured, and that she herself would become the glory of Syracuse, just as Agatha was for Catania. Lucy was so inspired and thankful that she chose to distribute her part of her family’s inheritance to the poor.

Now remember that whole thing about being the new St. Agatha for Syracuse? She remembered that Agatha was martyred, right? When her betrothed saw her giving away her wealth, he assumed that she was giving away money to be used for her dowry. He reported her to the governor of Syracuse, who ordered Lucy to offer sacrifice to the emperor’s image – the typical test for Christians during the Diocletian persecution. When she refused, can you imagine what they did? You guessed it – they tried to drag her off to be defiled in a brothel.

The soldiers meant to drag her to the brothel behind a team of oxen, but miraculously, they couldn’t budge her from the spot! They then tried to burn her at the stake, but she wouldn’t burn! Some traditions say that the soldiers gouged out her eyes (a tradition often represented in artwork by her holding a platter of her own eyes!). Ultimately, St. Lucy was put to death by the sword, and offered the martyr’s crown like her patroness, St. Agatha.

Lucy’s dream was indeed true – her veneration exploded throughout the Church. Her name appeared in our Eucharistic Prayers by the 6th century, if not before. Her feast day (Dec. 13) has also been venerated as far away as England by the 700’s. Even today, her feast is celebrated as a holiday in Italy, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. In the celebrations, a girl dressed as St. Lucy enters the party wearing a crown of candles, and presenting bread and sweets to those present. Her name, “Lucia” comes from the Latin word meaning “light”, so she does indeed represent a light of hope in darkness during one of the darkest (seasonal) times of the year!

St. Agatha: A “Good” Patron for Pretty Much Everything

"Saint Peter Healing Agatha" by Giovanni Lanfranco
“Saint Peter Healing Agatha” by Giovanni Lanfranco

As I was writing this article, I realized that I’ve gotten a little out of order from the list that’s presented in the Roman Canon. Today, we have St. Agatha, who, like St. Agnes, is in that group of “virgin martyrs.” Not a lot is known about her life from a historical standpoint, but she is one of the most highly venerated saints, even from the time of the early Church. Very old, and very straightforward accounts were given of her interrogation and torture, which may indicate that the account was acquired from official documents of the Roman government. This account was later expanded upon, and gives us the legends we have today.

St. Agatha was born in Catania, Sicily around 231 to a noble family. At the age of 15, she rejected the advances of a certain Quintianus, a Roman prefect in Sicily – that’s the virgin part. The martyr part came when he arrested her, first sending her to a brothel to be humiliated, before sending her off to prison. It was there that she underwent numerous painful tortures and mutilations, even going so far as to cut off her breasts. In fact, this is how she is usually depicted in paintings and icons. She was then sentenced to burn at the stake.

Wouldn’t you know it, but an earthquake saved her from this fate, leaving her to be thrown into prison a second time. The story goes that while suffering in prison, St. Peter the Apostle and an angel appeared to her, healing her of her wounds and mutilations to purify her before God. She eventually succumbed to her brutal treatment, and died in prison in the year 251. Before she died, she devoutly prayed, “Lord, my creator, you have protected me since I was in the cradle. You have taken me from the love of the world and given me patience to suffer. Now receive my spirit.”

Even in the short time after her death, she became an example for the Christian Church, and was highly venerated, even outside of Sicily. She became the patroness of both Catania and Palermo, with powerful intercessions reported to those who venerated her. Even just a year after her death, she was credited with stilling the nearby volcano of Mt. Etna as it seemed ready to erupt. Since then, she has become the patroness of just about everything, from foundry workers to firefighters to those suffering from breast cancer. Shortly after her death, a shrine was built in her honor at Catania, most likely over her tomb, and as we’ll see, she had a great impact on other Christians living in Sicily as well!

St. Agnes: A Lamb Without Blemish

stagnes-stanneswpb3Today we move on to another saintly woman in the Roman Canon, St. Agnes. She was 12 years old when we catch up with her traditions, and was raised in a Christian family during the reign of Diocletian. Because of her high social rank, she held many suitors, with many men wanting to take advantage of her. Agnes, though, made a vow to the Lord early on, and she dedicated herself to being chaste, responding to her suitors with, “Jesus Christ is my only spouse.” The governor’s son, Procop, sought her out especially, buying her jewelry and other expensive gifts, and making her promises of power if she would take his hand in marriage. St. Agnes continued to deny him, and so Procop reported her to the prefect, a man named Sempronius, accusing her of being a Christian.

When you tell others that you have promised your marriage to Christ alone, it’s pretty clear that you’re a Christian, and so when Agnes was convicted, she was dragged naked through the streets of Rome to a brothel as punishment. As the Roman Martyrology states, an angel protected her, and it was said that any man who tried to abuse or take her virginity from her was struck blind. Ultimately, St. Agnes was sentenced to death by burning her at the stake in the arena. When the wood refused to burn, the presiding Roman officer drew his sword and dispatched her.

