Saint Athanasius, Doctor
Athanasius of Alexandria B Doctor (RM)
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in c. 295-297; died May 2, 373; Doctor of the Church (one of the four great Greek Doctors); in the East he is venerated as one of the three Holy Hierarchs.
"All of us are naturally frightened of dying and the dissolution of our bodies, but remember this most startling fact: that those who accept the faith of the cross despise even what is normally terrifying, and for the sake of Christ cease to fear even death. When He became man, the Savior's love put away death from us and renewed us again; for Christ became man that we might become God." --Athanasius
"He became what we are that He might make us what He is." --Athanasius
Saint Athanasius Athanasius was a deacon when he led the battle for orthodoxy against Arianism at the Council of Nicaea, which resulted in his being exiled five times. Nothing is known of his family, except that they were Christians and that he had a brother named Peter. So the story really begins on the sands of Alexandria with a group of children who attracted the attention of their bishop, Saint Alexander. From his house overlooking the shore, Alexander watched them at their play and, curious to know what game it was, sent for them. They told him they were playing at 'baptisms,' one of them acting the part of the bishop, another being dipped, in imitation of a church ceremony. Impressed by their innocence and seriousness, he added to their simple game the Confirmation, and years afterwards the boy who had played the part of the bishop became his archdeacon. He was Athanasius, who himself later became bishop of Alexandria.
The saint received an excellent education at the catechetical school of Alexandria that encompassed Greek literature and philosophy, rhetoric, law, and Christian doctrine. His intimacy with Biblical texts is extraordinary. In his own writings, he tells us that he learned theology from teachers who had been confessors during the Maximian persecution. From early youth, he formed a close relationship with the hermits of the desert, which was to prove providential during his exiles because they protected him during several of them.
Athanasius lived at a time when the Church, having survived the fires of persecution and all the ruthless fury of the pagan world, was torn and imperilled by internal heresy and division. The arch- heretic was priest of Baukalis named Arius, who disputed the truth of our Lord's divinity, and who commanded a popular following. He claimed that Christ was not eternal, that He was created in time by the Eternal Father and, therefore, could not be described as co- equal with the Father.
Alexander demanded a written statement from Arius about his teaching to be discussed first with the Alexandrian clergy and then at a synod of Egyptian bishops. With only two dissidents, the bishops denounced Arius and the eleven priests and deacons who followed his teaching. Arius then spread his heresy in Caesarea, where he enlisted the support of Eusebius of Nicomedia and other Syrian prelates.
In Egypt he had won over the Meletians, a disaffected body, and many of the so-called intellectuals. Meanwhile, his doctrines were embodied in hymns set to popular tunes that were carried into the marketplaces and by sailors to all parts of the Mediterranean. So widespread became the influence of this pallid and persuasive priest that the famous Council of Nicaea was called in 325, presided over by Emperor Constantine.
At the time, Athanasius, who had just composed the treatise De Incarnatione expounding on the redemptive work of Christ in restoring fallen man to the image of God in which he was created, was an under-sized, 25-year-old deacon serving as secretary to Bishop Alexander. He accompanied the bishop to the council, probably not thinking that he would play any important role in its outcome. But upon him rested the fate of Christendom; for he more than any other perceived the gravity of the points at issue, and by his clear and powerful arguments disconcerted the heretics.
Thus, the battle of faith was won, and the letter sent out by the council confirming the excommunication of Arius, concluded with the words: "Pray for us all, that what we have thought good to determine may remain inviolate, through God Almighty, and through our Lord Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit, to whom be glory for evermore." The Creed, formulated there and confirmed by the Council of Constantinople in 381, is still used in the liturgy of the Catholic Church.
But, as the Venerable John Henry Newman declared, in the period after the Council of Nicaea, the laity were the firm champions of Catholic orthodoxy, while the bishops floundered on many sides. This, of course, is an exaggeration, but not entirely without merit. In the reaction that followed, the discontented faction gained the ear of the emperor, brought false charges against Athanasius, and continually sought his ruin.
Upon the death of Patriarch Alexander, Athanasius became bishop, though he was only about 30 (in 328). Almost immediately Athanasius began a visitation of his entire diocese. As bishop of Alexandria Athanasius also took responsibility for the welfare of the desert monks and fathers. He became their spiritual head for 40 years. He aided the ascetic movement in Egypt, counted Saints Pachomius and Serapion among his friends, and was the first to introduce the knowledge of monasticism in the West. About this time he was also appointed bishop of Ethiopia, where the Christian faith had recently found a footing.
