14 - 20 minutes readMay 2- St Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church ~ Dom Prosper Gueranger

Reader Mode Text to speech

May 2- St Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

The Court of our divine King, during his grandest of Seasons, is brilliant beyond measure: and today, it is gladdened by the arrival of one of the most glorious champions that ever fought for his holy cause. Among the guardians of the Word of Truth, confided by Jesus to the earth—is there one more faithful than Athanasius? Does not his very name remind us of the dauntless courage in the defense of the sacred deposit, of heroic firmness and patience in suffering, of learning, of talent, of eloquence—in a word, of everything that goes to form a Saint, a Bishop, and a Doctor of the Church? Athanasius lived for the Son of God; the cause of the Son of God was that of Athanasius: he who blessed Athanasius, blessed the eternal Word; and he insulted the eternal Word, who insulted Athanasius.

Never did our holy Faith go through a greater ordeal than in the sad times immediately following the peace of the Church, when the Bark of Peter had to pass through the most furious storm that hell has, so far, let loose against her. Satan had vainly sought to drown the Christian race in a sea of blood; the sword of persecution had grown blunt in the hands of Dioclesian and Galerius; and the Cross appeared in the heavens, proclaiming the triumph of Christianity. Scarcely had the Church become aware of her victory, when she felt herself shaken to her very foundation. Hell sent upon the earth a heresy which threatened to blight the fruit of three hundred years of Martyrdom. Arius began his impious doctrine—that he, who had hitherto been adored as the Son of God, was only a creature, though the most perfect of all creatures. Immense was the number, even of the clergy, that fell into this new error; the Emperors became its abettors; and had not God himself interposed, men would soon have set up the cry throughout the world, that the only result of the victory gained by the Christian Religion was to change the object of idolatry and put a new idol, called Jesus, in place of the old ones.

But He who had promised that the gates of hell should never prevail against his Church, faithfully fulfilled his promise. The primitive faith triumphed; and Council of Nicæa proclaimed the Son to be consubstantial to the Father; but the Church stood in need of a man in whom the cause of the Consubstantial Word should be, so to speak, incarnated—a man, with learning enough to foil the artifices of heresy, and with courage enough to bear every persecution without flinching. This man was Athanasius: and every one that adores and loves the Son of God, should love and honor Athanasius. Five times banished from the See of Alexandria by the Arians, who even sought to put him to death, he fled for protection to the West, which justly appreciated the glorious Confessor of Jesus’ Divinity. In return for the hospitality accorded him by Rome, Athanasius gave her of his treasures. Being the admirer and friend of the great St. Antony, he was a fervent admirer of the Monastic Life, which, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, had flourished so wonderfully in the deserts of his vast Patriarchate. He brought the precious seed to Rome, and the first Monks seen there were the ones introduced by Athanasius. The heavenly plant became naturalized in its new soil; and though its growth was slow at first, it afterwards produced fruit more abundantly than it had ever done in the East.

Athanasius, who has written so admirably upon that fundamental dogma of our Faith—the Divinity of Christ—has also left us most eloquent treatises on the mystery of the Pasch: they are to be found in the Festal Letters, which he addressed, each year, to the Churches of his Patriarchate of Alexandria. The collection of these Letters, which were once thought to have been irretrievably lost, was found a few years back in the Monastery of St. Mary of Scete, in Egypt. The first, for the year 329, begins with these words, which beautifully express the sentiments we should feel at the approach of Easter: “Come, my beloved Brethren, celebrate the Feast; the season of the year invites you to do so. The Sun of Justice, by pouring out his divine rays upon you, tells you that the time of the Solemnity is come. At such tidings, let us keep a glad feast; let not the joy slip from us, with the fleeing days, without our having tasted of its sweetness.” During almost every year of his banishment. Athanasius continued to address a Paschal Letter to his people. The one in which he announces the Easter of 338, and which he wrote at Treves, begins thus: “Though separated from you, my Brethren, I cannot break through the custom which I have always observed, and which I received from the tradition of the Fathers. I will not be silent; I will not omit announcing to you the time of the holy annual Feast, and the day on which you must keep the Solemnity. I am, as you have doubtless been told, a prey to many tribulations; I am weighed down by heavy trials; I am watched by the enemies of truth, who scrutinize everything I write, in order to rake up accusations against me and, thereby, add to my sufferings; yet notwithstanding, I feel that the Lord strengthens and consoles me in my afflictions. Therefore do I venture to address to you the annual celebration; and from the midst of my troubles, and despite the snares that beset me, I send you, from the furthermost part of the earth, the tidings of the Pasch, which is our salvation. Commending my fate into God’s hands, I will celebrate this Feast with you; distance of place separates us, but I am not absent from you. The Lord who gives us these Feasts, who is himself our Feast, who bestows upon us the gift of his Spirit—he unites us spiritually to one another, by the bond of concord and peace.”