The body of St. Agnes was laid to rest along the Via Nomentana (where St. Alexander was buried, remember?!?), and devotion to her quickly spread throughout Rome. Her sister, St. Emerentiana, was discovered praying at the grave on the anniversary of her martyrdom, and when she refused to leave, she was martyred as well! Several years later, St. Constance, the daughter of the great Emperor Constantine, was miraculously cured of leprosy while praying at St. Agnes’ tomb. The church of Sant’Agnese fuori le mura (St. Agnes Outside the Walls) was built over her tomb. Her skull is preserved as well at Sant’Agnese in Agone, built near the Piazza Navona over the supposed site of her martyrdom.

Interestingly, the name “Agnes” looks a lot like the Latin word Agnus, which means “lamb”. Who knows if this was intentional or a mistake, but a white lamb has come to be a symbol for St. Agnes. Each year, two lambs belonging to a Roman monastery are sheered on her feast day to make the wool pallium, a small vestment given to newly consecrated archbishops as they are officially instituted by Pope Francis on the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul (June 29). Archbishop Carlson received his pallium from Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

St. Agnes is considered one of the “virgin martyrs”, a special class of the saints similar to the soldier martyrs we discussed with Sts. John and Paul. Even the name “Agnes” comes from the Greek word meaning “chaste” or “pure”. Sometimes, it can be easy to think of chastity as being for “goody two-shoes”, and to assume that people follow chastity because they are scared or boring. The truth is that there is happiness and joy in being pure and holy, and these virgin saints are wonderful examples of this.

Sts. Perpetua and Felicity: Beautiful Mirrors of Christ

Mosaic of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC
Mosaic of Sts. Perpetua and Felicity from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC

Next on our list are Sts. Perpetua and Felicity. Even if their names are not easily recognizeable, they are among the most well-known and widely studied martyrs of the 3rd century. Many martyrdom account manuscripts have been lost to time, decay, or barbarian hordes, but we have received The Passion of St. Perpetua, St. Felicity, and their Companions as a complete text! It preserves the account of the arrest and imprisonment of the saints as given by eyewitnesses and the saints’ own testimony.

Vibia Perpetua was a 22-year-old married noblewoman and nursing mother, and Felicity was her servant, friend, and expectant mother. Perpetua had made her decision to be baptized in 203 AD under the rule of Emperor Septimius Severus, even though she knew that it could mean her death. Her father and family members pleaded with her to recant, but she replied that she couldn’t and said, “Neither can I call myself by any other name than what I am – a Christian.”

Perpetua and Felicity were imprisoned and awaited execution in the arena in their hometown of Carthage in North Africa. The conditions were terrible, but the Church sent deacons to minister to them and other Christians, even bribing the guards to provide better living conditions. The two women and their companions (Saturus, Revocadus, Rusticus, and Saturninus) continued to be people of prayer, even as they awaited their death, and their example resulted in the conversion of the jail warden, a man named Pudens.

The actual martyrdom account interestingly mirrors many of the aspects of Jesus’ own Passion. Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions were led into the center of the arena to await judgment of the crowds (like Jesus). Beautifully, the servant and master had become sisters and friends in their suffering for Christ. The crowd demanded that they be scourged first (like Jesus), and they were stripped naked for humiliation (like Jesus). The group of martyrs was then attacked by leopards, wild boars, and bears (oh my!), and Perpetua and Felicity were chained to the side of a crazed bull, which beat and trampled them severely. When the brutal attacks by the beasts had concluded, soldiers were dispatched to ensure that the martyrs were dead (like Jesus). When one of them, a young novice, approached Perpetua, he was so moved by her loving suffering that he couldn’t bring himself to dispatch her. Perpetua, fully aware of the consequences for the soldier disobeying his order, and willing to lay her own life down (like Jesus), steadied his hand and guided the sword into her body.

We have so much that we can take away from this passion account, including evidence for many closely held teachings of the Church, including baptism by desire (Perpetua’s brother died as a catechumen, but she dreamed he was saved) and prayers for the souls in Purgatory (her other brother Dinocrates, who had died with a disfiguring illness, appeared to her in a vision and was healed after she prayed for his soul). There is also a scene where the martyr Saturus gives his family ring to Pudens the warden in gratitude; Pudens later dips the ring in Saturus’ blood and keeps it to venerate the martyrs’ death, which seems to be clear evidence of the use of relics!

Perhaps the greatest lesson we learn follows the last recorded words of St. Perpetua: “Stand fast in faith, and love one another.” Sts. Perpetua, Felicity, and their Companions, pray for us!