Updated: Aug 3, 2022
A couple weeks ago, as I was glancing through my 1962 Roman Catholic Daily Missal to find the page with the Propers for the feast of St. Joseph the Worker, I noticed that, according to the Roman Calendar (both for the TLM and Novus Ordo), May 2 was the feast day of one of my favorite saints, namely Athanasius of Alexandria. Who was this holy and pious figure, and what did he stand for? What can we learn from him, and how did he impact the Catholic faith? Let us find out!
Who was St. Athanasius?
St. Athanasius of Alexandria, former Patriarch of Alexandria, was born between A.D. 296-298. He received a fine education and immersed himself in the study of the Hebrew Scriptures and the books that would eventually comprise the New Testament canon.
When St. Athanasius was young, the children he played with designated him as a “bishop”, and Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria witnessed him administering Baptism with the other children. After calling the children over to question them, he declared that the baptisms were valid according to Church law and sealed them with the gift of the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Confirmation. After this, the Patriarch of Alexandria would witness the spiritual development of young Athanasius, who would eventually be raised up amidst the hierarchy of the clergy as a deacon.
During his time in the diaconate, he attended the First Ecumenical Council convened by the Church (Nicaea I) convened by Emperor Constantine the Great in A.D. 325, where the Council Fathers clashed in debates with the heretics of the times. The major heresy which threatened the Orthodox Catholic faith at the time was Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ. Through the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, St. Athanasius upheld the correct teaching on the Holy Trinity and received vast amounts of persecution for sticking to Catholic Tradition.
After the death of the Patriarch of Alexandria, popular acclaim dictated that he succeed Patriarch Alexander in the See of Alexandria. Originally, he refused, but eventually he accepted God’s calling to serve as the Patriarch and was consecrated a bishop before he turned 30 years old in the year 328 A.D. He guided the Church for almost 50 years, enduring hardships and even cases of exile amidst the Arian Crisis wreaking havoc in Christ’s Church. When Emperor Julian the Apostate began persecuting Christians, he even desired to kill Athanasius, but the wicked Emperor who retracted from his faith to worship the Roman gods of old perished after being struck with arrow in battle and was unable to harm Athanasius.
St. Athanasius dedicated all of his sufferings at the hands of the Arians and apostates to our Lord, and he reposed to receive his eternal reward in 373 A.D. The Arians showed him contempt, but he found favor with Christ for defending the Incarnation against their blasphemies. He is an Eastern Church Father venerated jointly by both East and West and is a Doctor of the Church and the patron saint of theologians.
St. Athanasius On the Trinity And Incarnation:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
St. Athanasius was a great defender of Trinitarian Theology and left us with very beautiful writings as a testament to the apostolicity of our Catholic faith such as the Deposition of Arius and On the Incarnation of the Word. He also left us 4 beautiful sets of refutations against the Arian heresy called the Four Discourses Against the Arians. I could quote various writings of his, which contain beautiful expositions of Catholic doctrine, but for time’s sake I have decided to quote from St. Athanasius’ first letter to Serapion, which explains our faith in the Trinity:
“We acknowledge the Trinity, hole and perfect, to consist of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In this Trinity, there is no intrusion of any element or of anything from outside, nor is the Trinity a blend of creative and created being. It is a wholly creative and energizing reality, self-consistent and undivided in its active power, for the Father makes all things through the Word and in the Holy Spirit, and in this way the unity of the Holy Trinity is preserved. Accordingly in the Church, one God is preached, one God who is above all things as Father, for He is principle and source; He is through all things through the Word; and He is in all things in the Holy Spirit.”
St. Athanasius also specifically defends the Incarnation of the 2nd Person of the Trinity, who assumed flesh for our sake. Unfortunately, various modern sectarian movements such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses have resurrected the Arian heresy in their private interpretation of Scripture. This indicates that even though the Church is victorious against the pernicious doctrine of the Arian heresy, St. Athanasius’ writings are still relevant today in combatting modern Arianism because the heresy is still alive today. In the use of Scripture outside the bounds of the Church, the same error which Arius made 1700 years continues to be committed, and yet most people still believe Arianism only resides in history and apologetical literature. However, this is not the case. St. Athanasius even describes the shapeshifting nature of this heresy in his writing called the Deposition of Arius :
“By these arguments and references to the sacred Scriptures we frequently overthrew them; but they changed like chameleons , and again shifted their ground…There have been many heresies before them, which, venturing further than they ought, have fallen into folly; but these men by endeavoring in all their cavils to overthrow the Divinity of the Word have justified the other in comparison of themselves, as approaching nearer to Antichrist.”
This is very true concerning the fact that the heresy still exists, and it continues to change its colors to present itself in a different way than in the pre-Nicene period. We read about the Arian heresy in books and believe that it is completely dead and that the only heresy still around is Protestantism, but modern forms of Arianism still circle around us. It is almost as if he is warning us of future movements that will deny the divinity of Christ. In order to defend the Catholic faith from Arian attacks, both ancient and new, we must call on St. Athanasius to assist us in defending the truth of the Incarnation.
