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Great teachers in the history of the Church

The 33 Doctors of the Church
Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Cap.

“But they that are learned shall shine as the brightness of the firmament: and they that instruct many to justice, as stars for all eternity.” —Daniel 12:3

To All My Teachers . . .
Beginning with parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends;
On to teachers in kindergarten and in wood-working at public schools in Pittsburgh, PA;
To nuns at grade schools in the Pittsburgh Diocese: St. Joseph’s, Bloomfield; St. Mary’s, 46th St.; St. Mary of the Mount; St. Wendelin’s, Carrick;
To Capuchin Friars at Herman, PA; Victoria, Kansas; Washington, D.C.; and in the novitiate at Cumberland, MD;
To Jesuits and lay teachers at St. Louis University; lay and clergy teachers in Adult Ed at Catholic University;
To teachers for special courses at Hays State, KS and Bowling Green State at Bowling Green, OH; and to the chaplains at the V.A. Hospital, Washington, D.C.;
And all along, to bishops, priests and deacons proclaiming and explaining the Gospel and exhorting us to use the Sacraments and lead a good life;
And to the silent teachers speaking in measured voices from many good books—a long and varied list deserving gratitude for being shapers of mind and heart.
May they rest in peace or continue in life until we all meet happily in Heaven with the Doctors of the Church,
those most eminent shapers of minds and hearts in the Church founded by Jesus Christ.


1. St. Athanasius . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 1
The Father of Orthodoxy
c. 297-373
2. St. Ephrem . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13
Harp of the Holy Ghost
Mary’s Own Singer
Father of Hymnody
c. 306-c. 373
3. St. Cyril of Jerusalem . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25
Doctor of Catechesis
c. 315-386
4. St. Hilary of Poitiers . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 39
The Athanasius of the West
c. 315-c. 368
5. St. Gregory Nazianzen . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 47
The Theologian
The Christian Demosthenes
c. 329-c. 389
6. St. Basil the Great . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57
Father of Eastern Monasticism
c. 329-379
7. St. Ambrose . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69
Patron of the Veneration of Mary
c. 340-397
8. St. Jerome . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83
Father of Biblical Science
c. 342-c. 420
9. St. John Chrysostom . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 101
The Golden-Mouthed
Doctor of the Eucharist
c. 347-407
10. St. Augustine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 117
Doctor of Grace
Doctor of Doctors
11. St. Cyril of Alexandria . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 135
Doctor of the Incarnation
Seal of the Fathers
c. 376-444
12. Pope St. Leo the Great . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 149
Doctor of the Unity of the Church
c. 400-461
13. St. Peter Chrysologus . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 165
The Golden-Worded
c. 406-c. 450
14. Pope St. Gregory the Great . . . . . . . . . . 185
The Greatest of the Great
c. 540-604
15. St. Isidore of Seville . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 203
Schoolmaster of the Middle Ages
c. 560-636
16. St. Bede the Venerable . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 219
Father of English History
c. 673-735
17. St. John Damascene . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 233
Doctor of Christian Art
Doctor of the Assumption
c. 676-c. 749
18. St. Peter Damian . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 247
Monitor of the Popes
c. 1007-1072
19. St. Anselm . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 265
Father of Scholasticism
Defender of the Rights of the Church
20. St. Bernard of Clairvaux . . . . . . . . . . . . 281
The Mellifluous Doctor
Oracle of the Twelfth Century
Thaumaturgus of the West
Arbiter of Christendom
The Last of the Fathers
c. 1090-1153
21. St. Anthony of Padua . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 301
Doctor of the Gospel
Hammer of Heretics
Ark of Both Covenants
22. St. Albert the Great . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 321
(Albertus Magnus)
The Universal Doctor
c. 1206-1280
23. St. Bonaventure . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 341
The Seraphic Doctor
c. 1221-1274
24. St. Thomas Aquinas . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 365
The Angelic Doctor
The Common Doctor
c. 1225-1274
25. St. Catherine of Siena . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 389
The Seraphic Virgin
Mystic of the Incarnate Word
Mystic of the Mystical Body of Christ
26. St. Teresa of Avila . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 435
Doctor of Prayer
27. St. Peter Canisius . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 463
Doctor of the Catechism
28. St. Robert Bellarmine . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 487
Prince of Apologists
Gentle Doctor of The Controversies
29. St. John of the Cross . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 511
Doctor of Mystical Theology
30. St. Lawrence of Brindisi . . . . . . . . . . . . . 543
The Apostolic Doctor
31. St. Francis de Sales . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 577
The Gentleman Doctor
Patron of the Catholic Press
Everyman’s Spiritual Director
32. St. Alphonsus Liguori . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 603
Prince of Moralists
Most Zealous Doctor
Patron of Confessors and Moral Theologians
33. St. Therese of Lisieux . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 639
Doctor of The Little Way of Spiritual Childhood
Doctor of Merciful Love
Appendix I: Feast Days . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 689
Appendix II: Office of Readings . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 690

