Champions of Catholic Orthodoxy

St. Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church (†373; Feast – May 2)

St. AthanasiusThe court of our Divine King during this grandest of seasons, is brilliant beyond measure; and today it is gladdened by the arrival of one of the most glorious champions that ever fought for His holy cause. Among the guardians of the word of truth, confided by Jesus to the earth, is there one more faithful than St. Athanasius? Does not his very name remind us of dauntless courage in the defense of the sacred deposit, of heroic firmness and patience in suffering, of learning, of talent, of eloquence—in a word, of everything that goes to form a Saint, a Bishop, and a Doctor of the Church? St. Athanasius lived for the Son of God; the cause of the Son of God was that of St. Athanasius; he who blessed Athanasius, blessed the eternal Word; and he who insulted Athanasius, insulted the eternal Word.

Never (until our own times) did our holy Faith go through a greater ordeal than in the sad times immediately following the peace of the Church, when the bark of Peter had to pass through the most furious storm that Hell has (until our own times) let loose against Her. Satan had vainly sought to drown the Christian race in a sea of blood; the sword of persecution had grown blunt in the hands of Diocletian and Galerius; and the Cross appeared in the heavens, proclaiming the triumph of Christianity. Scarcely had the Church become aware of Her victory when She felt Herself shaken to Her very foundation. Hell sent upon the earth a heresy which threatened to blight the fruit of three hundred years of martyrdom. Arius began his impious doctrine, that He Who had hitherto been adored as the Son of God was only a creature, though the most perfect of all creatures. Immense was the number, even of the clergy, that fell into this new error; the Emperors became its abettors; and had not God Himself interposed, men would soon have set up the cry throughout the world that the only result of the victory gained by the Christian religion was to change the object of idolatry, and put a new idol, called Jesus, in place of the old ones.

But He Who had promised that the gates of Hell should never prevail against His Church, faithfully fulfilled His promise. The primitive Faith triumphed; the Council of Nicaea proclaimed the Son to be consubstantial with the Father. In spite of this, the situation later became so dire that, after 355, Pope Liberius himself was exiled from Rome amid great suffering, and an anti-pope set up in his place by the Arians and their political sympathizers. As St. Jerome wrote, "the world groaned to find itself Arian." The Church stood in need of a man in whom the cause of the consubstantial Word should be, so to speak, incarnated—a man with learning enough to bear every persecution without flinching. This man was St. Athanasius: and everyone that adores and loves the Son of God, should love and honor St. Athanasius. Indeed, it was said that it was "Athanasius against the world", as he ruled his flock from his places of exile, and poured forth epistle after epistle in defense of the Catholic Faith. Five times banished from his See of Alexandria by the Arians, who even sought to put him to death, he fled for protection to the West, which justly appreciated the glorious confessor of the Divinity of Jesus. In return for the hospitality accorded him by Rome, St. Athanasius gave her of his treasures. Being the admirer and friend of the great St. Anthony, he was a fervent admirer of the monastic life, which, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, had flourished so wonderfully in the deserts of his vast patriarchate. He brought the precious seed to Rome, and the first monks seen there were the ones introduced by St. Athanasius. The heavenly plant became naturalized in its new soil; and though its growth was slow at first, it afterwards produced fruit more abundantly than it had ever done in the East.

St. Athanasius, who has written so admirably upon that fundamental dogma of our Faith—the Divinity of Christ—has also left us most eloquent treatises on the mystery of the Pasch: they are to be found in the Festal Letters which he addressed each year to the churches of his patriarchate of Alexandria. The collection of these Letters, which were once thought to have been irretrievably lost, was found in the first half of the 19th century, in the monastery of St. Mary of Scete, in Egypt. The first, for the year 329, begins with these words, which beautifully express the sentiments we should feel at the approach of Easter: "Come my beloved brethren, celebrate the Feast; the season of the year invites you to do so. At such tidings, let us keep a glad feast; let not the joy slip from us with the fleeting days, without our having tasted of its sweetness."

