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DEFENDER OF THE FAITH WHO UNDERSTANDS OUR POSITION

Father Francis's picture
Saint Athanasius

In the early fourth century the Church was emerging from a long period of persecution. When the Emperor Constantine became a Christian and proclaimed freedom of worship for all his subjects, everyone in the Church must have heaved a sigh of relief. Yet that very freedom posed a threat, for it allowed the growth of false ideas and heresies.

A priest named Arius, from Alexandria, put forward the claim that Jesus was not truly God, equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, but a subordinate being. At Constantine's suggestion the Council of Nicaea was held in 325 to define more exactly the faith that had been handed on by the apostles. From this emerged the Nicene Creed – which we still usually say at Sunday Mass. It stated plainly that Jesus is true God and true Man, of the same substance as the Father.

One of the delegates at that Council was a young deacon, Athanasius, who made it his life's work to uphold the true teaching of the Church. Born around 297 to Christian parents living in Alexandria, he had become a keen scholar and gained a remarkable knowledge of the Scriptures, learning theology from men who had lived through the persecution. He was also on friendly terms with the desert hermits, including St. Anthony. These early associations must have given him a love for the faith and respect for the contemplative life.

At the age of 21 Athanasius became a deacon and was appointed secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria. It was in this capacity that he was sent to the Council of Nicaea and added his voice to those who promoted the true doctrine of the Church. Shortly afterwards the Bishop of Alexandria died and Athanasius was chosen to succeed him. After a full-scale visitation of his diocese he turned his attention to writing, producing many documents explaining the Church's teaching, a biography of St. Anthony the Abbot and a Creed which has been used in the Office of the Church until fairly recent times.

By condemning heresy, Athanasius attracted hostility from several quarters. Those heretical priests and bishops who had been excommunicated were determined to destroy him, and they attacked him with a number of false accusations. To make matters worse, the Christian Emperor Constantine died and Athanasius was banished from his post five times, and spent a total of 17 years in exile. He was an elderly man by the time he was finally restored to his see in Alexandra, and died there on 2 May 373, aged about 76.

Today when we think of Athanasius the first thing that comes to mind is the historic Creed which emphasizes the doctrine of the Trinity and the two natures in Jesus Christ.

Upholding this doctrine led Athanasius into isolation and exile. Did he feel alone? His time with the desert fathers must have helped him to endure his enforced solitude. Such punishment only strengthened his faith which never wavered. Are there moments in our lives when we feel isolated and rejected, and our faith is tested? Today there is very little respect for religion and we often find ourselves among groups of people who ridicule our beliefs. It can be difficult to hold on to what we know is right. Here is a saint who understands our position. He reminds us that the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity are always with us. In times of loneliness and stress, we can do no better than to recite that powerful prayer, “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.”

Saint Athanasius, pray for us.