“O blessed doctor, light of holy Church and lover of God’s law, pray to the Son of God for us.”

This antiphon—to be recited or sung at the beginning and end of Our Lady’s hymn, The Magnificat, during vespers for the feast of a Doctor of the Church—was one of the distinguishing marks of the common prayers of the Divine Office for such feasts which were introduced into the liturgy by Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303) in 1298. The antiphon underscores the connection of a Doctor of the Church with light and love, with God’s law, with the Church and with the Son of God.

Today, the word “doctor” would probably conjure up in most people’s minds the image of one who is a specialist in caring for physical or mental health. But that was not its original meaning. For one thing, medical practice was not always associated with the term “doctor.” In the early days of surgery, for example, one went to the barber, the only person in town who had the kinds of instruments needed for those primitive operations. The red and white poles which hang outside barber shops are hold-overs from that earlier time, their “medical” origins, now mostly forgotten.

The term “doctor” originally derived from the Latin word docere, “to teach.” It designated anyone whose knowledge qualified him to teach, and therefore not necessarily one who would be skilled in caring for human health. But, as such, “doctors” were experts in promoting a certain kind of health—you might even say the most important kind: that health of soul and spirit which comes from knowing the truth. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32). A human being cannot be free and therefore cannot be wholly human—cannot be personally and spiritually healthy—unless he or she knows the truth. Pontius Pilate asked Jesus: “What is truth?” (John 18:38). If his question was not just one of those cruel taunts which were tossed at Jesus, the silent Lamb, during His Passion, then it shows that Pilate was at least wise enough to know that he did not yet know the truth and that he wanted to find it. Had he been able really to see Jesus for who He is, he would have found the answer to his question. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14:6). “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14).

“Doctors of the Church” are people who have seen the glory of Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth. In addition, by cooperating with God’s special graces and by employing as well as possible their unique intellectual and pedagogical gifts, they are persons who have succeeded in an outstanding way in communicating the truth they have contemplated in Jesus. As such they are eminent as teachers, which, as we have seen, corresponds precisely to the original meaning of the word “doctor.” Moreover, their teaching brings health to the human heart and soul. St. Augustine, one of the first and greatest to be recognized as a Doctor of the Church, recalling the period in his own life when he was becoming disillusioned with the emptiness of the teachings of the professedly Christian group called the Manichaeans, and yet hesitant to accept the teachings of the Catholic Church, wrote:

By believing I might have been cured, so that the sight of my mind would be clearer and might be somehow or other directed toward Your truth, which is the same forever and in no point fails. But it was the same with me as with a man who, having once had a bad doctor, is afraid to trust himself even to a good one. So it was with the health of my soul; it could not possibly be cured except by believing, but refused to be cured for fear of believing something falser. (The Confessions of St. Augustine, Book VI, chapter 4; translated by Rex Warner, New York: Mentor-Omega, 1963, page 117). For decades now, some of the most popular books published in the United States, and perhaps in other countries as well, have been the so-called “self-help” books. They promise their readers a fuller life by cooking up home remedies for the soul. I have a hunch that the present book by Fr. Christopher could be more effective than all of them together. It is not that his survey presents itself as one more title among the already long list of “self-help” books. In fact, one of the first things upon which the Doctors of the Church would insist is that human beings should not expect to find happiness by “helping themselves.” Rather, they must depend on the One whom the book of Wisdom calls the “Lord, who lovest souls.” (Wis. 11:27). But if the present book succeeds in helping people to come to know some of Christianity’s greatest teachers, and even stimulates them to read more about one or another of them and to taste some of their original works, then it will undoubtedly have a truly healing effect upon its readers. I suspect that it will do just that, especially because of the vivid and interesting way in which it presents each of these thirty-three marvelous individuals.

