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!

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

00e194302fbe9202ff8914cb3e83475d
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

livius-arius
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!

The Most Holy Trinity: A Homily and a Few Resources

 

 

800px-Andrej_Rublëv_001
Trinity by Andrei Rublev

Above is my homily for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity!  This was a doctrine that faced a lot of resistance from a varieties of heresies in the Early Church, but was ultimately solidified by several ecumenical councils.  Below, you will find a little diagram I created to point out some common Trinitarian heresies and the erroneous understandings of God that are behind them.

Heresy Description Other Notes
Modalism (Sabellianism) Taught that the three persons of the Trinity as different forms or “modes” of the Godhead. Adherants believed that Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not distinct personalities, but different modes of God’s self-revelation. A typical modalist approach is to regard God as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Spirit in sanctification. Condemned by Tertullian in Adversus Praxeam as well as in the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople I and Constantinople II.
Arianism Taught that Christ was the first and greatest of God’s creatures but denied his fully divine status. Taught that Christ was created, and thus a status lower than the Father. Macedonianism was essentially the same teaching about the Holy Spirit. Truly one of the greatest struggles of the Early Church. Condemned by the First Council of Nicaea in 325, yielding the Nicaean Creed. Macedonianism was condemned at the First Council of Constantinople.
Partialism Taught that Father, Son and Holy Spirit together are components of the one God. This led them to believe that each of the persons of the Trinity is only part God, only becoming fully God when they come together. I couldn’t find a specific council, but trust me, it’s condemned!
Tritheism Taught that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three independent divine beings; three separate gods who share the ‘same substance’. This is a common mistake because of misunderstanding of the use of the term ‘persons’ in defining the Trinity.  
Docetism Taught that Jesus Christ was a purely divine being who only had the “appearance” of being human. Regarding his suffering, some versions taught that Jesus’ divinity abandoned or left him upon the cross while other claimed that he only appeared to suffer (much like he only appeared to be human) Condemned at many of the first ecumenical councils.
Adoptionism Taught that Jesus was born totally human and only later was “adopted” – either at his baptism or at his resurrection – by God in a special way. The founder (Theodotus of Byzantium) was excommunicated by Pope Victor I and the heresy was condemned at the Synod of Antioch in 268.
Nestorianism Taught that Jesus Christ was a conjuction between the flesh and the Word, a human person joined with a divine person. Condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and again at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

So where does that leave us?  There’s a lot here about what we don’t believe.  What about what we do believe as Catholic Christians?  Here’s the text of the Athanasian Creed, written by the great St. Athanasius and presented to Pope Julius I as he was returning from exile.

Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sitteth on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.

Did you get all that?  Not to worry, because we also have the “Shield of Athanasius” or the “Shield of the Trinity” to explain at least the first paragraph of the creed written above.  It’s simple, but incredibly important, and worth memorizing!

Shield-Trinity-Scutum-Fidei-English.svg

St. Ignatius of Antioch: First to Call the Church “Catholic”

Ignatius_of_Antioch_2Today’s saint, St. Ignatius of Antioch, is incredibly important for our Church. He converted to Christianity at an early age, and became a disciple of St. John the Apostle. After learning from John the ways of the Gospel, he became the third bishop of Antioch in Syria, which meant that he was also the second successor to St. Peter from his time in Antioch. Between St. John and St. Peter, talk about big sandals to fill! Still, St. Ignatius did well, and was a good and holy pastor, preparing his people well for the persecutions by inspiring them to devotion, prayer, and fasting.

Now, when you’re the bishop of an important place like Antioch, you’re going to attract a lot of attention, some of it unwanted. After helping his people through the persecutions of Domitian, Ignatius himself was arrested under the next wave of persecutions under Trajan. But it was during his travelling to Rome for trial that he provided some of his most important work.

St. Ignatius spent the time in transit to Rome writing letters to the various Churches, and he provided a number of important themes. His first notable contribution was that he was the first to use the term “Catholic” with reference to the Church. He used it to describe the Church as “universal” in two ways. First, the Church is universal in that it embraces people of all cultures and backgrounds. When we are Catholic, we extend the love of neighbor to all, just as Christ teaches us. But Ignatius also says the Church is universal in that it embraces all that Christ has revealed to us in our Scripture and Tradition. We can’t pick and choose what elements of Christianity we want to accept. If that were the case, we would be Gnostics, one of the very groups St. Ignatius fought so hard to defend the Church against!

The second notable contribution from St. Ignatius’s letters was his understanding of the Eucharist. Sometimes we can think that our belief of the Eucharist as the Body of Christ was some later development, and that early Christians didn’t think this way. But even in the 1st century, Ignatius was displaying a very strong belief of the Real Presence of Jesus in the host – not as a symbol or an idea, but the belief that Jesus truly is present in the Eucharist. Even this early, St. Ignatius understood that the Eucharist was a sacrifice connected to the Cross. This might not seem like a big deal, but it really is! Even 60 years after Jesus, Christians believed and professed many of the same things we do today!

St. Ignatius took that belief of the Eucharist to his martyrdom. He saw his life as a sacrifice – his way of living out the Eucharist for the good of the Church. Even as he was marched into the Coliseum to be eaten by wild beasts for the pleasure of the crowds, those words from his letter to the church in Rome returned: “I am God’s wheat, and I must be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, so that I may be found the pure bread of Christ.”

Ignatius’s followers brought his body back to Antioch, where they buried him in a tomb outside the city. In the 600’s, Islam began to dominate the region culturally and in some cases, militarily, and so the relics of St. Ignatius were brought back to the Basilica San Clemente in Rome, which stands only about a mile from the spot of his martyrdom in the Coliseum. His relics are still present for veneration today, and serve as a reminder that all of us are called to live out the Eucharist each day!