The Arians were well-represented at the imperial court of Constantinople. So the battles began with many of the powerful, including the two Eusebii (of Caesarea and of Nicomedia). Eusebius of Nicomedia, an Arian bishop who returned from exile in 330, tried to force Athanasius to admit Arius to communion, even going so far as to enlist Emperor Constantine to pressure the saint. Athanasius replied to the emperor's letter that the Catholic Church could hold no communion with heretics who attacked Christ's divinity. Eusebius then tried to justify Arius in a letter to Athanasius.
Eusebius next moved to enlist the dissident Meletians. They tried to impeach Athanasius on trumped up charges. The Meletians claimed that the bishop had exacted a tribute of linen for use in his church, sent gold to someone named Philomenus who was suspected of treason, and authorized one of his deputies to destroy a chalice that was being used for the Eucharist by a Meletian priest named Iskhyras. Athanasius was cleared by the emperor of all these accusations. Next he was charged with the murder of a Meletian bishop, Arsenius. Everyone knew that the bishop was in hiding, and he ignored the summons to court.
Athanasius was compelled to appear before a council convened at Tyre in 335. The panel was packed with enemies and Arians, who made further charges and brought up old ones such as the broken chalice. Athanasius is credited with a keen sense of humor, which helped him in confronting his adversaries. After his accusers produced a hand that they said Athanasius had cut off the murdered Arsenius, Athanasius is said to have produced the living Arsenius in court. First pointing out his face, he then drew out from the bishop's cloak first one, then the other hand, and said, "Let no one now ask for a third, for God has only given a man two hands."
Realizing that his condemnation was a foregone conclusion, Athanasius abruptly left the assembly and travelled to Constantinople. Upon his arrival he accosted the emperor in the street in the attitude of a suppliant, and obtained an interview. So completely did he vindicate himself that Constantine, in reply to a letter from the Council of Tyre announcing that Athanasius had been condemned and deposed, wrote to the signatories a severe reply summoning them to Constantinople for a retrial of the case. But before the first letter could reach its destination, a second one was dispatched that confirmed the sentences of Tyre and banished Athanasius to Trier (Germany).
Thus, they succeeded in keeping Athanasius from his see, but, when he was recalled and reinstated by Constantine's successor in 338, he was welcomed back by the citizens in the crowded streets with tumults of applause. The great Athanasius had returned!
The Arian controversy, however, continued to darken and distract the life of the Church, Eusebius of Nicomedia continued his attack with fresh charges against the saintly bishop. This time Athanasius was accused of sedition, promoting violence, and withholding his tithe of corn from the widows and orphans to which it belonged. One by one, old and loyal companions deserted him or were driven from office. During a council at Antioch, he was condemned for the second time and exiled. An Arian bishop was intruded into the see.
The assembly wrote to Pope Saint Julius seeking his confirmation of the condemnation. At the same time the orthodox bishops of Egypt drew up an encyclical in defense of the patriarch, which they sent to the Holy See and to other Catholic bishops in the West. In reply the pope announced that a synod should be called to settle the question. Athanasius took refuge among the monks of the desert, and became an ascetic, renowned for his sanctity, beloved by his followers.
In the meantime, when a Cappadocian named Gregory was installed as patriarch, supplanting Athanasius, riots broke out in Alexandria. Athanasius, seeking to allow peace to prevail, left for Rome to await the hearing of his case. This was his most fruitful period during which he composed his most important works. While in Rome, Athanasius established close contact with the Western bishops who supported him in his struggles.
The synod was duly summoned, but as the Eusebians who had demanded it failed to appear, it was held without them. The saint, of course, was completely vindicated; a declaration later endorsed by the Council of Sardica (Sofia). Nevertheless, Athanasius was unable to return to his see until the death of its incumbent. Then he was allowed to return only because Constantius, on the verge of war with Persia, believed it politic to propitiate his brother Constans by reinstating Athanasius. Thus, for the second time Athanasius was recalled and welcomed home by a cheering multitude.