During almost every year of his banishment, St. Athanasius continued to address a Paschal Letter to his people. The one in which he announces the Easter of 338, and which he wrote at Trier, begins thus: "Though separated from you, my brethren, I cannot break through the custom which I have always observed, and which I received from the tradition of the Fathers. I will not be silent; I will not omit announcing to you the time of the holy solemnity. I am, as you have doubtless been told, a prey to many tribulations; I am weighed down by heavy trials; I am watched by the enemies of truth, who scrutinize everything I write, in order to rake up accusations against me and thereby add to my sufferings; yet notwithstanding, I feel that the Lord strengthens and consoles me in my afflictions. Therefore do I venture to address to you the annual celebration; and from the midst of my troubles, and despite the snares that beset me, I send you, from the furthermost part of the earth, the tidings of the Pasch, which is our salvation. Commending my fate into God's hands, I will celebrate this Feast with you; distance of place separates us, but I am not absent from you. The Lord Who gives us these feasts, Who is Himself our Feast, Who bestows upon us the gift of His Spirit—He unites us spiritually to one another, by the bond of concord and peace."

How grand was this Pasch, celebrated by St. Athanasius, an exile on the Mosel, in union with his people who kept their Easter on the banks of the Nile! It shows us the power of the Liturgy to unite men and make them, at one and the same time, and despite the distance of countries, enjoy the same holy emotions and feel the same aspirations to virtue. Greeks or Barbarians, we have all the same mother-country, the Church; but that which, after the true Faith, unites us all into one family, is the Church's Liturgy. Now there is nothing in the whole Liturgy so expressive of unity as the celebration of Easter. The unhappy schismatics of Russia and the East, by usually keeping their Easter on a different day from that on which it is celebrated by the true Catholic Church, show that they are not a portion of the One Fold of which our Risen Jesus is the One Shepherd.

But on neither of these two days could the Church place his Feast, as they were already devoted to the memory of St. John and the Holy Innocents; so She has ordered it to be kept during the forty days consecrated to the Birth of Our Lord, and the 29th of January is the day fixed for it.

It was not until 380 that the Catholic Emperors, Gratian in the West and Theodosius in the East, abolished Arianism by a joint imperial edict: "We will that all peoples ruled by our authority shall hold to the Religion which the Divine Apostle Peter delivered to his See... which is recognized for his having preserved it to the present day, and which it is known that the Supreme Pontiff Damasus, Successor of St. Peter, holds and teaches..." Certainly the heroic virtue of St. Athanasius in his stand in defense of the true Faith helped bring about that historic day.

We will now read the summary of the life of St. Athanasius, as given in the Roman Breviary:

St. Athanasius and the Council of NicaeaSt. Athanasius, the stern defender of the Catholic Faith, was born at Alexandria. He was made deacon by Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, whose successor he afterwards became. He accompanied that prelate to the Council of Nicaea, where, having refuted the impious doctrine of Arius, he became such an object of hatred to the Arians, that from that time forward they never ceased to lay snares for him. Thus, at a Council held at Tyre, at which the majority of the bishops were Arian, the party suborned a wretched woman, who was to accuse St. Athanasius that when lodging in her house, he had done violence to her. St. Athanasius was accordingly brought before the Council. One of his priests, Timothy by name, went in with him, and pretending that he was St. Athanasius, he said to the woman: "What! Did I ever lodge at thy house? Did I violate thee?" She boldly answered him: "Yes, it was thou." She affirmed it with an oath, besought the judges to avenge her, and punish so great a crime. The trick being discovered, the impudent woman was ordered to leave the place.

The Arians also spread the report that St. Athanasius had murdered a certain Bishop Arsenius. Having put this Arsenius into confinement, they brought forward the hand of a dead man, saying that it was the hand of Arsenius, and that St. Athanasius had cut it off for purposes of witchcraft. But Arsenius having made his escape during the night, presented himself before the whole Council, and exposed the impudent malice of St. Athanasius' enemies. But even this they attributed to the magical skill of St. Athanasius, and went on plotting his death. They succeeded in having him banished, and accordingly, he was sent to Trier in Gaul. During the reign of the Emperor Constantius, who was on the Arian side, St. Athanasius had to go through the most violent storms, endure incredible sufferings and wander from country to country. He was driven several times from his See, but was restored, at one time by the authority of Pope Julius, at another by the help of the Emperor Constans, the brother of Constantius, at another by the decrees of the Councils of Sardica and Jerusalem. During all this time the Arians relented not in their fury against him; their hatred of him was unremitting; and he only avoided being murdered by hiding himself for five years in a dry well where he was fed by one of his friends, who was the only person that knew the place of his concealment.

