St. Athanasius of Alexandria

St. Athanasius of Alexandria

It was the year 325. Although relative peace reigned in the Church due to the fact that Emperor Constantine had given full liberty to worship, a serious dilemma furtively mounted within her… It was necessary to take a resolute position to combat a danger a thousand times worse than the previous open persecution: the heresy that had sprung up within the flock of Christ, threatening to divide it.

Arius, the author of the infamous doctrine that sowed division, insisted on affirming that God the Father was the only eternal Being, uncreated, and that Christ was a mere creature subordinate to the Father and different from Him in His essence. According to the heresiarch, Jesus was the Son of God, but not Himself God.

Notwithstanding, there was no dearth of shepherds of the pure and true doctrine who arose like sword blades to defend the indivisible and thrice-holy Trinitarian consubstantiality. However, the heresy took on such proportions that it became necessary to convoke a council to safeguard Church unity.

A young deacon at the Nicene Council

The great assembly took place in the city of Nicaea, located less than one hundred kilometres from Constantinople. The Bishops of Syria, Egypt, Caucasus, Africa, Hispania, Persia and Asia Minor headed there. These were regions into which the Church of the fourth century had expanded upon exiting the catacombs.

There was an atmosphere of keen expectation. Striving to endow the assembly with due pomp and honour, Constantine personally received the prelates, with deference and veneration. How many were living witnesses of courageous fidelity to the Faith! How many of them bore on their bodies and visages the visible signs of physical and moral sufferings, the inevitable consequence of martyrdom inflicted by their oppressors!

Opening of the Council of Nicaea, by Cesare Nabila – Vatican Library

Nevertheless, the council soon took on the airs of a turbulent debate. More than three hundred of the faithful Bishops argued against a few more than a dozen Arian prelates, fomenting a spectacle that was in no way gracious or serene. Alternating voices shouted in Greek:

— Christ is pure man!

— No, Jesus is God!

— Only God the Father is eternal!

As the madness of Arius and his followers gained momentum, a young deacon arose to confront them. His clear and decisive eloquence displayed the superiority of the Church’s spirit in face of her adversaries. With the expressiveness and coherence of those with a clean conscience before God and men, the deacon knocked over the arguments of the Arian heresy.

After his brilliant intervention, he humbly and modestly returned to his place. The doctrine of consubstantiality1 had triumphed; mystery was victorious over mere reason devoid of faith. And the paladin of this victory was a person as yet unknown to many of his confreres.

Some years later, St. Gregory Nazianzen would call him the Pillar of the Church, astutely affirming: “In Nicaea, the Arians watched the courageous champion of truth: small in stature, almost delicate, but with a resolute posture and head raised. When he stands up, it is as if a wave of loathing passes through him. Most of the assembly proudly look upon him who is the interpreter of its thought.” 2

This was Athanasius, herald of the truth and courageous athlete of the Faith, who would later come to be a Father and Doctor of the Church.

Patriarch of Alexandria

He was born into a Christian family of Alexandria in 295. Little is known of his childhood. He was educated under the Patriarch Alexander, who appointed him lector at age seventeen. Some years later, in 318, he was ordained deacon and became secretary of the holy prelate, closely accompanying him in his countless debates in defence of the Faith.

At the time of the opening of the Nicene Council, the city of Alexandria was a hub for the Arian doctrine. In that council the formula of the Creed, today called the Nicene Creed, 3 was approved – a pillar of Catholic orthodoxy and perennial condemnation of Arianism. Nevertheless, the followers of this heresy were not ready to admit defeat…

Shortly after the closing of the council, St. Alexander conferred priestly ordination on Athanasius and appointed him as his successor. The young priest sought to escape the high dignity by trying to flee. “You can flee, Athanasius, but you cannot escape,” 4 prophesied the venerable elder. In fact, the Alexandrians insistently requested and obtained his appointment: at thirty years of age Athanasius became Patriarch of Alexandria.

Arianism did not desist

This choice made the Arians and Meletians tremble with fear. The latter were followers of Meletius of Lycopolis, who were initially opposed to the theories of Arius, but eventually sided with him.

Thus began one of the most turbulent epochs in history for the Bride of Christ. Although it was tumultuous, it was also glorious, for to those who are persecuted for justice’s sake goes the Kingdom of Heaven (cf. Mt 5:10).

Constantine, who had proven himself to be an ardent follower of the Christian religion proclaimed in Nicaea, now revealed manifest signs of incoherence: the heretics, whom he had formerly exiled, returned and were received with honours, while the Catholics were disparaged. The pulpits proclaimed the Nicene Creed, while the Arian doctrine was spread among the people without recrimination, though popular canzonets. To further complicate things, St. Helena, mother of the emperor, died. She would have been the only person capable of bringing him back to the right path, once his sister, Constantia, showed herself to be a fanatical adherent of Arianism…

Athanasius boldly fought to keep the Church united and to consolidate its legitimate authority, often using drastic measures. The heretics, for their part, had recourse to calumnious accusations in an attempt to cut down this bulwark of the Faith.

An unmasked fraud

In 335, the Saint was summoned by Constantine to participate in a synod in Tyre, Lebanon. He did not wish to go, for he knew the assembly would be mainly comprised of ecclesiastical heretics, with whom he could never agree. Notwithstanding, the emperor’s decree obliged him to be present.

During the proceedings, as had been previously arranged, a woman of ill repute entered the room declaring that she had amassed a fortune due to money received from Athanasius. She also said that she was an eyewitness of the abominable actions he had practised. Satisfied, the Arians demanded that he be deposed from his office of Patriarch of Alexandria and condemned by the competent authorities.

Undoubtedly inspired by the Holy Spirit, Athanasius whispered something in the ear of the priest who accompanied him. The latter, impersonating the prelate, questioned the harlot:

— Well then, you affirm that you really know me and saw me do everything that you said?

