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SAINT ATHANASIUS

Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church, c. 295-373

EARLY in the fourth century the most popular preacher in the Egyptian city of Alexandria was a tall, thin, intense priest named Arius. A compelling orator, he attracted crowds of people to his church, something that would have been quite commendable, except for the fact that he was preaching heresy. What his attentive audiences heard from him was that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was not truly God-become-man, because the "'Son" of God, before his appearance on earth as Christ, had been created by God and was subordinate to Him. This assertion denied the mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation and struck at the heart of the Christian religion.

Arius was a dynamic person with great personal charm, and his perverse doctrine began to be the fashionable thing to profess in Alexandria. In 321 the city's bishop, Alexander, called a synod to condemn the new heresy, but the action had little effect; the error continued to spread throughout the Mediterranean world, and by 325 a general council of the Church had to be summoned at Nicaea to deal with the problem. The council condemned Arianism and set down the true teaching of the Church in the Nicene Creed (the Credo read at Mass). Alexander, who had attended the council with a young deacon of his diocese named Athanasius, went back to Alexandria with the hope that the affair had been settled.

The trouble had only begun, however; by the time Alexander died in 328, Arianism was a greater threat than ever. Great numbers of the Eastern hierarchy had succumbed to the heresy, large sections of the population were accepting it, and, most dangerous of all, the emperor Constantine was giving it his wholehearted support. It was in this menacing atmosphere that a new bishop of Alexandria was elected; Alexander's young assistant, Athanasius. He was to have a forty-five-year episcopate and during that time was to do more than any other man to defeat the forces of Arianism.

During his reign, which is an unbelievably complex one; the conflict between orthodoxy and heresy raged on, sometimes degenerating into quibbles over the meanings of words, other times erupting into physical violence. Under popes Julius I and Liberius, council after council was held in attempts to reconcile the different positions; at Tyre, Sardica, Arles, Milan, Sirmium, Rimini, churchmen gathered to denounce each other and dispute hotly over such terms as homoousios, homoiousios, and homoios. Athanasius attended some of the councils and others he did not; he knew that many of them were rigged affairs, dominated by the currently reigning emperor. Most of these emperors- Constantine, Constantius, Julian the Apostate, Valens-were either Arian or pagan, and they usually saw to it that the official records of the councils included a denunciation of Athanasius, who was soon recognized as orthodoxy's staunchest defender.

Besides denunciation, there came exile; five different times Athanasius was forced to leave his episcopal see and retire. His enemies hoped to silence him in this way but the very reverse happened. He used the occasions to produce what was probably his most important contribution to the fight against Arianism: a series of works in which the heretical doctrines were refuted and the true dogmas explained. Such works as the History of the Arians, Orations against the Arians, and On Synods had a tremendous influence and left the heretics with no defense. Besides sound learning, these works displayed the profound spirituality that was Athanasius' best weapon in his campaign for orthodoxy. Many of his fellow bishops and clergymen fell into heresy because they preferred intellectual speculation about faith to the faith itself. Athanasius loved the faith in its purity and was humble enough to use all the resources of his brilliant mind to give a truthful presentation of it in his works. In his youth he had known the great monk, Saint Anthony of the Desert (a Life of Saint Anthony, written by Athanasius in his old age, is worth reading), and much of his time in exile was spent with the desert monks of the Thebaid, a valley of the Nile in Upper Egypt.

As time went on, the situation gradually improved: Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia- one of the most powerful Arian bishops -died; the hostile emperors disappeared in a welter of bloodshed and intrigue; and through all the turmoil of events, Athanasius continued his fearless championing of the orthodox faith. By the year 366, when Athanasius returned from his final period of exile, Arianism was in its last stages. The people of Alexandria gave their courageous bishop a tumultuous welcome, and the last seven years of his rule were undisturbed. On May 2, 373, at the age of about seventy-eight, Athanasius died.

Eight years later, at the Council of Constantinople, Arianism in the East received its death blow (it was to break out again later in the West) and Athanasius was given final vindication when the council upheld the orthodox position on the divinity of Christ. A grateful Church has included Athanasius in its list of the Greek Doctors and has given him the title "Father of Orthodoxy." The services that Athanasius rendered to the Church as he defended the faith are innumerable, and he has been described by Cardinal Newman as "a principal instrument, after the apostles, by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world."

 

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