For the next few years he was left in peace because the secular powers were engaged in war and other disturbances. The murder of Constans, however, eliminated the most powerful support for orthodoxy, leaving Constantius free to crush the man he had come to regard as a personal enemy. Constantius packed councils at Arles in 353 and Milan in 355 with Arians and semi-Arians in order to obtain the condemnation of the saint from self-serving prelates. Constantius also exiled Pope Liberius to Thrace, where he forced him to agree to censures against the bishop of Alexandria.
For a time, Athanasius maintained the support of his clergy and people. But one night, when he was celebrating a vigil in church, soldiers forced open the doors, killed some of the congregation, and wounded others. Athanasius escaped and disappeared into the desert, where his faithful monks hid him for six years. Again, his exile proved to be fruitful for his theological writings.
The death of Constantius in 361 was followed by the murder of Arius, who had usurped the see of Alexandria. The new emperor Julian the Apostate recalled all the exiled bishops; thus, Athanasius returned to his see for a few months until Julian realized that it would be difficult to reinstate paganism while the champion of Catholicism ruled in Egypt. Julian therefore banished Athanasius as a "disturber of the peace and an enemy of the gods." So, the saint retired again to the desert. He was at Antinopolis when he was informed by two hermits of the death of Julian, who had at that moment died in Persia from an arrow wound.
At once he returned to Alexandria, and some months later he proceeded to Antioch at the invitation of Emperor Jovian, who had revoked his sentence of banishment. Jovian's reign, however, was short. In May 365, Emperor Valens banished all the orthodox bishops, including Athanasius, who had been reinstated by the successors of Constantius. Four months later Valens relented-- possibly because he feared an uprising of the Egyptians who had become devoted to their much persecuted bishop.
Five times altogether he was exiled (335-338 to Trier, Germany; 341-346 to Rome, Italy; 356-362 to the desert; 362-363 and a second time for four months in 363 again to the desert), but out of his exile came the Athanasian Creed, said to have been composed in a cave. He did not really write the creed (it was probably written by Saint Eusebius of Vercelli), but it was based upon his writings. The supreme achievement of the 'mean little fellow,' as Julian the Apostate called him, was that in a critical hour, by his courage and tenacity, God used him to save the faith of Christendom.
Even in exile Athanasius managed to tend his flock. It was primarily for them that he wrote the most illuminating theological treatises on Catholic dogma. He authored Against the Heathen (c. 318), Contra Arianos (c. 358 ?), Apologia to Constantius, History of the Arians (primary historical source), Defense of Flight, many letters, The Life of Antony (c. 357), and other pieces. In Against the Arians, Athanasius drew on the work of Saints Justin and Irenaeus, who interpreted Scripture in an orthodox tradition, to insist that the Nicene term homoousios, although not Scriptural itself, was necessary to formulate correctly the truth of Christ's Scriptural revelation. His Life of Saint Antony showed his friend as singularly devoted to combatting the powers of evil. It became a widely diffused classic. From the time of Saint Bede, it inspired other monastic hagiographers. An 8th-century monk wrote, "If you find a book by Athanasius and have no paper on which to copy it, write it on your shirts."
All his thinking was soteriologically determined, hence 'the Word could never have divinized us if He were merely divine by participation and were not himself the essential Godhead.' Athanasius defended the oneness of God, yet the separateness of the three Divine Persons. He also went forward to add the Holy Spirit to the Godhead to counter Tropici. His theology of the Holy Spirit is found in his letters to Serapion. In his enlightening treatises on Catholic dogma, Athanasius showed that asceticism and virginity were effective ways to restore the divine image in man. Several of his works were addressed to monks, to whom he also gave repeated practical help.
When he returned to Alexandria after his final exile, Athanasius spent the last seven years of his life helping to build the Nicene party. Upon his death, his body was taken first to Constantinople and then to Venice. Although Athansius was an intense man, he was also known for his not-so-gentle humor, which he also used as a weapon in his arsenal to support the Catholic faith.
Athanasius has been called "the Father of Orthodoxy," "the Pillar of the Church," and "Champion of Christ's Divinity." Cardinal Newman described Athanasius as "a principal instrument after the apostles by which the sacred truths of the Church have been conveyed and secured to the world." When Saint Antony, whose biography was written by Athanasius, died, he bequeathed "a garment and a sheep skin to the bishop Athanasius." It is said that Athanasius treasured this garment. (Athanasius is another saint for whom much information is easily available.) (Attwater, Attwater2, Barr, Benedictines, Bentley, Davies, Delaney, Farmer, Gill, Walsh, White).
