Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Archbishop of Alexandria, Doctor of the Church (A.D.373) "the Champion of Ortodoxy"

after www.seatofwisdom.com
Athanasius as a young boy was brought into the home of the Patriarch of Alexandria, Alexander who admired him as a young child playing church ceremonies on the shore. Athanasius who loved learning and was well taught in the famous Greek schools of Alexandria and was full of enthusiasm for the great Greek philosophers and poets. He told Alexander that he wanted to become a priest. "A bishop perhaps?" asked Alexander with a smile; "you think it is an easy and a glorious life?"

Because of Alexander taking him into his household, Athanasius was constantly in touch with men of every rank and country, for Alexandria was a city where people of all nations and of all creeds met. There even existed a set of philosophers who tried to make a religion for themselves out of an amalgamation of several others. (Sound familiar???)

The years rolled by and Alexander was growing older, the Faith also was in peril at that time; it was a moment for vigorous action for Alexander. At the side of the Patriarch, like a faithful watchdog, stood his secretary, the young deacon Athanasius. In those days we see Eusebius, Bishop of Nicomedia, a man who was said to have apostatized during the persecution of Maxentius, and who had intruded himself, no one quite knew how, into the See of Nicomedia,he had begun by winning the good graces of Constantia, the Emperor's sister. Alexander writes of him..."Since Eusebius has placed himself at the head of these apostates it is necessary that it should be made known to all the faithful, lest they should be deceived by their hypocrisy."

Eusebius and Arius a priest were both astonished and disgusted at the firm attitude of the Patriarch Alexander. Athanasius was at the bottom of it, they declared, and they vowed an undying hatred against him. Arius knew how to play to perfection the part of an unjustly persecuted priest, and play he did, to Constantine a catechumen himself. Constantine knowing but little of the great truths of Christianity, and having a desire to maintain peace in his empire was just what the enemies of Christ wanted. Eusebius suggested to Constantine to use his influence and write to Alexander, bidding him lay aside this most unchristian dispute, and make peace with Arius and his followers however, Hosius, Bishop of Cordova, heard of the evil doing of Arius and his followers in the East knowing too well this was no question of a war of words or a difference of opinion, Hosius decided with Alexander; Christianity itself was at stake. The solution; a universal Council of the Church must be summoned to decide certain teachings and condemn the heresy of Arius once and for all

Constantine, who was really anxious to do what was right, appealed to the Pope, St. Sylvester, to unite with him in summoning a Council.

In the early summer of the year 325 the Council of Nicaea met. Over 300 Bishops were present, besides a multitude of priests, deacons, and acolytes.

Many bore the glorious marks of the sufferings they had endured for Christ; others were wasted with long years of prison. There were the hermit-Bishops of Egypt, Paphnutius and Potamon, who had each lost an eye for the Faith; Paul of Neo-Caesarea, whose muscles had been burnt with red-hot irons, and whose paralyzed hands bore witness of the fact; Cecilian of Carthage, intrepid and faithful guardian of his flock; James of Nisibis, who had lived for years in the desert in caves and mountains, Spyridion, the shepherd-Bishop of Cyprus, and the great St. Nicholas of Myra, both famed for their miracles.

Amongst the Bishops of the West were Theophilus the Goth, golden-haired and ruddy, who had won thousands to the Faith, and Hosius the Spaniard, known as "the Holy," who had been named by the Pope as his representative, together with the two Papal Legates, Vito and Vincent. Amongst those of the Eastern Church were the venerable St. Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, and St. Amphion, who had been put to the torture in the reign of Diocletian.

Last, but not least, came the aged Patriarch of Alexandria, the chief prelate of the Eastern church, who had brought with him as his assistant the young deacon Athanasius.

Arius the Heresiarch is called upon to explain his doctrines. His discourse is long and eloquent. He uses to the utmost his powers of fascination. He tries to hide the full meaning of his words under beautiful expressions, but his meaning is clear to all - "Jesus Christ is not God.."

In a few words, sharp and clear as diamonds, Athanasius tears to pieces the veils in which the Arians had shrouded their true meaning. "Who had deceived you, O senseless, to call the Creator a creature?"