Constantius died and was succeeded in the Empire by Julian the Apostate, who allowed the exiled Bishops to return to their respective Sees. Accordingly, St. Athanasius returned to Alexandria, where he was received with every possible mark of honor. Not long after, however, he was again obliged to flee, owing to the persecution he suffered from Julian, who was instigated by the Arians. On one occasion, when he was being pursued by the Emperor's servants, who were ordered to put him to death, the Saint ordered the boat, in which he was fleeing from danger, to be turned back. As soon as he met the persecutors, they asked him if Athanasius was anywhere near. He answered that he was not far off. Whilst they, therefore, went one way, he sailed the other, and got back to Alexandria, where he remained in concealment till Julian’s death. Another storm soon arose in the city, and he was obliged to hide himself, for four months, in his father's sepulcher. Having thus miraculously escaped from all these great dangers, he died peacefully in his own bed at Alexandria, during the reign of the Emperor Valens. His life and death were honored by great miracles. He wrote several admirable treatises, some on subjects pertaining to practical piety, and others on the dogmas of Catholic Faith. He governed the Church of Alexandria with extraordinary piety for forty-six years, amidst the most troubled of times.

Thou wast enthroned, O St. Athanasius, on the Chair of St. Mark in Alexandria; and thy name is emblazoned near his on the Sacred Cycle. He left Rome, sent by St. Peter himself to found the second Patriarchal See; and thou, three centuries later, didst visit Rome, as successor of St. Mark, to seek the protection of St. Peter's successor against them that were disturbing thy venerable See by injustice and heresy. Our Western Church was thus honored by thy presence, O intrepid defender of the Faith. She looked on thee with veneration as the glorious exile, the courageous confessor; and she has chronicled thy sojourning in her midst as an event of the greatest interest.

Thy zeal, O St. Athanasius, checked the ravages of Arianism; but this heresy has again appeared in our own times, and in almost every country of the world. Its progress is due to that proud superficial learning which has become one of the principal perils of the age. The Eternal Son of God, consubstantial with the Father, is blasphemed by our so-called philosophers as being only Man—one of the best and greatest, they may say, but still only Man. They despise all the proofs which reason and history adduce of Jesus' divinity; they profess a sort of regard for the Christians teaching which has hitherto been held, but they have discovered (so they tell us) the fallacy of the great dogma which recognizes in the Son of Mary the Eternal Word Who became incarnate for man's salvation. O St. Athanasius, glorious Doctor of Holy Mother Church, humble these modern Arians; expose their proud ignorance and sophistry; undeceive their unhappy followers, by letting them see how this false doctrine leads either to the abyss of the abominations of pantheism, or to the chaos of skepticism, where all truth and morality are deemed impossibilities.

Preserve within us, by the influence of thy prayers, the precious gift of Faith, wherewith Our Lord has mercifully blessed us. Obtain for us that we may ever confess and adore Jesus Christ as our eternal and infinite God; "God of God; Light of Light; True God of True God; Begotten, not made... Who for us men and for our salvation took Flesh of the Virgin Mary." May we grow each day in the knowledge of this Jesus, until we join thee in the face-to-face contemplation of His perfections. Meanwhile, by means of Holy Faith, we will live with Him on this earth that has witnessed the glory of His Resurrection. How fervent, O St. Athanasius, was thy love of this Son of God, our Creator and Redeemer! This love was the very life of thy soul, and the stimulus that urged thee to heroic devotedness to His Cause. It supported thee in the combats thou hadst to sustain with the world, which seemed leagued together against thy single person. It gave thee strength to endure endless tribulations. Oh pray that we may obtain this love—a love which is fearless of danger, because faithful to Him for Whom we suffer—a love which is so justly due, seeing that He, though the Brightness of His Father's glory, and Infinite Wisdom, emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, and humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross (Phil. 2: 7-8). How else can we make Him a return for His devotedness to us except by giving Him all our love, as thou didst, O St. Athanasius, and by ever singing His praise in compensation for the humiliations which He endured in order to save us?

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