In art, Saint Athanasius is portrayed as a Greek bishop wearing a pallium between two columns. He holds an open book and has a heretic under his feet (Roeder) He might also be represented in a group of Greek fathers, distinguished by name (Tabor) or in a boat on the Nile (White).
Bertinus the Younger, OSB (AC)
Died c. 699. A Benedictine monk of Sithin (Sithiu) during the time of its founder, Saint Bertinus the Great (Benedictines).
Blessed Conrad of Seldenbüren, OSB M (AC)
Died at Zürich, Switzerland, 1126. Conrad was born into the royal house of Seldenbüren. He founded and endowed Engelberg Abbey at Unterwalden, Switzerland, where he was professed as a Benedictine lay-brother. Conrad is venerated as a martyr because he was killed during a trip to Zurich to defend the rights of the abbey (Attwater2, Benedictines).
Exsuperius (Hesperus), Zoë, Cyriacus & Theodulus MM (RM)
Died c. 127-140. According to a Greek legend, this family of slaves belonged to a rich pagan of Attalia, Pamphylia, Asia Minor. Exsuperius, his wife Zoë, and their two sons were roasted to death for refusing to participate with their master in ritual sacrifice. It was the children who encouraged their parents to remain faithful. The legend names the husband Hesperus (Attwater2, Benedictines, Coulson).
Felix of Seville M (RM)
Date unknown. Felix, a deacon, was martyred, probably in Seville, where he is held in high veneration (Benedictines).
Date unknown. Saint Gennys is often confused with Saint Genesius of Arles, but the patron of Cornwall has his own feast today, which may point to the fact that he is a different individual and an obscure, local founder. He may more properly be identified with Saint Genesius the Martyr, whose head was translated on July 19 to Lismore. To add to the confusion, the famous Germanus of Auxerre is also known as Gennys or Genewys (Benedictines, Farmer).
Germanus of Normandy BM (AC)
Died c. 460. It may be hard to believe that someone named Germanus of Normandy originated either in Ireland or Wales, but it is true. Today's saint was converted by Saint Germanus of Auxerre, whose name he took, when the bishop was visiting Britain. Today's saint worked as a bishop with Saint Patrick and is alleged to have evangelized in Wales, Spain, Gaul, and the Isle of Man. Some regard Germanus as the Apostle of the Isle of Man. He was martyred in Normandy (Benedictines, Montague).
(also known as Glywys, Clivis)
6th century; feast in Cornwall is May 3. The monk Saint Gluvias may have been sent to Cornwall by his brother, Saint Cadoc of Llancarfan. There he laid the foundation for a monastery and a parish commemorates his name. Sometimes he is said to have been the nephew of Saint Petroc. He may have been martyred and may be the same person as the patron of Coedkernew (Gwent), Saint Glywys, and/or the patron of Merthir Glivis in Glamorgan, whose shrine is mentioned in the Book of Llan Dav (Benedictines, Farmer).
Blessed Joseph Luu M (AC)
Born at Cai-nhum, Cochin-China, Vietnam; died at Vinh-long, 1854; beatified in 1909. Joseph was a native who died in prison for the faith. He may have been among those included in the canonization of the Martyrs of Vietnam in 1988, but the orthographic inconsistencies in the latinization of Chinese names makes it nearly impossible to tell without a complete list of those who were canonized at that time (Benedictines).
Mafalda of Portugal, Queen, OSB Cist. (AC)
(also known as Matilda)
Born 1203; died 1257; cultus approved in 1793. Mafalda, daughter of King Sancho of Portugal, was married at the age of 11 or 12 to her young cousin King Henry I of Castile. The following year her marriage was declared null by the Holy See because of consanguinity. At once she returned to Portugal, entered the convent of Arouca and, in 1222, professed the Benedictine Rule. At her suggestion, the convent joined the Cistercians. She did not simply enter the monastery as the only alternative, but because she desired to give herself totally to God. She slept on the bare ground or spent the night in prayer. Her fortune was used to restore the beautiful cathedral of Oporto, found a hospice for pilgrims and a hospital for twelve widows, and build a bridge over the Talmeda River. Mafalda died in sackcloth and ashes. When her body was exhumed in 1617, it was found to be flexible and incorrupt (Attwater2, Benedictines, Coulson, Farmer).