The Council condemned Arius and his heresy. The Creed was composed and given to the Bishops to sign, a Creed that will stamp out the heresy of Arius forever. During the signing of it the ranks of the Arians begin to waver; several Bishops signed the Creed. The evil inspiration of Eusebius sees a way out of the difficulty. By altering a Greek letter in one of the words, the expression "One in substance" can be changed to "like in substance." He makes the change and signs it.

Now with the enemies of the Church in exile, for a time there was peace. In the meantime the holy Patriarch Alexander as he lay on his deathbed he called for his beloved Athanasius, but there was no reply. Athanasius had fled from the city, fearing from certain words of the old man that he would be chosen to succeed him.

"Athanasius!" Called the Patriarch one more, "you think you can escape, but it shall not be so." And with these words he died.

The same thought had been in the hearts of all. Athanasius was known for his zeal and learning, his mortified life, and his ardent love of God. He was young, it was true, but he was wiser than many older men. When the Bishops of the Church assembled to elect their new Patriarch, the whole Catholic population surrounded the church, holding up their hands to Heaven and crying, "Give us Athanasius!" The Bishops asked nothing better. Athanasius was thus elected, as St. Gregory tells us, by the suffrages of the whole people and by the choice of the Bishops of the Church.

The storm of persecution which was to fall with such fury upon St. Athanasius was already gathering with false witnesses coming to accuse Athanasius of lies.

Constantia, the Emperor's favorite sister, who had always been strongly in favour of the Arians, became very ill. The priest who attended her on her death-bed, a friend and tool of Eusebius induced her to persuade Constantine, who visited her continually during her illness, that Arius and his friends had been unjustly condemned, and that the judgment of God would fall on him and his empire in consequence. Constantine says... "If Arius can assure me that he believes the profession of Faith set forth by the Council of Nicaea he may return."

"I take my solemn oath that I believe what I hold in my hand," replied Arius, unfolding the Nicene Creed. In the hollow of his palm was concealed a statement of his own false doctrines, but this the Emperor could not know

Finally their chance came to drive out the Catholic Bishops who had been elected to replace them in their sees. To remove Athanasius was also their agenda. Over and over again the enemy charged Athanasius with falsehoods bringing forth false witnesses and over and over again they were made to look like fools.

Rumors of what was passing had even reached St. Anthony in his desert solitude, and the old man, on hearing of all that his friend and disciple had had to suffer, came down from his mountain cave to praise St. Athanasius for his courage. "Have nothing to do with the Arians," he said; "you are Christians, and they say that the Son of God is a creature."

Eusebius was always at the side of the weak Emperor. Was it possible, he asked, that so many and such various charges could be brought up against a man if he were innocent? Let him be forced to appear alone before his accusers, and the Emperor would soon find out the truth. Constantine soon fell into the trap. A Council was summoned.

It was a strange Council! Strange indeed of the sixty Bishops present, nearly all were Arians and open enemies of Athanasius. The Arians had declared Athanasius guilty of all the charges brought against him, and had deposed him from his see. There was mourning and lamentation in Alexandria and throughout all Egypt when the tidings came. Many appeals were made for justice, but in vain. Even St. Anthony, though he wrote to Constantine, could not move him. One thing alone the Emperor would not do in spite of all the persuasions of the Arians - appoint a successor to the absent Patriarch. Athanasius, indeed, continued to govern the diocese from his distant exile, writing continually to his Bishops and flock.

During the triumph of the Arians the aged Bishop of Constantinople appealed to Heaven. He ordered a seven day fast throughout his diocese, during which the faithful were to pray that God would prevent the sacrilege of having to admit Arius to communion.

In triumph Arius was being escorted round the city by his followers. Suddenly the Heresiarch turned pale and trembled. He did not feel well, he said; he would rejoin them presently. Arius had been over-taken by a sudden and horrible death. The fate of the Heresiarch made a great impression on the Emperor who sent a secret message to his eldest son, Constantine II to restore Athanasius to his see. Upon the death of the Emperor his empire was divided between his three sons, Constantine, Constans, and Constantius however within 12 years Constantius a tool of the Arians and bitter enemy of those who were true to Athanasius, was left master of the whole Roman Empire. Eusebius who had long been coveting the see of Constantinople; proceeded to depose the rightful Bishop and to install himself in his place. Athanasius appearing suddenly on the scene upset all his plans. Eusebius determined to take a bold step would appeal to the Pope, and he promptly set to work to compose a letter which was a masterpiece of deceit.

