St. Athanasius

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St. Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria

St. Athanasius, the great Doctor of the Church, and intrepid defender of the Catholic faith, was born. at Alexandria, the Capital of Egypt, in the year of our Lord 294. His parents, who belonged to the nobility, were also God-fearing people, and Athanasius was gifted by the Almighty with such great talents, that when still very young in years, he had already made unusual progress in sacred as well as profane science. He was, however, not less assiduous in the practice of virtue and piety than he was in his studies. Desirous of leading a holy life he went to the hermit Anthony, and remained two years under him. He would probably never have left him, had not Alexander, the Patriarch of Alexandria, recalled him to the city, that he might aid him against the heretics, which he faithfully did. The Patriarch made St. Athanasius his companion to the celebrated Council of Nice, where, although he was at that time only deacon, he refuted the Arian heresy so thoroughly, that all present admired his skill and erudition. This, however, drew upon him the hatred of the Arians to such a degree, that until his death they regarded him as their worst enemy, and persecuted him in all possible ways. Shortly before the death of St. Alexander he left the city secretly, fearing that he might be chosen as his successor. The Patriarch, informed of this, said with prophetic inspiration: “Athanasius, Athanasius, you think to save yourself by flight; but it will not release you from the Patriarchal Chair.” After the death of St. Alexander, neither the clergy nor the people would have any other patriarch than Athanasius. For six months they searched everywhere for him, and at length, when he was found, he yielded with many tears to the general wish. Experience showed that his election as Patriarch was really ordained by God for the welfare of the faithful. He proved himself a watchful shepherd over his flock, as well as a kind father to the poor. There was hardly a place in his large diocese which he did not visit yearly, and everywhere he frequently preached. In his own life he was very austere and kept a rigorous fast.

The Arians endeavored, at first, to prevent him from being raised to the dignity of Patriarch, and, not succeeding in this, they tried to make him hateful to the people, as well as to the Emperor, by the most horrible calumnies. The Emperor ordered Athanasius to defend himself against these accusations in a Council which was held at Tyre. The greater part of the Bishops who were present at this Council were followers of Arius, and hence, bitter enemies of the Saint, nevertheless he appeared before them. The first witness against him was a disreputable woman, whose evidence had been bought with money. She, without even knowing the Saint by sight, said that he had taken lodgings in her house, and had done violence to her. Timotheus, a priest, who was on the side of Athanasius, pretended to be the Patriarch, and addressing the wicked woman, said, “What! have I taken lodgings at your house? Have I forced you to so gross a sin?” “Yes;” answered she; “you have done this,” and confirmed her words with an oath. The whole assemblage, although mostly against the Saint, were obliged to acknowledge the falsity of the accusations and the innocence of Athanasius.

The Arians, finding that this conspiracy did not succeed, soon found something else wherewith to charge him. They had some time previously spread abroad the rumor that Athanasius had killed a certain bishop, named Arsenius, and that he used the right hand of the dead man to practise witchcraft. They even showed a hand in a box, maintaining that it was the hand of Arsenius. The bishop himself, who was still alive, they kept hidden that the falsity of their accusation might not be discovered. But God brought it to pass that Arsenius, escaped from imprisonment and arrived at the house of St. Athanasius just as the latter was summoned before the Council. At the moment when he was accused of the murder of the bishop, he had Arsenius brought before the assemblage, and pointing to the two hands of the bishop, again overwhelmed his enemies with shame and confusion. The latter, becoming more and more enraged, prevailed at length upon the otherwise pious Emperor Constantine to banish the Saint to Trieste. After the Emperor’s death, Constantine, his successor, recalled Athanasius, and sent him with a letter of safe conduct to his See. The Catholics received their holy Patriarch with great joy, which, however, did not last long, as the Arians had chosen a bishop of their own sect, who drove Athanasius, with arms in hand, out of the city.