Fr. Christopher has the gift of making these characters come alive. He has uncovered very human anecdotes about them with which any of us can resonate, thus giving a feel for what kind of person each of these “doctors” actually was, even though they are separated from us by a considerable length of time, often by many centuries.

Who could not be struck by the triumphant return from exile of “the empire’s most wanted criminal,” St. Athanasius, to his diocese of Alexandria, when the whole city turned out to welcome him home, creating such a celebration that for years afterward any particularly grand feast was said to be “like the return of Athanasius”? What refinement and goodness is displayed by St. Francis de Sales who, when pressed by the King of France to accept a diocese in better condition than his own of Geneva— where he could not even live because the Reformation headed by John Calvin had come to dominate that city so completely— replied: “Sire, I have married a poor wife and cannot desert her for a richer.”

One will find here some unforgettable deathbed scenes, like that of the ancient scholar Bede the Venerable, who was helped by the young man who had just finished taking his last dictation to sit on the floor of his cell to pray and who died pronouncing the words “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost.” Another such scene, this one especially revelatory of the person involved, is that described in the touching account of the final illness of St. Therese of Lisieux. She had been stroking a picture of one of her favorite saints, St. Theophane Venard, and when asked why, replied: “Because I can’t reach him to kiss him.” And how can one not receive a lasting impression upon reading that St. Lawrence of Brindisi knelt down in prayer as he wrote out his sermons and undertook long journeys on foot from one European capital to another, all the while singing hymns to the Blessed Mother?

To these wonderful narrative details, sprinkled generously throughout the book, is added in each chapter something of the central doctrinal message of each saint. Thus, life and teaching form a whole, just as should be the case when the topic to be considered is not an abstract doctrine, but that truth which is wisdom. For wisdom is truth put into practice. It is not simply knowing the truth, but living it.

Solomon’s beautiful prayer for the gift of wisdom (Chapters 8-9 of the book of Wisdom) was reechoed in a most unexpected way by Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will, but thine be done.” (Luke 22:42). He lived this wisdom in the paschal mystery of His death and resurrection, about which St. Paul writes: “We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumbling block, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 1:23-24). St. Paul goes on to add: But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a wisdom which is hidden, which God ordained before the world, unto our glory: which none of the princes of this world knew; for if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written: “That eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither hath it entered into the heart of man, what things God hath prepared for them that love him.” But to us God hath revealed them by his Spirit. (1 Cor. 2:7-10).

Pope John Paul II, now at the dawn of a new millennium, has called upon all who live in the countries of North, Central and South America to meet Jesus Christ once again. By encountering the living Jesus Christ, it is possible to be converted, to establish and grow in communion with the Holy Trinity by grace and with all those who form the Church, and to reach out in solidarity toward those who suffer from injustice, poverty and any kind of disadvantage. People from the Americas can discover great examples of conversion, communion and solidarity in the Saints who have grown and lived in their lands over the
past centuries—Pope John Paul lists some thirty-five American Saints and Blesseds in paragraph 15 of his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America. Adding to these American Saints, Fr. Christopher in the present book draws our attention to another thirty-three who belong to the whole Church, on every continent, because they were so outstanding for their healthful teaching. He compares them to the star of Bethlehem, for the life and teaching of each of the Saints here presented simply points once again to Jesus. This image reflects very well another antiphon from the Divine Office for the feast day of a Doctor of the Church—that assigned to the morning Gospel canticle, the Benedictus:

But they that are learned shall shine as the brightness of the firmament: and they that instruct many to justice, as stars for all eternity. (Dan. 12:3).

