Memorial of Saint Athanasius,
Bishop and Doctor of the Church
The Easter season readings that occur today, on the memorial of St. Athanasius (born around 296; died May 2, 373), are a just tribute to his dedication as a teacher and pastor challenged to overcome the Arian heresy of his day. He was Bishop of Alexandria, the intellectual and cultural center of the Roman Empire. He had become bishop of Alexandria five months following the Council of Nicaea, which was convoked in order to deal with the teachings of Arius, a priest of Alexandria.
Arianism taught that the Second Person of the Trinity was created sometime before the Incarnation of Jesus. As created being, Jesus could not be equal or "co-equal" to the Father. The Council of Nicaea responded with the declaration, enshrined in the Nicene Creed, that Father and Son were "consubstantial" ("shared substance").
In upholding the declaration of Nicaea, Athanasius was caught in the political ramifications of the religious argumentation. The Emperor Constantine, toward the end of his life accepted to lobby with Athanasius for the restitution of Arius to the priesthood in that See city. Athanasius stood firm in opposition, and this led to the first of several condemnations of Athanasius by hearings which were led by influential Arian sympathizers, if not believers. Successive emperors, after Constantine, might be Arian or sympathetic to Arians; there was never a doubt that political power struggles underpinned many of the efforts to keep Athanasius in exile. Four periods of exile occurred in his life, but he recovered his See each time, and eventually expired on this day in 373.
What in these readings of the season honors the memory of Athanasius? In the first reading, we hear of the Holy Spirit’s prompting: "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." And they did, in prayer and with the laying on of hands. From the Apostolic times, the Church is convinced that the Spirit of God calls ("vocare", "vocation") singular individuals for a particular share in the Mission of Christ’s Church. The brief synopsis I gave for the life of Athanasius tells us that he was the Bishop of Alexandria. It should be added that he accepted this call at hardly the required age of 30; although relatively young, once ordained as the Bishop of Alexandria, and although sent into exile four different times, he never abandoned his people. He lived his conviction that God had asked this service of him.
Last Sunday the Church celebrated a World Day of Prayer for Vocations. We acknowledge that vocations are the fruit of prayer. With the example of St. Athanasius before us, we also acknowledge that a true vocational discernment, for every service in the Church’s Mission, requires age-appropriate maturity, reverence and a willingness to put all of one’s strength in the hands of Christ’s Church. The Church had such a person in St. Athanasius.
Fr. Arthur Carrillo, C.P. is the director of the Office of Mission Effectiveness for Holy Cross Province. He lives in Chicago, Illinois.