How grand is this Pasch, celebrated by Athanasius an exile on the Rhine, in union with his people who keep their Easter on the banks of the Nile! It shows us the power of the Liturgy to unite men together and make them, at one and the same time, and despite the distance of countries, enjoy the same holy emotions, and feel the same aspirations to virtue. Greeks or Barbarians, we have all the same mother-country—the Church; but what, after Faith, unites us all into one family, is the Church’s Liturgy. Now there is nothing in the whole Liturgy so expressive of unity as the celebration of Easter. The unhappy Churches of Russia and the East, by keeping Easter on a different day from that on which it is celebrated by the rest of the Christian World, show that they are not a portion of the One Fold of which our Risen Jesus is the One Shepherd.

We will now read the sketch of St. Athanasius’ Life, given in the Breviary.

Athanasius Alexandrinus, catholicæ religionis propugnatur acerrimus, ab Alexandro Episcopo Alexandrino diaconus factus est, in cujus locum successit, quem ad Nicænum concilium: ubi cum Arii impietatem repressisset, tantum odium arianorum suscepit, ut ex eo tempore ei insidias moliri numquam destiterint. Nam coacto ad Tyrum concilio magna ex parte arianorum episcoporum, subornarunt mulierculam, quæ accusaret Athanasium, quod hospitio acceptus sibi stuprum per vim intulisset. Introductus igitur est Athanasius, et una cum eo Timotheus presbyter, qui simulans se esse Athanasium; Egone, inquit, mulier, apud te sum diversatus? Ego te violavi? Cui illa petulanter: Tu mihi vim attulisti; idque jurejurando affirmans, judicum fidem obtestabatur, ut tantum flagitium vindicarent. Qua cognita fraude, rejecta est mulieris impudentia. Athanasius, the stern defender of the Catholic Faith, was born at Alexandria. He was made Deacon by Alexander, Bishop of Alexandria, whose successor he afterwards became. He accompanied that Prelate to the Council of Nicæa, where, having refuted the impious doctrine of Arius, he became such an object of hatred to the Arians, that from that time forward, they never ceased to lay snares for him. Thus, at a Council held at Tyre, at which the majority of the Bishops were Arians, the party suborned a wretched woman, who was to accuse Athanasius, that when lodging in her house, he had offered violence to her. Athanasius was accordingly brought before the Council. One of his priests, by name Timothy, went in with him, and pretending that he was Athanasius, he said to the woman: “What! did I ever lodge at thy house? Did I violate thee?” She boldly answered him: “Yes, it was thou.” She affirmed it with an oath, besought the judges to avenge her, and punish so great a crime. The trick being discovered, the impudent woman was ordered to leave the place.
Arsenium quoque episcopum ab Athanasio interfectum ariani pervulgarunt: quem dum occulte detinent, manum mortui deferunt in judicium, ab Athanasio ad usum magicæ artis Arsenio amputatam criminantes. At Arsenius nocte aufugiens cum se in conspectu totius concilii statuisset, Athanasii inimicorum impudentissimum scelusa peruit. Quod illi niholominus magicis artibus Athanasii tribuentes, vitæ ejus insidiari non desistebant. Quamobrem in exsilium actus, in Gallia apud Treviros insulavit. Gravibus deinceps ac diuturnis sub Constantio imperatore, arianorum fautore, tempestatibus jactatus, et incredibiles calamitates perpessus, magnam orbis terræ partem peragravit: ac sæpe e sua Ecclesia ejectus, sæpe etiam in eamdem et Julii Romani Pontificis auctoritate, et Constantis imperatoris, Constantii fratris, patrocinio, decretis quoque concilii Sardicensis, ac Jerosolymitani, restitutus est; arianis interea illi semper infestis quorum pertinacem iram, et summum vitæ discrimem fugiens, in sicca cisterna quinque annis se abdidit, ejus rei tantum conscio quodam Athanasii amico, qui eum clam sustentabat. The Arians also spread the report, that Athanasius had murdered a