Thanks are due to the author of the pages which follow, for there is much light in this book. May it guide those who today, like the Magi of old, still seek wisdom by following a star to meet Jesus Christ, the Light of the Nations, who brings truth, health and peace to the human heart.

—Fr. William Henn, O.F.M. Cap.
Professor of Theology
Gregorian University, Rome
April 26, 2000

Gratitude is owed to my Capuchin Superiors for encouragment and for arranging a Franciscan and Gospel way of life for me that allowed time for doing a little writing. Thanks are due to my Capuchin confreres who have helped in finding, checking out and returning books, or who have perhaps listened to a noisy old typewriter after dream time. Thanks also to many helpful and patient librarians at St. Louis University, St. Louis Public Library, St. Anthony Friary Library in St. Louis and the Library of Congress—in particular, to Catherine Weidle and her father Ben Weidle, who often brought books from St. Louis University along with their prayerbooks to old St. Charles Borromeo’s; to Fr. Raymond Vandergriff, O.P. at Dominican Library in Washington, D.C.; to Fr. Michael Griffin, O.C.D., Carmelite Library, Washington, D.C. and to Sister Mary Virginia Brennan, Visitation Convent, Georgetown, Washington, D.C. Thanks for other help go to Paul Brown, Michael Carrigan, Gloria Villacis, John McElroy, David Georgii, Fr. Walter Burgholdt, S.J.; to Latinist Tom Lawler; confreres Manuel Mendez and Eric Gauchet; Mrs. Brian Norwood (Lorice), librarian at Capuchin College, Washington, D.C.; to Emilio Biosca, O.F.M. Cap., who did the chart on the Office of Readings for this book; and to Fr. Joseph Mindling, O.F.M. Cap., the Censor Deputatus. Thanks also to our former Provincial, Fr. William Wiethorn, O.F.M. Cap. and Msgr. William J. Kane, former Vicar General, Washington, D.C., who gave the manuscript approval before St. Therese was made a Doctor.

Thanks go also to my brother Gerard Rengers and his wife Helen and their family for refraining from going on a clean-up spree, thereby preserving carbon copies of these chapters and saving the day after five of the originals in my possession had strayed away and found happy repose in some chosen nook of
a forgetful borrower.

Finally, thanks go to Thomas Nelson, publisher, and associates Carol Wilcox and Mary Frances Lester. One hand can do the script, but it takes many to do the book. May Mary and Joseph and the prayers of the 33 Doctors help all of the helpers.

In 1959 Pope John XXIII named the Capuchin St. Lawrence of Brindisi to the list of Doctors of the Church. This signalled for me a new challenge: It stirred the ambition to write on all the Doctors. This task has been a grace—long, interesting and arduous. My chapters on the Doctors were substantially finished about 1967; then two more were written in 1971 after Pope Paul VI added St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena, and the 33rd was written after St. Therese of Lisieux became a Doctor of the Church in 1997.

Capuchin friary libraries and the libraries of St. Louis University had ample research materials, except in a few cases. St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermons were in the friary library of St. Anthony’s Parish in St. Louis. Washington University in St. Louis had some of the just-published volumes of St. Lawrence of Brindisi, and the Library of Congress supplied a needed book on St. Ephrem. Patrologies of Quasten, Althaner and Tixeront were good guides for fundamentals on the early Doctors. All (magazine) articles on individual Doctors were checked in English-language magazines such as the American Ecclesiastical Review, Irish Ecclesiastical Review, Irish Ecclesiastical Record, The Tablet (London), Homiletic and Pastoral Review, The Priest, Thought, Catholic World, Liguorian, Messenger of the Sacred Heart, Clergy Review, Catholic Mind, Catholic Digest, Review for Religious, Catholic Historical Review, and The Pope Speaks. In Latin, the Acta Sanctae Sedis and the Acta Apostolicae Sedis had all the pertinent documents for anniversary encyclicals, Doctor declarations and other noteworthy Papal statements on the Doctors. Jacques Paul Migne’s Latin volumes on Latin and Greek authors and Ludwig von Pastor’s History of the Popes provided samples of writing and historical background.

