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SAINT HILARY OF POITIERS

Bishop, Confessor and Doctor of the Church, c. 315-368

"Peace at a price" is not exclusively a modern axiom The Roman emperor, Constantine, in 313 finally ended the persecutions that had driven Christians underground for several centuries; but his benevolence threatened to transform the young Church into a department of state. When the heretical Egyptian priest, Arius, began preaching that Christ was not equal to God the Father, Constantine assumed a papal role, interfered in Church discipline, and foolishly tried to reconcile truth and error. Arianism and its adherents throve under the emperor's political patronage. Even the Church council of Nicaea could not stop them. Although both Arius and Constantine were dead by 337, the heresy gained momentum.

Throughout the century, Arianism was an enemy that sought to avoid causing bloodshed while it mentally and morally devastated the Church. Then, as now, such "cold wars" bewildered the public with conflicting facts and subtle political maneuvers. By 355, Arianism's cold war against the Catholic Church had resulted in the apostasy of numerous bishops, in confusion and loss of faith among the laity-in heresy within heresy. Saint Athanasius, archbishop of Alexandria and a vociferous opponent of Arianism, had been twice exiled to the West by councils of Arian bishops. The Arian son of Constantine, Emperor Constantius II, had tricked, lured, and pressured his subjects into compliance.

Meanwhile, in France (then Gaul) a new leader emerged one who struck a fire in the frigid atmosphere of doubt. Protesting the banishment of Archbishop Athanasius and the long series of other abuses, Hilary of Poitiers wrote to the bishops of Gaul: "Nowadays we have to do with a disguised persecutor, a smooth-tongued enemy, a Constantius who has put on Antichrist . . . who pretends to procure unity while destroying peace; puts down some heretics so that he may also crush the Christians; honors bishops, that they may cease to be bishops. . . ." Addressing the emperor, he continued: "By a strange, ingenious plan, which no one has ever yet discovered, you have found a way to persecute without making martyrs. . . . You dispense the clergy from paying tribute and taxes to Caesar that you may bribe them to be renegades to Christ: foregoing your own rights that God may be deprived of His!"

Hilary had come a long way from paganism to a self-sacrificing devotion to Christ. Born about 315 in the Roman province of Gaul, he was a product of the best in cultured Roman society - a gentleman of patrician birth and excellent education. He had been tutored in all branches of pagan learning, and yet, in his search for truth he still kept wondering, "What is God?" A plurality of deities seemed absurd; Hilary was convinced that God must be one, eternal, unchangeable, the first cause of all things. Then he began to study the Bible, especially the New Testament, and he found there the answers to his questions. He renounced idolatry and soon afterwards was baptized. He began at once to write and preach and live for the truths of the faith-the Trinity, the Incarnation, the God-man Christ.

So apostolic, so Christ-centered was this young layman that in 353, when the bishop of Poitiers died, Hilary was chosen to fill the vacancy. He had been married before his conversion, and his wife and their daughter were still living. After he was chosen bishop, however, Hilary lived apart from them, and there is evidence that they, too, lived as "religious" until their deaths.

Hilary was ordained and consecrated that same year, but within three years he was banished to Phrygia by the emperor for his defense of the exiled Athanasius, the chief foe of Arianism. What was temporarily a hardship, both for the people of Poitiers and for Saint Hilary, became a real blessing. While in exile in Asia Minor, he wrote two of his most famous works: The Trinity, a theological discussion of that sacred mystery, and Concerning Synods, an account of the plots and beliefs of Arians and semi-Arians. Here also he met Saint Basil, who was at that time studying the different forms of Eastern monastic life and preparing himself for Arian struggle in Cappadocia (now part of Turkey).

Because of his courage and his active interest in the Church in the East, the exiled Hilary became a threat to Arianism. Constantius ordered him to return to Poitiers. Because of his work with Saint Basil, Hilary became a leader in the Western monastic movement. Here he encouraged his student, Martin, to found a monastery, which was the first community of its kind in the West. Martin grew to be a leader in his own right. We know him as Saint Martin of Tours.

Thus, for all his seeming cleverness in exiling bishops to the remote parts of the empire, Constantius actually facilitated the interchange of ideas among the greatest men of the time-Saints Basil, Athanasius, Martin, and Hilary-all of them advocates of monasticism and most ardent opponents of Arianism.

Back in his own diocese, Hilary worked tirelessly against the scandals and breakdown of faith caused by Arianism. He organized a meeting of the bishops of Gaul, who excommunicated the heretical clergy and publicly affirmed the true creed of Nicaea. Then, in 364, Hilary went to Milan, Italy, where he held a public dispute with an Arian usurper of the see of Milan. In 368, he died in Poitiers. Because of his numerous penetrating works on theology and his deep holiness, Saint Hilary has been proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. He is invoked against snakes and is the helper and protector of backward children.

 

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