"Athanasius has been deposed by a Council of the Church," he wrote. "His return was therefore unlawful." Lie after lie about Athanasius took shape upon the paper.

The letter was sent to Rome by three trusty friends, but Pope Julius was not so easily deceived. He knew more about the matter than the Arians thought. It was agreed to meet Athanasius at a Synod at which the Pope himself should preside. Eusebius did not like the arrangement of meeting with the Pope with charges which he knew to be false. Taking the law into his own hands, he called a Council of his friends and elected an Arian called Gregory in Athanasius' place. An edict was published stating that Gregory was the Patriarch of Alexandria, and that Athanasius was to be treated as an enemy. Pope Julius did not agree, the case should be tried in his own presence, the Pope declared; but it was impossible to get theArians to Rome.

A fresh Council was called at Sardica, at which the Arians were at last induced to be present. But when Athanasius was proved innocent, and the Bishops whom the Arians had banished appeared to bear witness to the violence and cruelty with which they had been treated, they abruptly left the Council and returned to Philippopolis. Here they formed a Council of their own, in which they not only excommunicated Athanasius, but had the impudence to excommunicate Pope Julius himself.

Later....with the death of Pope Julius, one of the first acts of Constantius was to write to the new Pope, offering him handsome presents and urging him to condemn Athanasius. Letters from the Arians containing all the old charges followed, but in vain. Liberius the new Pope refused with indignation both presents and requests.

A fresh persecution broke out, and with it a new accusation against Athanasius who was now accused of having usurped the Royal authority, along with other false charges. During this time the Pope was banished to Beroea, where he was treated with harshness and cruelty. Once again into the darkness of the winter's night, while soldiers searched everywhere for the Patriarch, Athanasius fled, an exile and a fugitive.

It was indeed the hour of darkness, and it seemed as if the powers of evil were let loose upon the world. The Arians, with the Emperor on their side, were carrying everything before them. Nearly all the Bishops who had upheld the Nicene faith were in exile or in prison. "Fear not for this power is of the earth and cannot last," cried St. Anthony, "as for the sufferings of the Church, was it not so from the beginning, and will it not be so until the end? Did not the Master Himself say, 'They have persecuted Me, they will persecute you also'?" Did not the "perils from false brethren" begin even in the lifetime of those who had been the companions of Christ? And yet, had not the Master Himself promised that, although she must live in the midst of persecution, He would be with His Church for ever, and that the gates of Hell should not prevail against her?

Men and women were seized and scourged; some were slain. Athanasius was denounced as a "run-away, and evil-doer, a cheat and an impostor, deserving of death." Letters came from the Emperor ordering all the churches in the city to be given up to the Arians, and requiring the people to receive without objections the new Patriarch whom he would shortly send them.

As time went on things grew worse. The churches were invaded; altars, vestments, and books were burnt and incense thrown on the flames. An ox was sacrificed in the sanctuary; priest, monks, and nuns were seized and tortured; the houses of the faithful were broken into and robbed. Bishops were driven into exile and their sees filled by Arians, those who were ready to give most money being generally chosen. Some of them were even pagans; the people were ready to bear any suffering rather than hold communion with them.

Their new Patriarch was a man named George of Cappadocia, the "venerable" George was ordained a priest by the Arians before he was even a Christian. In that case he was no priest, but a useful tool in their hands, for he was capable of anything.

In the meantime, where was Athanasius? He was invisible, but his voice could not be silenced, and it was a voice that moved the world. Treatise after treatise in defense of the true faith; letter after letter, to the Bishops of Egypt, to his friends, and to the faithful, were carried far and wide by the hands of trusy messengers. The Arians had the Roman Emperor on their side, but the pen of Athanasius was more powerful than the armies of Constantius. For six years Athanasius eluded his enemies and continued to write letters.

The Arians had made Constantius their spiritual head. They had given him that title of "Eternal," which they had denied to the Son of God. Their Bishops and teachers were everywhere; but Athanasius, like Anthony, leant strongly on Christ's promise.