certain Bishop Arsenius. Having put this Arsenius into confinement, they brought forward the hand of a dead man, saying that it was the hand of Arsenius, and that Athanasius had cut it off for purposes of witchcraft. But Arsenius having made his escape during the night, presented himself before the whole Council, and exposed the impudent malice of Athanasius’ enemies. But even this they attributed to the magical skill of Athanasius, and went on plotting his death. They succeeded in having him banished, and accordingly, he was sent to Treves in Gaul. During the reign of the emperor Constantius, who was on the Arian side, Athanasius had to go through the most violent storms, endure incredible sufferings, and go wandering from country to country. He was driven several times from his See, but was restored, at one time by the authority of Pope Julius, at another by the help of the emperor Constans, Constantius’ brother, at another by the decree of the Councils of Sardica and Jerusalem. During all this, the Arians relented not in their fury against him:; the hatred of him was unremitting; and he only avoided being murdered, by hiding himself, for five years, in a dry well, where he was fed by one of his friends. who was the only person that knew the place of his concealment.
Constantio mortuo, cum Julianus Apostata, qui ei in Imperio successit, exsules Episcopos ad suas Ecclesias redire permisisset, Athanasius Alexandriam reversus, summo honore exceptus est. Sed non multo post iisdem arianis impellentibus, a Juliano exagitatus rursus discedere cogitur. Cumque ab ejus satellitibus ad necem conquireretur, qua figiebat navicula conversa in contrariam fluminis partem, iis qui se insequebantur, ex industria occurrit: et quærentibus quantum inde abesset Athanasius, respondit eum non longe abesse: itaque illos contrarium tenentes cursum effugit, atque Alexandriam rediens, ibidem usque ad Juliani obitum occultus permansit. Qui paulo post Alexandriæ alia exorta tempestate, quatuor menses in paterno sepulchro delituit. Ac denique ex tot tantisque periculis divinitus ereptus, Alexandriæ mortuus est in suo lectulo, sub Valente: cujus vita et mors magnis nobilitata est miraculis. Multa pie et ad illustrandam catholicam fidem præclare scripsit, sexque et quadraginta annos in summa temporum varietate Alexandrinam Ecclesiam sanctissime gubernavit. Constantius died, and was succeeded in the Empire by Julian the Apostate, who allowed the exiled Bishops to return to their respective Sees. Accordingly, Athanasius returned to Alexandria, where he was received with every possible mark of honor. Not long after, however, he was again obliged to flee, owing to the persecution he met with from Julian, who was instigated by the Arians. On one occasion, when he was being pursued by the Emperor’s satellites, who were ordered to put him to death, the Saint ordered the boat, in which he was fleeing from danger, to be turned back. As soon as he met the persecutors, they asked him if Athanasius was anywhere near. He answered, that he was not far off. While they, therefore, went one way, he sailed the other, and got back to Alexandria, where he remained in concealment till Julian’s death. Another storm soon arose in the City, and he was obliged to hide himself, for four months, in his father’s sepulcher. Having thus miraculously escaped from all these great dangers, he died peacefully in his own bed, at Alexandria, during the reign of the emperor Valens. His life and death were honored by great miracles. He wrote several admirable treatises, some on subjects pertaining to practical piety, and others on the dogmas of Catholic faith. He for six and forty years, and amidst the most troubled of times, governed the Church of Alexandria with extraordinary piety.

The Greek Church, which celebrates the Feast of our Saint at another season of the year, is enthusiastic in her admiration of his virtues. The following stanzas are from the Hymn she sings in his praise.

