St. Athanasius, Defensor Fidei: 2 May

Br. Columba Maria

Athanasius was born to pious parents about the year 296 in Alexandria in Egypt. Receiving all the benefits of education, he attracted the attention of Saint Alexander, Bishop of this important see. Under his wing, our Saint flourished in all the arts appropriate to church government and became a master of the written and spoken word. At 19, he crowned his education by paying a lengthy visit to Saint Anthony (whose life he later compiled) in his desert monastery, so that all his considerable learning was servant to his faith.

It was in Alexandria that the earliest ripples of the Arian heresy occurred and caused so much stir that judgement was at length deferred to the great council of Nicea in 325 AD. Accompanying Saint Alexander as a deacon, Athanasius distinguished himself by his insight and eloquence and was instrumental in the anathematisation of this the first great heresy, which contrived to make Our Lord a creature, albeit the most perfect one.

Prominent Arians, however, neither abjured their error nor retired quietly, but only bided their time. One of these, Eusebius, then Bishop of Nicomedia, where Constantine the Great resided, used his influence at court to persuade the emperor to summon Athanasius to stand trial for the murder of a monk, Arsenius. At this council in Palestine, most of its members were Arian, but Athanasius was able to demonstrate the lies of his calumniators by producing Arsenius in person. Nevertheless, and despite a similar exposure of a calumny of fornication, this shameless council denounced Athanasius and forbade his return to his see. Eusebius again persuaded Constantine to banish him to Trier, this time for hindering the transport of corn. Constantine died the following year, 337, having been baptised by Eusebius shortly beforehand.

One of his sons, Constantine II met Athanasius and favoured him, but when he died in 350, his brother Constantius, like his father, was prevailed upon by the Arians to persecute him. Liberius, the first pope not to be regarded as a saint, was coerced by the emperor into signing a decree to condemn our Saint, and a troop was sent to arrest him, aided by the Arians.

It was only by the protection of his flock, and with the shedding of blood, that Athanasius was spirited out of his patriarchal church and into hiding. This earned him the accusation of cowardice.

It was six years before he could return, on Constantius’ death, in 361, and his succession by Julian the Apostate. This latter thought it would add to the confusion if all the orthodox bishops were allowed their return to their dioceses. But after only a short time, Athanasius was restoring so much unity in the Church that this unhappy man sent another troop to arrest him. Pursuing him up the Nile, he baffled them by turning around and sailing down towards them, and when asked by them if he had seen Athanasius, he told them to carry on for they were quite close.

Julian reigned only until 363 and was succeeded by the good emperor Jovian, who only reigned eight months, but who had the distinction of meeting Athanasius, who decided him to support the faith of the Council of Nicea as being one with that of the Apostles, and ignore the lies of the Arians.

Emperor Valens then renewed the Arian dominance and sent Athanasius into exile for the fifth time in 367. But his flock raised such a clamour that he allowed his return, this time to see out his days in comparative peace until his death on 2 May 373, after 46 years as Patriarch.

Athanasius has left us several fine works including On the Incarnation, Against the Arians, and Against the Gentiles, and writes his own history admirably in these. He is known as the Father of Orthodoxy.

Archbishop Lefebvre has not unworthily been compared with St. Athanasius, for being the champion of the traditional Faith during our current crisis of modernism. In a sermon of his at Ecône on ordinations day, the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, in 1982, he preached these words: Arius said that He wasn’t God...that Our Lord cannot be God, so we are tempted to say, ‘It’s not possible, he cannot be pope doing what he does.’ Others would divinise the Church to such a point that all would be perfect in Rome, that we cannot oppose, in whatever manner, something coming from Rome... [they] do like those who say that Our Lord was so much God that it’s not possible to suffer, so that these are appearances of suffering… are not real.

They deceive themselves also. They don’t follow the reality of things. We live in this time. Oh, surely, it’s a great mystery. The Church is divine. The Church is human. How far the faults of humanity can reach—to the divinity of the Church? God only knows—it’s a great mystery."

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