St. Athanasius of Alexandria: a Valiant Herald of the Truth

St. Athanasius proudly endured terrible persecutions. His example invites us to defend true doctrine with courage.

Newsroom (17/05/2023 18:00, Gaudium Press) It was the year 325. Although relative peace reigned in the Church because Emperor Constantine had given to her the full freedom of worship, a great dilemma was creeping up within her: a heresy was springing up within the flock of Christ, threatening to divide it.

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

The heresy, however, grew to such an extent that it became necessary to convene a council to safeguard the unity of the Church.

Young deacon at the Council of Nicaea

The great assembly of Bishops took place in the city of Nicaea, situated less than a hundred kilometres from Constantinople. 

The atmosphere was one of great expectation. Constantine wanted to give the meeting all due pomp and honour, receiving the prelates personally with due deference and veneration. How many of them were living witnesses of courageous fidelity to the Faith!

The Council, however, soon became a turbulent dispute. More than three hundred faithful Bishops were struggling against a little more than a dozen Arian prelates, giving rise to a spectacle that was neither elegant nor serene. Alternate voices shouted in Greek:

“Christ is pure man!

“No, Jesus is God!”

Only God the Father is eternal!”

When the outrage of Arius and his supporters resounded loudly in the assembly, a young deacon stood up to confront them. His clear and forceful eloquence showed the superiority of the spirit of the Church in the face of his opponents. With arguments proper to those who have a clear conscience before God and men, he demolished the arguments of the Arian heresy.

After his brilliant intervention, he returned with humility and modesty to his place. The doctrine of consubstantiality had won; the mystery had triumphed over mere reason devoid of faith.

And the champion of this victory was a personage still unknown to many of those around him: St. Athanasius, herald of truth and valiant athlete of the Faith, who became a Father and Doctor of the Church.

Patriarch of Alexandria

Born into a Christian family in Alexandria in the year 295, little is known of his childhood. We know that his formation took place with the Patriarch Alexander, who appointed him a reader at the age of seventeen. Some years later, in 318, he was ordained deacon and became secretary to the holy prelate, accompanying him closely in his many controversies in defence of the Faith.

When the Council of Nicaea began, the city of Alexandria had become a focus for the spread of Arian doctrine. It approved the formulation of the Creed we know today as the Nicene Symbol, the pillar of Catholic orthodoxy and a perennial condemnation of Arianism.

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Shortly after the Council closed, St. Alexander conferred priestly ordination on Athanasius and named him his successor. The young priest sought to escape from so high a dignity by attempting to flee. “You flee, Athanasius, but you will not escape,” the venerable elder predicted. Indeed, the Alexandrians insistently asked for and obtained his appointment: at the age of thirty Athanasius became Patriarch of Alexandria.

Arianism does not give up

This choice made the Arians and Melecians, followers of Meletius of Lycopolis, tremble with fear.

It was the beginning of one of the most troubled periods of the Bride of Christ’s history.

Constantine, who had shown himself to be an ardent follower of the Christian religion proclaimed in Nicaea, now gave manifest proof of inconsistency: heretics, once exiled by him, returned and were received with honors, while Catholics were despised.

The pulpits proclaimed the Creed of Nicaea, while the Arian doctrine was spread among the people without any recrimination, by means of popular pamphlets. To complicate matters further, St. Helena, the emperor’s mother, the only person capable of leading him back to the right path died, and Constance, her sister, was a fanatical supporter of Arianism.

Athanasius fought hard to keep the Church united and to consolidate its legitimate authority, often using forceful measures. Heretics, on their part, resorted to slanderous accusations in an attempt to bring down this bulwark of the Faith.

An unmasked imposter

In 335 the Saint was summoned by Constantine to take part in a synod in Tyre, Lebanon. He did not wish to go because he knew that the assembly would be made up mostly of heretical ecclesiastics, with whom he could never have union. Nevertheless, the Emperor’s decree obliged him to be present.

At a certain point, following a previously made arrangement, a woman of ill life entered the assembly hall declaring that she had become rich because of the money she had received from Athanasius. She also claimed to be an eyewitness to his abominable actions. Satisfied, the Arians demanded his deposition as Patriarch of Alexandria and his condemnation by the competent authorities.

No doubt inspired by the Holy Spirit, Athanasius whispered something in the ear of the priest who was accompanying him. The priest, pretending to be Athanasius, then questioned the harlot:

“Do you claim, then, that you really know me and have seen me do all that you say?”

And the wretched creature, who had never been with the holy Bishop, replied

“Yes, I affirm!”

“Do you swear it?”

“I swear it!”

The imposter was so unmasked that the heretics themselves could not help laughing, and the innocence of the Saint became more than clear.