The miserable creature, who had never been in the company of the holy Bishop, replied:

— Yes, I affirm it!

— Do you swear?

— I swear!

The fraud had been so clearly unmasked that even the heretics themselves could not refrain from the general laughter. The innocence of the Saint was amply proven.

St. Athanasius – Basilica of San Nicola in Carcere, Rome

Between one calumny and another…

The unfathomable bad faith of those hardened heretics led them to invent another accusation: Athanasius had assassinated and cut off the right hand of Arsenius, Bishop of Thebaid and a Meletian. As proof of the nefarious crime they presented a box with a dried up hand which they said belonged to the deceased.

Through a supernatural illumination, the Saint understood that Arsenius was not only alive, but that he was also present. Wrapped in scarves, his head bowed low in order to avoid recognition, the unworthy prelate eagerly awaited the imminent condemnation of the holy Patriarch, his enemy.

To the surprise of everyone, the Patriarch approached him and said:

— Are you certain that Arsenius has died?

— We are!

— Very well, he is here – replied the Saint, uncovering his head.

And he continued, in jest:

— God has not given more than two hands to each person. Now you must explain from what part of his body this hand that you brought belongs…

Commenting on these and other episodes revealing the sagacity of the combative Patriarch of Alexandria, Prof. Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira affirmed: “On the part of a Doctor of the Church, an eminent theologian with an insightful mind, and a hero of great circumspection, these traits enrich his moral profile, showing the plurality and richness of aspects in the soul of a true Saint.” 5

…a phase of exiles and trials begins

Far from giving up, the Arians once again turned to the emperor, accusing Athanasius of impeding the supply of wheat from Egypt to Rome, and Constantine decided to exile him to the Rhineland, on the opposite extreme of the empire. It was the first of five exiles.

Now, at the beginning of his episcopate he had become acquainted with the fathers of the desert, including St. Anthony, to whom he served as a disciple and later wrote his biography, as well as St. Pachomius. What he learned with them served him well in Europe, where he fostered the anchorite life to the point of being considered the precursor of Western monasticism.

In the harsh persecutions of which he was the object, he experienced drastic circumstances such as being obliged to hide in a well for six years, or, while fleeing through the deserts of Egypt, having to take refuge in the sepulchre of his own father!

He endured these and many other trials with the interior disposition of total abandonment and confidence in Providence, certain that “in everything God works for good with those who love Him” (Rom 8:28). Even in such frightful hiding-places he raised his silent prayer to Heaven, and he came forth with the unbreakable desire to fight until death, if necessary, to uphold the cause of the Church against heresy.

In these numerous comings and goings, Catholic Alexandria received her Patriarch with inexpressible joy, and after a short time bitterly mourned his departure once again…

The last and hardest battle!

Athanasius’ entire life was nothing other than a long battle against the Arian heresy. However, before surrendering his beautiful soul to God, he had to wage a fight with a new and unexpected enemy.

Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea, had been his friend when he was young and had harboured true affection for him. Nevertheless, over the years he had deviated from orthodoxy, although he followed a different path than the Arians.

In contrast to this heresy which, as we have seen, denied the divine nature of Christ, Apollinaris affirmed that the Body of Jesus was not created, but had descended from the heavenly heights. Therefore, He did not possess human nature like ours, but rather a type of glorified and spiritualized humanity, in which there was no place for a ra­tional soul.

This visualization rejected the Arian deviations, but opened the doors to an absurdity and was perhaps even worse: in denying the Incarnation of the Word in the purest womb of the Virgin Mary, the Redemption was also denied.

To an honest man like Athanasius, the aberrations of Apollinaris could not go unperceived and deserved to be admonished. To touch on the sacrosanct Person of Jesus, adored by the Church since the time of the Apostles, was to wound the soul of the venerable prelate in its depths. The already “elderly Bishop could not let the holy physiognomy of his God be disfigured, not even by a friend.” 6

His refutation to Apollinarism would be no less vigorous or categorical than that of Arianism, as is verified in one of his innumerable works: “The incorporeal, incorruptible and immaterial Word of God came to our earth […], nevertheless, He remained united to the Father (cf. Eph 4:6-10). […] Seeing the wickedness of men become excessive, […] He had pity on our race and mercy on our weakness; He condescended to our corruption and would not allow death to reign over us […]. Therefore, He assumed a body like ours and not simply this, but He wished to be born of a Virgin without sin, immaculate and intact. […] Being all-powerful and demiurge of the universe, in the Virgin He built Himself (cf. Heb 9:24) a body, akin to a temple.” 7

Tomb of St. Athanatius – The Church of San Zaccaria, Venice (Italy)

Admired even by his adversaries

Even though Athanasius was forceful and radical in defence of doctrine, his biographers say that his relationships with others were marked by deep humility, amiability and openness. His goodness and tender compassion for unfortunate souls was also steadfast.

His discourses had a certain affability that enchanted hearts. He resorted to admonishment when necessary, with the benevolence of a father and the seriousness of a teacher, avoiding all bitterness.  He knew how to be indulgent without weakness and firm without harshness. Mirroring oneself on his conduct was a sure way to understand one’s own duty, for everything about him was worthy of imitation.

Even some of his adversaries secretly admired him, for “they saw in him an inflexible soul, above all merely human standards. Like a rock, he was unyielding in face of injustice.” 8

Having spent his entire life for the exaltation of the adorable figure of the God-Man, Athanasius departed from this world on May 2, 373, and went to adore Him in eternity, united to the prophets, martyrs and soldiers of Christ. For having served as a relentless warrior in favour of orthodoxy, such as the Bride of Christ has perhaps never had an equal, makes of this combative Patriarch one of the greatest Saints in history.