St. Alexander’s Protégé
Most probably, St. Athanasius was born in Alexandria in Egypt about the year 300. He was given a good education during his youth. He received philosophical and theological training at Alexandria. He became a deacon and secretary to Alexander, the Bishop of Alexandria. As a close collaborator of his bishop, Athanasius took part with him in the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical Council convened by Emperor Constantine in the year 325, which was aimed at ensuring unity in the Church.
Athanasius was recognized as an exceptional theologian and ascetic and was regarded as the obvious candidate to succeed Alexander. When Bishop Alexander died in 328, Athanasius succeeded him as Bishop of Alexandria. His first years as bishop were devoted to visitation of his extensive patriarchate which included the whole of Egypt and Libya. He established important contacts with the Coptic monks of Upper Egypt and their leader St. Pachomius.
Defender of Orthodoxy
Most of all, Athanasius showed straightaway that he was determined to reject any compromise with regard to the Arian heresies condemned by the Council of Nicaea. He zealously worked to defend the faith and the Church’s teachings and to affirm the convictions of the Nicene Fathers to address various issues and the serious problem that had arisen from the erroneous preaching of Arius. With his theory, Arius threatened authentic faith in Christ. He declared that the Logos was not a true God but a created God, a creature “halfway” between God and man. Hence, said Arius, Christ remained forever inaccessible to us.
Soon, Athanasius began to face the struggle with imperialist and Arian churchmen, a toil that occupied much of his life. His unwillingness to accede to them, and if necessary, at times harsh response against those who opposed his appointment as bishop and especially against those who disagreed with the Nicene Creed provoked unsparing hostility of the Arians. Despite the unanimous declaration of the Council, these erroneous ideas once again began to prevail. They were upheld for political reasons, especially to safeguard the unity of the empire.
Hence, the Arian crisis which was believed to have been resolved at Nicaea persisted for decades along with complicated events and painful divisions in the Church. During his thirty years as bishop, Athanasius was obliged to leave his city at least five times. He spent seventeen years in exile and suffering for the faith.
Exile and Return
However, despite his banishment, Athanasius was able to sustain and to spread the Nicene faith in the West. He lived among the hermits in the Egyptian desert with the help of St. Anthony, considered to be the most important champion of Athanasius’ faith. He had to move from one hermitage to another to escape the Arians who were plotting against him. Again and again, he proclaimed that Jesus Christ was truly God.
Finally, Athanasius was able to return to Alexandria in 365. He was reinstated in his see and devoted himself to religious pacification and the reorganization of the Christian communities. He died there around the year 373. A few years later, the Church declared that Arianism was a heresy. So the belief that Jesus is divine was passed down to us because of Athanasius, the champion of right belief. His feast day is May 2.
Five Interesting Facts About St. Athanasius
- St. Athanasius is also referred to as St. Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius the Great, Athanasius the Apostolic, or Athanasius the Confessor.
- St. Athanasius is one of the great Doctors of the Church.
- St. Athanasius was such a close friend of the great hermit St. Anthony that he received one of the two sheepskins which Anthony left as his legacy. St. Athanasius wrote the biography of St. Anthony the Abbot.
- St. Athanasius is called “the father of orthodoxy” for his absolute dedication to the doctrine of Christ’s divinity.
- St. Gregory Nazianzen, who presided over part of the Council of Nicaea, described St. Athanasius as “the true pillar of the Church”.
Prayer to St. Athanasius
Almighty ever-living God,who raised up the Bishop Saint Athanasiusas an outstanding champion of your Son’s divinity,mercifully grant,that, rejoicing in his teaching and his protection,we may never cease to grow in knowledge and love of you.Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,God, for ever and ever. Amen.