Between calumny and calumny…

The unfathomable bad faith of those stubborn heretics led them to invent another accusation: that Athanasius had murdered and cut off the right hand of Arsenius, Bishop of Thebaida and Melekian. As proof of this nefarious crime, they presented a withered hand in a box, which they claimed belonged to the deceased.

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By a supernatural illumination, the Saint sensed that Arsenius was not only alive, but was present among them. Wrapped in swaddling clothes and with his head bowed, so as not to be recognised, the unworthy prelate anticipated the imminent condemnation of the Holy Patriarch, his enemy.

To his great surprise, the latter approached him and said

“Are you sure that Arsenius is dead?”

“Yes, we are!”

“Well, here he is,” replied the Saint, uncovering his head.”

And he continued, joking:

“God has given this one more than two hands. Now it is up to you to explain in which part of his body the hand you are holding fits…”

A phase of exiles and trials begins

Far from giving in, the Arians once again addressed the Emperor, accusing Athanasius of preventing the supply of wheat from Egypt to Rome, and Constantine decided to banish him to Gaul in Belgium at the other end of the empire. It was the first exile in a sequence of five.

In the early days of his episcopate he had been in contact with the Desert Fathers, including St. Anthony – whom he had served as a disciple and whose life he wrote about – and St. Pacomius. What he learned from them was very useful to him in Europe, where he encouraged the monastic life to the point of being considered the precursor of monasticism in the West.

In the harsh persecutions that he suffered, he underwent terrible vicissitudes, such as having to take shelter in a well for six years, or fleeing across the deserts of Egypt and having to take refuge in his father’s grave!

He endured these and many other trials with an interior disposition of total abandonment and trust in Providence, certain that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Rom 8:28).

Even from his gloomy hiding places, he would raise his silent prayer to Heaven, and from there he would come out with an unshakeable determination to fight to the death, if necessary, to support the cause of the Church against heresy.

During these numerous comings and goings, Catholic Alexandria received its Patriarch with unspeakable joy, only to weep bitterly again at his departure after a short period…

The last struggle: the most arduous!

Athanasius’ entire life was nothing but a long battle against the Arian heresy. However, before delivering his beautiful soul to God, he had to engage in combat with a new and unexpected enemy.

Apollinarius, Bishop of Laodicea, had been his friend when he was young and had a genuine affection for him. However, in the course of the years, he had strayed from orthodoxy, since he followed a different path from the Arians.

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In opposition to this heresy, which, as we have seen, denied the divine nature of Christ, Apollinaris asserted that the Body of Jesus was not created, but descended from heavenly heights. He would not therefore possess a human nature like ours, but a kind of glorified and spiritualized humanity in which there was no place for a rational soul.

This view departed from the Arian follies, but opened the door to a perhaps worse absurdity: by denying the Incarnation of the Word in the most pure womb of the Virgin Mary, the Redemption was also denied.

In the eyes of an upright man like Athanasius, Apollinarius’ deviations could not pass unnoticed and deserved admonition. To touch the sacrosanct Person of Jesus, as adored by the Church from the time of the Apostles, was to wound the soul of the venerable prelate to its very depths.

His refutation of Apollinarianism would be no less vigorous nor less categorical than that of Arianism, as may be seen from one of his numerous works:

The Word of God incorporeal, incorruptible, immaterial, came to our earth […], remaining, however, united with the Father (cf. Eph 4:6-10). [Seeing the wickedness of men becoming excessive, […] he had pity on our race and mercy for our weakness; he condescended to our corruption and could not bear that death should rule over us […]. Yet he took on a body like ours, and did not do so simply, but wanted it to be born of a sinless, immaculate, intact Virgin. […] As the Almighty and demiurge of the universe, in the Virgin he built for himself (cf. Heb 9:24), like a temple, a body”.

Admired even by his adversaries

Although Athanasius was energetic and radical in the defence of his doctrine, his biographers tell us that in his relationships with others he behaved with deep humility, showing himself to be very amiable and approachable to those who wished to approach him.

His speeches had a kind of affability that astonished hearts. He had recourse to reprimands when necessary, always without bitterness, with the benevolence of a father and the seriousness of a teacher. He knew how to be indulgent without weakness, and firm without hardness.

Even some of his opponents secretly admired him, because “they found in him a soul that was inflexible and superior to all human considerations.” Like a rock, nothing could make him bow to injustice.

Having spent his whole life exalting the adorable figure of the God-Man, Athanasius departed this world on 2 May 373 and went to adore Him in eternity, united with the prophets, martyrs and soldiers of Christ.

To have been a tireless fighter for orthodoxy – for the Bride of Christ had no equal – made this combative Patriarch one of the greatest saints in history.

Ariane Heringer Tavares, EP

Text extracted, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel, n.197, May 2018.

Compiled by Sandra Chisholm

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