Proceeding to Rome he sought and found assistance from the Pope, who, after having tried the Saint in a special Council and found him innocent of the accusations against him, requested the Emperor to restore him again in his See. The request was granted, but the Arian heretics became so infuriated, that they once more drove St. Athanasius away. He then lived for five years concealed in a cistern, where his food was brought to him,by an intimate friend. At the commencement of the reign of the Emperor Julian, he returned to his flock for the third time. Hearing, however, that the Emperor, at the instigation of the heretics, had issued an order to take his life, he scarcely escaped, with some friends, on a vessel; but soon retracing his steps, he returned to the city, where he remained concealed until the Emperor’s death. During the reign of the pious Emperor, Jovian, he appeared again in public and ruled his church with great zeal. After the death of Jovian, Valens, a protector of the Arians, came to the throne, when the latter, as a first favor, requested the Emperor to banish Athanasius from his See. He willingly acceded to their wish, but before the order could be executed, Athanasius had concealed himself in the tomb of his father. The Christians at Alexandria were at length unwilling to suffer any longer the absence of their shepherd, and began publicly to make complaints. The Emperor, fearing an insurrection, gave orders to search for Athanasius, and in future to leave him unmolested in his Church. The orders were carried out, and the holy patriarch, who had suffered so many persecutions, administered the affairs of his Episcopate peacefully until his death.

St. Athanasius was in all his dangers and persecutions magnanimous and of undisturbed mind. When he saved himself by flight, or concealed himself from his enemies, it was in order to be able longer to assist the Catholics and to protect them against the heretics. Those who pitied him in his exile or other adversities he comforted with the words: “This storm will soon pass over.” But when they represented to him the displeasures of the Arian Emperors, which he drew upon himself by his zeal for the true faith, he always undauntedly replied: “I fear God only, not men.”

The Roman Martyrology says of him as follows: “At Alexandria, the feast of St. Athanasius, bishop of the same city, who was great in learning and holiness, but whom the whole world seems to have conspired to persecute. He nevertheless bravely defended the Catholic faith from the reign of Constantine to that of Valens, against the Emperors, governors, and numberless Arian bishops, from all of whom he suffered many persecutions, and was driven about from place to place. At last he was permitted to return to his Church, from which he was called to God in the reign of the Emperors Valentinian and Valens, after having been priest during 46 years, and after having valiantly fought many battles and earned many crowns of patience.”

There exists at this day a creed which bears the name of St. Athanasius. It commences thus: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he believe the Catholic faith. Whosoever keep it not wholly and inviolably, without doubt, shall be eternally lost.”

Many, however, say that this creed was not written by Athanasius, but that others composed it out of the Saint’s works. Nevertheless, it has been received by many non-Catholics, even by Luther himself, as a true creed. The word “Catholic,” Luther changed into ” Christian,” which, however, is a wicked forgery. But it is easy to perceive why this was done. It was too clear in the above words that the Catholic faith is necessary for salvation and that those who have died out of its pale are lost. This sentence of Athanasius, or of some other ancient teacher, did not suit Luther and he therefore substituted the word ” Christian” for “Catholic;” as if anybody could be really a Christian without being a Catholic. He had before made a similar interpolation in the ninth article of the Apostles’ creed; indeed the whole heresy is a tissue of corruption and falsehood.

Practical Considerations

I. “This storm will soon pass over.” With these words St. Athanasius comforted himself as well as others. The persecutions he compared to a storm which, although sometimes violent and fierce, does not last long. It is generally followed by cheerful weather and bright sunshine which last longer than the storm. The Saint had often had personal experience .of this. At last, however, the persecutions ceased, and he possessed his See in peace. But even had adversity followed him to the end of his days, still his words above mentioned would remain true. The trials would have passed, would soon have ended, because St. Jerome rightly says: “What ends with time is of short duration,” in comparison with Eternity. May you also comfort yourself with the recollection of these words when a storm assails you. It will soon pass away; it will cease; it lasts not for ever. But still, during the storm, do not neglect to follow the example of the Apostles, who, while a tempest lashed the waves of the ! sea, cried :” Lord save us, we perish.” Your God has still the power to calm wind and sea. “The winds and the sea obey him” (Math. viii.).

II. St. Athanasius is wrongfully accused of the most horrible vice. He defends himself, exposes the falsity of his calumniators, brings his innocence to light, but demands no vengeance of God, neither does he curse or hate his enemies. God permits you to defend yourself, if you are calumniated or falsely accused of wickedness, but he does not permit you to hate or curse your enemies, nor to demand or take vengeance on them. “Vengeance belongeth to me ; “says He, ” and I will repay.” “The Lord is a Lord of vengeance,” says David, not man. If you desire to take vengeance on your enemy, you anticipate the Lord to your own great damage, as he says: “He that seeketh to revenge himself shall find vengeance from the Lord” (Eccles. xxviii.). Such a man harms himself much more than he can harm his neighbor with all his vengeance. St. Lawrence Justinian says: “Those who desire to take vengeance on others manifest clearly that they are children of hell, where the fire is never quenched.”

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