The Arians in the meantime were behaving in their usual way - "always slippery, always shuffling," as one who knew them asserted. At one Council, having been accused of denying the Divinity of Christ, they had said: "Let anyone who says that Jesus Christ is a creature like unto other creatures be anathema." At another which followed it closely for the Arians and Constantius held a Council every few months to gain their ends - they openly stated that Jesus Christ was not God, but a creature. Someone present who had been at the previous Council reminded them of the statement they had made on that occasion. "We never meant that Jesus Christ was not a creature," they retorted, "only that he was a different kind of creature from the others!"

After the death of Constantius, his nephew Julian "the Apostate," had succeeded him as Emperor. No sooner was Julian crowned Emperor than he threw off the mask and declared himself a pagan. An edict was published allowing the people to practice whatever religion they chose, and recalling everybody who had been banished during the reign of Constantius. Julian did not believe in persecution; its results in the past had only been to strengthen the Christians in their faith. His methods were different. Privileges were granted to the pagans which were denied to the Church; the Galileans, as Julian called the Christians, were ridiculed, and paganism praised as the only religion worthy of educated men.

It was not safe for Athanasius to remain long in the neighborhood of Alexandria, for the pagans were now having it all their own way. Two of the bravest and most faithful of his clergy had been seized and exiled, and Julian's troops were searching everywhere for the Patriarch. Athanasius made his way to the Thebaid, where he was received with all the old enthusiasm. Under cover of the night, he came up the river to Hermopolis, intending to stay there for some time to preach to the people. The banks of the river were crowded with bishops, monks, and clergy, who had come out to welcome their Father.

Finally the Emperor Julian had met his death in battle against the Persians, and that he had been succeeded by Jovian, a Catholic.

The Emperor Jovian had been an officer in the Roman Army, where his cheery good nature had so endeared him to the soldiers that he was proclaimed Emperor immediately on Julian's death. Scarcely had Athanasius arrived in Alexandria when he received a cordial letter from the Emperor. To Athanasius, the faithful servant of God. As we are full of admiration for the holiness of your life, and your zeal in the service of Christ our Saviour, we take you from this day forth under our Royal protection. We are aware of the courage which makes you count as nothing the heaviest labors, the greatest dangers, the sufferings of persecution, and the fear of death. You have fought faithfully for the Truth, and edified the whole Christian world, which looks to you as a model of every virtue. It is therefore our desire that you should return to your See and teach the doctrine of salvation. Come back to your people, feed the flock of Christ, and pray for our person for it is through your prayers that we hope for the blessing of God."

The Arians pleaded with Jovian to give us anyone, as long as it is not Athanasius. "He calls us heretics?" They exclaimed indignantly. "That is his duty, and the duty of all those who guard the flock of Christ," was the only reply they got.

Valentinian succeeded Jovian and unfortunately for the peace of the Church, chose his brother Balens to help him in the government, taking the West for his own share of the empire, and leaving the East to his brother.

Valens, who was both weak and cruel, had an Arian wife, and declared at once in favour of the Arians. The East was once more to be the scene of strife and persecution.

Athanasius growing old now, and his strength was failing, but his soul, still young and vigorous, was undaunted and heroic as ever. The triumph of truth and the salvation of souls was his first, and indeed his only thought.

God had not given to everyone the clear instinct and the wide learning of an Athanasius. It was sometimes really difficult to see where the truth lay, for the Arians always tried to conceal their real doctrines from those who would have shrunk from them in horror. Their old trick of declaring that they believed all that the Church believed had led many astray.

Valens, in the meantime, had decided that the whole empire must be Arian, and was trying to obtain his end by force. Arian prelates arrived in Caesarea, and Modestus, Prefect of the Pretorian Guard, informed the Archbishop that he must admit them to communion under pain of banishment.

Under the leadership of Pope St. Damasus, a man of strong character and holy life, it was decreed that no Bishop should be consecrated unless he held the creed of Nicaea. Athanasius was overwhelmed with joy on hearing this decision. The triumph of the cause for which he had fought so valiantly was now assured. His life was drawing to an end. Five years later, after having governed his diocese for 48 years he passed peacefully into the presence of that Lord for whose sake he had counted all his tribulations as joy--Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever.

The above summary is taken from: Standard Bearers of the Faithseries, volume Saint Athanasius, by F.A. Forbes, R & T Washbourne, LTD Paternoster Row, London, 1919 Nihil Obstat:J.N. Strassmaier, S.J., Imprimatur:EDM. Can. Surmon