Anniversary or other special issues of periodicals on Doctors who were members of religious orders were very helpful. For example, the Discalced Carmelites in Washington sent a copy of the special issue of their magazine when St. Teresa was made a Doctor. The Redemptorists in Rome sent a rare copy of the hymns of St. Alphonsus.

In short, research was careful, but certainly not exhaustive. The research was done in Latin and English sources. Several friends were very helpful: At St. Louis University Library, Catherine Weidle, in charge of rare books, provided frequent assistance, often bringing books from the general shelves to our sacristy in the early morning. Her father, Ben Weidle, served daily Mass into his eighties at old St. Charles Borromeo Church. Monsignor Martin Hellriegel answered many questions on Church music and liturgy. Dr. Ed Weltin, author on early Christianity and at the time Chairman of Washington University History Department, helped much in supplying a good “feel” for the first centuries, its Councils and problems. Dr. Thomas P. Neill, my own major history professor at St. Louis University, with his sweeping view of western intellectual history, had helped in providing the essential background framework. (He was also a speaker at the Doctoral Declaration Symposium for St. Lawrence of Brindisi held at Catholic University of America.) One to three months’ time was spent in the research and writing on each individual Doctor. A few of the men and the three women Doctors took longer—from six months to a year. The guiding method was to give biographical facts that seemed to be of general interest, plus anecdotes illustrating the Doctor’s personality, character and devotional bent. A sprinkling of quotes to set forth the Doctor’s place in history, literature, theology and papal documents was also part of the plan. Definite attention was given to the major writings of the Doctors and to what called them forth to meet the crises of their own age, to the import they have had over the centuries, and to what application they may have for our times.

Good St. Joseph and the individual Doctors were great as back-up resources to invoke when the Scriptural advice, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard,” was apropos. Our Sunday Visitor, which published about 20 of these chapters in a condensed form, also provided incentive. The longer versions of the chapters, published here for the first time, took on a “natural” length. No exact size was aimed for. Much of what the Doctors wrote is available chiefly or only in Greek and Latin. A good bit of work could be done to put into English more of their writings in a selective, condensed way. Needed too are full-length biographies in English of individual Doctors, especially some of the earlier Doctors.

Two valuable series of writings, not confined to the Doctors, continue to be edited and published: the Ancient Christian Writers and The Fathers of the Church. The first is published by Newman-Paulist Press, the other by the Catholic University of America Press. Fr. Walter Burghardt, S.J., Dr. John Dillon and Thomas Comerford Lawler are co-editors of Ancient Christian Writers. This series began in 1961 and has no definite “end-zone.” Volume 55 of the series came out in 1992; it was the first of five volumes of the Against the Heresies of St. Irenaeus of Lyons. Fr. Dominic Unger, O.F.M. Cap., the Capuchins’ Scripture professor in the 1940’s, did the English translation. The 1700-page typescript is being edited by Dr. John Dillon. The Fathers of the Church series, begun in 1953, aimed originally at a 100-volume set, but this number may be expanded, according to David McGonagle, Director of the Catholic University of America Press. In 1989 a Medieval continuation of the series, not included in the original 100-volume plan, began with a volume of 30 letters of St. Peter Damian. Fr. Thomas P. Halton is the present editorial director. Writings of Doctors of the Church from these two series, together with biographical facts and explanatory material, provide a ready, convenient source of reference in English. Moreover, entries in the Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) and in the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967) and in Butler’s Lives of the Saints provide easy, ready sources for English readers. (Harper and Row published a concise edition of Butler’s Lives in 1985, with a soft-cover edition in 1991.) Other easily overlooked sources of information and hints on additional materials are religious communities who have Doctors among their saints. Librarians of such communities are friendly and competent helpers.
A variety of books of short biographies of Saints’ lives include some of the Doctors. Bishop Donald Wuerl’s Fathers of the Church (1982) has Sts. Augustine, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory Nazianzen, Hilary, Ambrose, Leo the Great and Gregory the Great. The most complete book in English about the Doctors used to be The Fathers and Doctors of the Church by a New Zealand priest, Fr. Ernest Simmons (Bruce, 1959, 188 pp.). It includes 30 Doctors—all but the three women Doctors. In 1999, there appeared a book by Bernard McGinn entitled The Doctors of the Church—Thirty-Three Men and Women Who Shaped Christianity (Crossroad, NY), and in 2000 Alba House published a two-volume work by John F. Fink entitled The Doctors of the Church. At this beginning of the third millennium, there are 17 Doctors from the first millennium and 16 from the second. It is interesting to note that the current number of these chosen men and women who in life and written works portray so well the life and teachings of Jesus Christ equals the traditional number of His 33 years of earthly life. The coincidence also provides a handy way to remember that in the Church’s first two millennia there have been declared exactly 33 Doctors of the Church.
—Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Cap.
August 2, 2000
Feast of Our Lady of the Angels of the Portiuncula