(Die XVIII. Januarii.)
Salve virtutum regula, fortissimus fidei propugnator, qui impietatem Arii vinculis venerabilium verborum tuorum fortiter dissolvisti, Athanasi; manifeste prædicans unius divinitatis potentiam, in tribus personis distributam, quæ omnia spiritualia et sensibilia ex nihilo ad creationem adduxit, propter suam tantummodo bonitatem; et nobis divinæ operationis difficilia explicans mysteria, Christum exora, ut animabus nostris concedat suam magnam misericordiam. Hail, O Athanasius! model of virtue, most brave defender of the Faith! who didst courageously rout the impiety of Arius by the force of thy venerable words. Thou didst preach the power of the Godhead, one in three Persons, which made all creatures, both spiritual and material, out of nothing, solely because of his own infinite goodness. Thou explainedst to us the difficult mysteries of the divine operation. Pray for us to Christ, that he grant to our souls his great mercy.
Salve patriarcharum fundamentum, tuba canora, mens admirabilis, lingua efficacissima, lucidissimus oculus, rectorum dogmatum illustratio; pastor verus, lucerna plendidissima; securis omnem hæreseon sylvam præcidens, et Spiritus Sancti igne comburens, columna firmissima, turris inconcussa, supersubstantialem Trinitatis; illam exora concedat magnam misericordiam. Hail thou rock of the Patriarchs!—sweet-voiced trumpet—admirable mind—most persuasive tongue—most clear eye—interpreter of true dogmas—true shepherd—most brilliant lamp—axe that felled the whole forest of heresies, and burned them with the fire of the Holy Spirit—most firm pillar—unshaken tower—preaching the supersubstantial power of the Three Persons! pray them, that they grant plenteous mercy on our souls.
Divinis orthodoxiæ dogmatibus, Pater, armasti Ecclesiam, doctrinis tuis præcidisti hæreses; pietatis cursum consummastis, et sicut Paulus fidem servasti; de reliquo reposita est tibi gloriose Athanasi, justa laborum tuorum corona. O Father! thou armedst the Church with the divine dogmas of orthodoxy: thy teachings were a death-blow to heresy; thou finishedest thy holy course, and, like Paul, thou didst keep the faith; as to the rest, there was laid up for thee, O glorious Athanasius, a crown justly won by thy labors.
Sicut astrum quod occasum nescit etiam post mortem tuam, doctrinæ tuæ splendoribus undique fidelium multitudinem illuminas, sapiens pontifex Athanasi. Like a star that never sets, even now that thou art dead, thou enlightenest the Faithful throughout the world with the rays of thy teaching, O wise Pontiff Athanasius!
In contemplationis sublimatibus animum tuum inducens, in spiritu Sancto, sancte Pontifex, divinorum oraculorum thesauros investigasti latentes, et mundo divitias eorum distribuisti. Guided by the Holy Ghost, thou, O holy Pontiff, turning thy mind to the sublimest contemplations, didst investigate the hidden treasures of the divine oracles, and distributedst their riches unto men.
Sicut sublimis et coruscans turris divinarum doctrinarum, per mare erroris jactatos undequaque dirigis verborum tuorum serenitate, ad tranquillum gratiæ portum. Like a high and shining tower of divine truths, thou guidest all that are tossed on the sea of error, leading them, by the calm beauty of thy words, to the tranquil haven of grace.
Sicut imperator exercitus a Deo collecti, copias adversariorum Domini profligasti, gladio Spiritus Sancti fortiter concidens. General of God’s army, thou didst put to flight the ranks of the Lord’s enemies, courageously destroying them with the sword of the Holy Spirit.
Universam irrigasti terram, sancte Pater, fontem vitæ in corde tuo possidens. Holy Father! thou hadst the fountain of Life within thy heart, and thou wateredst the whole earth.
In carne tua, sancte Pater, adimplevisti Domini passiones, pro ejus Ecclesia multa perpessus. In thy flesh, O holy Father, thou filledst up the sufferings of Christ, suffering many persecutions for his Church.
Justitiam discite, omnes inhabitantes terram, sanctis Athanasii sermonibus eruditi; per fidem enim visus est tamquam os Verbi quod est ante sæcula. Learn justice, O all ye inhabitants of earth, from the holy words of Athanasius; for, by his faith, he was as the mouth of the Eternal Word.
Vere paradisum effecisti Ecclesiam Christi, beate, in illa pium seminasti sermonem, et hæreseon spinas evellisti. O blessed one! thou didst make the Church of Christ to be indeed a paradise, for thou sowedst in her the holy word, tearing up the thorns of heresy.
Gratiæ fluvius, Deifer, et spiritualis Nilus nobis apparuisti; bonos piæ doctrinæ fructus fidelibus afferens, universos irrigans, et late nutriens terram. O God-bearing Saint! thou wast a river of grace, a spiritual Nile, bringing to the Faithful the good fruits of holy doctrine, refreshing us all, and nourishing the whole earth.
Dogmatum tuorum baculo, lupos hæreticos ab Ecclesia Christi procul removisti; et illam turribus verborum tuorum circumdans et defendens, sanam et incolumem Christo servans præsentasti. Ideo Christum Deum exora, ut nos tuam semper venerabilem memoriam in fide celebrantes a corruptione et periculis omnibus liberet. With the staff of thy teachings, thou drovest heretical wolves far from the Church of Christ. Thou didst encompass and defend her with the fortifications of thy words, and presentedst her sound and safe to Christ. Beseech him, therefore, that he would deliver from perversion and all dangers us who faithfully celebrate thine ever venerable memory.