5th century. Saint Neachtain was present at the death of his near relative Saint Patrick of Ireland (Benedictines)
Saturninus, Neopolus, Germanus & Celestine MM (RM)
Died 304. The Roman Martyrology says that Saturninus was martyred in Rome; however, hagiographers place his death at Alexandria under Diocletian. Nothing further is known of these saints (Benedictines).
Ultan of Péronne, OSB Abbot B (AC)
(also known as Ultan of Fosse)
Died at Péronne, c. 686. Ultan, an Irish monk like his brothers Saints Fursey and Foillan, went with them on a missionary journey to East Anglia. There, with Fursey, he founded a monastery in Burgh Castle, a Roman fort near Yarmouth, but later migrated to France after a pilgrimage to Rome.
There he administered the Abbey of Saint-Quentin, which had been built for Fursey. Then he escaped the raiding Mercians by moving into Belgium. His brother Foillan built and became abbot of Fosses Monastery on land given to him by Blessed Itta and her daughter Saint Gertrude of Nivelles. During this time Ultan was chaplain to Gertrude's convent and taught them liturgy, Scripture, and chant. Ultan later succeeded his brother Fursey in ministering to pilgrims as abbot of Fosses.
He inherited Foillan's abbacy at Péronne, where he died. Foillan's official feast day is the date of Ultan's vision of his martyrdom, although his relics were not recovered for about two months thereafter. Ultan is mentioned in the vita of Saint Amatus, who had been unjustly banished by Theodoric: "Amatus found refuge in Fursey's monastery at Péronne of which Ultan was abbot at the time and rejoiced in the tranquility of his retirement."
Ultan was buried in Fosses Abbey, which became a celebrated Irish monastery, as did Péronne. A chapel dedicated to Saint Brigid of Kildare overlooks the town of Fosses (Attwater, Attwater2, Benedictines, Coulson, D'Arcy, Daniel-Rops, Delaney, Fitzpatrick, Gougaud, Montague, Tommasini).
Valentine of Genoa B (AC)
Died c. 307. This Saint Valentine was an early bishop of Genoa, Italy, whose relics were found and enshrined in 985 (Benedictines).
Vindemialis, Eugene & Longinus MM (RM)
Died c. 485. Only after being severely tortured by the Arian Vandal King Hunneric, were these three African bishops martyred (Benedictines).
Waldebert of Luxeuil, OSB Abbot (RM)
(also known as Walbert, Gaubert)
Died c. 665-668. Saint Waldebert was a Frankish knight, who found more nobility in serving God than in service to an earthly king in the army. He became a monk at Luxeuil and donated all his wealth to the monastery. He was permitted to live as a hermit under the rule of the abbey until the death of Saint Eustace, when he was elected to be its third abbot. About two years after becoming abbot in 628, he introduced the Benedictine Rule. During his forty-year abbacy, the monastery, founded by Saint Columbanus, reached the peak of its religious and cultural influence. He secured from Pope John IV the abbey's freedom from episcopal control. Waldebert also helped Saint Salaberga found her great convent at Laon (Attwater2, Benedictines, Coulson, Delaney).
Wiborada of Saint Gall, OSB VM (AC)
(also known as Guiborat, Weibrath)
Died 925; canonized in 1047. Born into the Swabian nobility, Wiborada could have married well. After the death of their parents, Wiborada followed the lead of her brother, Saint Hatto who had became a Benedictine at Saint Gall; she became an anchorite in a cell adjoining the church of Saint Magnus. Within her walled-up cell, she occupied her time in prayer, binding books, and doing similar craft work for the monastery. She was martyred by invading Hungarians (Attwater2, Benedictines, Coulson).
About Saints of the Day
These summaries were prepared in 1998 by St. Patrick's parishioner Katherine I. Rabenstein and are reproduced on www.saintpatrickdc.org with the permission of the author. Note that the content has not been updated since that time and represents the research of the author. An alphabetical index of all saints on our site is available. Source references are also available. HTML formatting © 2007-2008 by St. Patrick's Catholic Church, Washington, D.C.