St. Athanasius
Doctor of the Church

May 2

c. 297-373

 Probably born of Christian parents at Alexandria, he was well educated, especially in Scripture and theology, was ordained a deacon, and became secretary to Bishop Alexander of his native city about 318. Athanasius was present with his bishop at the Council of Nicaea, which condemned Arianism and excommunicated Arius. Athanasius was elected bishop of Alexandria on Alexander's death about 327 and in addition to his rule as bishop of the city became the spiritual head of the desert hermits and of Ethiopia. He was immediately confronted with a revival of Arianism in Egypt and its rapid growth throughout the Mediterranean world and the continued schism of the Meletians who supported the Arians. In 330, Eusebius of Nicomedia, a supporter of Arius, persuaded Emperor Constantine to direct Athanasius to admit Arius to Communion. When Athanasius flatly refused, Eusebius incited the Meletians to use every means to discredit Athanasius; they charged him with various crimes, and when he was cleared at a trial before Constantine they accused him of murdering Arsenius, a Meletian bishop everyone knew was alive and in hiding. Aware of this, Athanasius refused the summons of the Meletians to attend a synod to answer the preposterous charge but was obliged to attend a council at Tyre in 335 when summoned by the Emperor. The council was completely dominated by his enemies and presided over by the Arian who had usurped the bishopric of Antioch. Athanasius was found guilty, and though the Emperor, after an interview with Athanasius, repudiated the findings of the Council, he later reversed himself, and Athanasius in 336 was banished to Trier in Germany. When Constantine died in 337 and his Empire was divided among his sons, Constantine II, Constans, and Constantius, Constantine recalled him to his see in 338. Eusebius then denounced him to Constantius (Alexandria was in Constantius' portion of the Empire) for sedition and succeeded in having Athanasius again deposed at a synod at Antioch and an Arian bishop intruded into his see. A letter from this synod asking Pope St. Julius to confirm its actions was followed by another one from the orthodox bishops of Egypt supporting Athanasius, a copy of which was also sent to the bishops in the West. When Gregory, a Cappadocian, was installed as archbishop supplanting Athanasius, riots broke out in Alexandria. Athanasius then went to Rome to attend a synod suggested to Pope Julian I to hear the case; when none of the Eusebians showed up for the synod, it proceeded with its deliberations and completely vindicated Athanasius, a decision that was confirmed by the Council of Sardinia. It was while he was in Rome that Athanasius established close contact with the bishops of the West who supported him in his struggles. He was unable to return until Gregory died in 345, and Constantius, at the urging of his brother Constans, the Western Emperor, unwillingly restored Athanasius to his see. But when Constans was assassinated in 350, Constantius, now Emperor of both East and West, moved to exterminate orthodoxy and deal with Athanasius once and for all. Constantius caused packed councils at Arles in 353 and at Milan in 355 to condemn Athanasius and exiled Pope Liberius to Thrace, where he forced him to agree to the censures. Arianism was now in control, but Athanasius continued to resist until one night soldiers broke into his church, killing and wounding many in the congregation. He fled to the desert and was protected there by the monks for the next six years while an Arian bishop, George of Cappadocia, occupied his see. It was during these years that he wrote many of his great theological works. When Constantius died in 361, George was murdered soon after, to be briefly succeeded by Pistus. When the new Emperor, Julian the Apostate, revoked all of his predecessor's banishments of bishops, Athanasius returned to Alexandria. Soon, however, he came into conflict with the new Emperor when he opposed his plans to paganize the Empire and was again forced to flee to the desert. When Julian was killed in 363, Athanasius was brought back by Emperor Jovian, but on his death after only an eight-month reign Athanasius was forced into hiding for the fifth time when the new Emperor, Valens, banished all orthodox bishops in 365. He revoked the order four months later, and Athanasius, after seventeen years of on-and-off exile, returned to his see and spent the last seven years of his life in Alexandria helping build the new Nicene party whose support secured the triumph of orthodoxy over Arianism at the General Council of Constantinople in 381. He died in Alexandria on May 2. Athanasius is one of the great figures of Catholicism. A Doctor of the Church and called "the champion of orthodoxy," he resolutely opposed one of the greatest threats Christianity ever faced-----Arianism, a heresy that denied the Divinity of Christ-----and persevered in the face of trials and difficulties that at times seemed insuperable in a struggle that was eventually won. A friend of the monks Pacholius and Serapion and St. Antony, whose biography he wrote, he aided the ascetic movement in Egypt and was the first to introduce knowledge of monasticism to the West. Through it all, he guided his flock and found time to write treatises on Catholic doctrine that illuminated the areas in which he wrote. Among his outstanding works are Contra gentes and De incarnatione verbi Dei, defenses of the Incarnation and redemption written early in his life (318-23), and the major treatises he produced in exile: Apologia to Constantius, Defense of Flight, Letter to the Monks, and History of the Arians. He did not write the Athanasian Creed directly, but it was drawn from his writings, and most likely during his lifetime or shortly thereafter. The Athanasian Creed is one of the three liturgical creeds.



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