Thou wast throned, O Athanasius! on the Chair of Mark in Alexandria; and thy name is emblazoned near his on the sacred Cycle. He left Rome, sent, by Peter himself, to found the second Patriarchal See; and thou, three centuries later, visitedst Rome, as successor of Mark, to seek protection from Peter’s successor against them that were disturbing thy venerable See by injustice and heresy. Our Western Church was thus honored by thy presence, O intrepid defender of the Faith! She looked on thee with veneration, as the glorious Exile, the courageous Confessor; and she has chronicled thy sojourning in her midst as an event of dearest interest.

Intercede for the country over which was extended thy Patriarchal jurisdiction; but forget not this Europe of ours, which gave thee hospitality and protection. Rome defended thy cause; she passed sentence in thy favor, and restored thee thy rights; make her a return, now that thou art face to face with the God of infinite goodness and power. Protect and console her Pontiff—the successor of that Julius who so nobly befriended thee, fifteen hundred years ago. A fierce tempest is now raging against the Rock, on which is built the Church of Christ; and our eyes have grown wearied looking for a sign of calm. Oh! pray that these days of trial be shortened, and that the See of Peter may triumph over the calumnies and persecutions which are now besetting her, and endangering the faith of many of her children.

Thy zeal, O Athanasius! checked the ravages of Arianism; but this heresy has again appeared, in our own times and in almost every country of Europe. Its progress is due to that proud superficial learning, which has become one of the principal perils of the age. The Eternal Son of God, Consubstantial to the Father, is blasphemed by our so-called Philosophers, as being only Man—the best and greatest of men, they say, but still, only Man. They despise all the proofs which reason and history adduce of Jesus’ being God; they profess a sort of regard for the Christian teaching which has hitherto been held, but they have discovered (so they tell us) the fallacy of the great Dogma which recognizes, in the Son of Mary, the Eternal Word, who became Incarnate for man’s salvation. O Athanasius, glorious Doctor of holy Mother Church! humble these modern Arians; expose their proud ignorance and sophistry; undeceive their unhappy followers by letting them see how this false doctrine leads either to the abyss of the abominations of Pantheism, or to the chaos of Skepticism, where all truth and morality are impossibilities.

Preserve within us, by the influence of thy prayers, the precious gift of Faith, wherewith our Lord has mercifully blessed us. Obtain for us that we may ever confess and adore Jesus Christ as our eternal and infinite God; “God of God; Light of Light; True God of True God; Begotten, not made; who, for us men, and for our salvation, took Flesh of the Virgin Mary.” May we grow, each day, in the knowledge of this Jesus, until we join thee in the face-to-face contemplation of his perfections. Meanwhile, by means of holy Faith, we will live with him on this earth, that has witnessed the glory of his Resurrection. How fervent, O Athanasius, was thy love of this Son of God, our Creator and Redeemer! This love was the very life of thy soul, and the stimulus that urged thee to heroic devotedness to his cause. It supported thee in the combats thou hadst to sustain with the world, which seemed leagued together against thy single person. It gave thee strength to endure endless tribulations. Oh! pray that we may get this same love—a love which is fearless of danger, because faithful to Him for whom we suffer—a love which is so justly due, seeing that he, though the Brightness of his Father’s glory, and Infinite Wisdom, emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, and humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even to the death of the Cross. How else can we make him a return for this his devotedness to us, except by giving him all our love, as thou didst, O Athanasius! and by striving to compensate the humiliations he endured for our salvation, by ever singing his praise?


This text is taken from The Liturgical Year, authored by Dom Prosper Gueranger (1841-1875)