Below are some of the beautiful quotes Athanasius the Great exclaimed about God assuming flesh from his writing entitled On the Incarnation:
“The self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension — above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God”
“Let them know that the Lord came not to make a display, but to heal and teach those who were suffering. For the way one aiming at display would be, just to appear, and to dazzle the beholders; but for one seeking to heal and teach the way is, not simply to sojourn here, but to give Himself to the aid of those in want…”
I can quote a wide abundance of the great works of St. Athanasius of Alexandria, the greatest champion of the Incarnation the Church has ever seen, showing how he places the Arians in their proper place and catechizes on the proper understanding of Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition. Athanasius persists when most bishops gave up, and this led Athanasius to decide whether or not he would continue serving Christ’s Church or fall into heresy with the majority who were Arians.
St. Athanasius vs. the World:
“If the world is against truth, then I am against the world” — St. Athanasius
St. Athanasius lived in a time, which many would consider hopeless. The Church was in crisis mode, heresy running rampant through the streets and dissent from the faith ruled the lands. People were debating the degrees of obedience to superiors vs. upholding correct doctrine. However, the saint dedicated his life to defending the Deity of Christ from those who rejected it. The entire world was against him. It was Athanasius Contra Mundum! Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, speaking in a general audience in 2007 even mentions the following:
“His intransigence-tenacious and, if necessary, at times harsh — against those who opposed his episcopal appointment and especially against adversaries of the Nicene Creed, provoked the implacable hostility of the Arians and philo-Arians.”
The Arians surrounded him in all directions, and it seemed they had the high ground. The Arian heretics insisted that Christ was only higher than all of God’s creatures, but less than God. St. Athanasius refused this preposterous idea and ended up going into exile for his faith. Unfortunately, in A.D. 330, Emperor Constantine the Great began to lean towards the Arian heretics and encouraged a sort of reconciliation between Arians and Catholics. St. Athanasius remained firm in his faith and rejected any attempts of a false union with the Arians.
Throughout his life, St. Athanasius was banished 5 times and spend over 33% of his office in exile. He endured these hardships because he knew that to accept the Arians or even attempt a false union with them would repudiate his Catholic faith entirely, which echoes the words of Holy Scripture,
“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness?" (2nd Corinthians 6:14)
St. Athanasius teaches Catholics to remain firm in their faith amidst massive dissent and that numbers do not matter. This is because he was often the only bishop in his area who rejected Arianism and imagine the pressure on his shoulders day in and day out because of that! He also instructs us not to ever compromise with heresy, but to remain within the Apostles teachings and the bosom and unity of the Church. Unity of faith does not exist with compromise, nor does it exist with heresy! Even when people desired a middle ground to reconciled the Arians with the Catholics, St. Athanasius realized this desire to unite the churches was to come to a middle ground, which would sell out the faith for a false union.
In especially this age, it is very tempting once again to pursue false union with those who dissent from Catholic teaching. Many people today may just say “believe in Jesus, but Christ cares not about doctrine.” However, such an understanding of Church teaching is wrong. The Church Father understood that the true Church must possess a doctrinal unity and that one must accept the Magisterial teaching of the Church. Christ is indeed Truth, and the Church cannot contradict on what it proclaims is true doctrine. In today’s age, many people, being influenced by the subjectivism of private interpretation of Scripture and modernism, often come to the conclusion that one’s truth may be different than someone else’s. However, such an idea contradicts the unity of the Church in the Nicene Creed, the Creed which St. Athanasius himself aided during its compilation. At Mass, we proclaim the article of belief in the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, and this means the Church is one, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).
In the Arian crisis, the heterodox hesitated not to appeal to the Scriptures in order to claim that Christ and the Father were not one substance, but of a different substance, represented by the word “heteroousios.” St. Athanasius rigorously defended the truth of the Incarnation and that Christ is of the same substance with the Father, represented by the Greek word “homoousios.” The Semi-Arians, a middle ground group, desired a compromise in the interpretation of Scripture and doctrine, and advocated for a term called “homoiousios”, which means of a similar substance. They wanted the disputes to end and the churches to simply unite, but I repeat, this was not enough for the saintly Athanasius, for the Arian faith was incompatible with the Catholic faith! Because of his tenacity in defending the orthodox teaching, we owe much gratitude towards this saint.
Because of his zeal for Christ, St. Athanasius defended the true faith and saved us from false union with heresy, and by doing such, protected the unity of Christ’s Church for ages to come. By teaching us the necessity of standing up for our faith, he will inspired future generations of Catholics to come! St. Athanasius, defender of orthodoxy, ora pro nobis!
By Nick Howard