Memorial of Saint Athanasius, Bishop, and Doctor of the Church
St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr was killed because of his teachings. He angered members of various synagogues, who then accused him of blasphemy at his trial. In today’s first reading from Acts, we hear that the people with whom Stephen was in dialog “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.”
Fast forward three centuries and we find St. Athanasius similarly gifted with wisdom and the Spirit, and also in trouble for his teachings. Although never martyred, he was sent into exile five times; he was also kidnapped. He endured many false accusations and even an assassination attempt.
Athanasius lived in Alexandria, Egypt. He became secretary to the bishop of Alexandria, was ordained, and then named bishop. At this time, many “Christians” came to think that Jesus was just a good man, but certainly not the “Son of God.” One of these people was Arius, and his followers were called Arians. Athanasius was the champion of the struggle against Arianism. By 325, the controversy was dividing the Church and unsettling the Roman Empire. In that year, Athanasius attended the First Ecumenical Council, held at Nicea to examine and judge Arius’ doctrine in light of apostolic tradition. It reaffirmed the Church’s perennial teaching on Christ’s full deity and established the Nicene Creed as a statement of faith. The remainder of Athanasius’ life was a constant struggle to uphold the council’s teaching about Christ.
St. Athanasius was not successful in stopping Arianism during his lifetime. He was also not able to function as a bishop during his many years in exile. Even though he experienced much frustration and maybe even a sense of failure, he never gave up on dialog with threatening Roman emperors, opposing bishops and other members of the church and society. Because of his perseverance, he became a pillar of the Church, and was later declared a Doctor of the Church. During one ten-year period of relative peace, he wrote his Life of St. Anthony which led men and women to set up monasteries for prayer, study, and hospitality throughout the Christian world. And the “Cappadocian Fathers,” Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory Nazianzen were all inspired by Athanasius to defend the true faith in Jesus – truly Son of God, and truly One of us.
Today we ask St. Athanasius for his intercession in helping us as individuals and as a Church to stand up and persevere for what we know is foundationally true. When we face varying degrees of non-support, be it disinterest, resistance, or even persecution, St. Athanasius pray for us!
Patty Gillis is a retired Pastoral Minister. She served on the Board of Directors at St. Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center in Detroit. She is currently a member of the Laudato Sí Vision Fulfillment Team and the Passionist Solidarity Network.