If it ever happened that Creator and creature, God and man, were united in one person, all human history would have to center on that person. A God-man necessarily would enter into the warp and woof of human existence. All that is human would have to pivot on him. He would have to have a primacy in every part of human endeavor and achievement. There could be no boundaries separating him from any part of what men do, say or think.

It did happen. Creator and creature, God and man united in one Person. A messenger hurried from Heaven, and soon the only Virgin-Mother in human history hastened to her cousin Elizabeth and proclaimed: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour; because He has regarded the humility of His handmaid; for behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed, because He who is mighty has done great things for me; and holy is His name.” (Luke 1:46-49). The Son of Mary soon to be born in Bethlehem would have to be forever the center of the human race. B.C. and A.D. do not simply mark a convenient central spot in the passage of time. They represent a far deeper truth, that Jesus Christ is the essential center of all that is human in time and eternity. All are called to walk in His path, to follow His way, to listen to His teaching. All are called first to know, then to believe what He said, then to do what He commanded. Mary’s response to the Angel: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38), must find an echo in every human being; each one must respond: “Behold the servant of the Lord.”

All are called to love Jesus Christ, for He is more worthy of love than any other. All love for other human beings must bear a certain order, a right relationship to Him, to what He taught and commanded. All other people must be loved in Him. Because He enters so intimately into all that is human, there has been, there is and there will be an ongoing need, as the horizons of history and human achievement expand, to explain this one supreme Human Being and how His teaching and His life fit into the changing scene. He Himself provided for this need. He left a living teaching authority to speak in His stead.
Twelve Apostles, Teachers with Authority The Gospel of St. Matthew ends with the four great Alls: all power, all nations, all I have commanded, all days. Jesus told His Apostles: “All power is given to me in heaven and in earth. Going therefore, teach ye all nations; baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.” (Matt. 28:18-20).

Jesus, the God-man, chose twelve men to carry His message to the world. He chose one of them in particular to strengthen the faith of and lead the others. The twelve men were Apostles, which means men sent forth. As Jesus had commanded, eleven of them—plus others, about 120 in all—gathered to await strength and enlightenment from the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus had promised would come. “All these were persevering with one mind in prayer with the women, and Mary the Mother of Jesus, and with His brethren.” (Acts 1:14). Jesus knew there would be problems and questions. So He left a teaching authority to speak for Him. He built His Church on the Apostles. He promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide His followers to the End of Time. In His always gentle, though sometimes fiery way, the Holy Spirit gives His gifts to people. The fullness of the gifts of guidance and authority He reserves for the successors of the Apostles, and in a particular way for the successor of Peter, the Pope. (Matthew 16 and John 21). The Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of the New Testament show over and over again that there were problems to be solved and questions to answer in the early Church. In the first millennium, some venerable teachers, towering in wisdom, who explained Jesus Christ and His message, have merited to be called Fathers of the Church. A few of this group have been singled out with the special title of Doctor of the Church. The title simply grew up as a popular epithet. Later, the Church officially recognized more Doctors. The first women Doctors were St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena. Pope Paul VI proclaimed them Doctors on his own initiative in 1970.

The Doctors Help the Teaching Authority

There are three requisites for this highly distinguished title: holiness of life, importance and orthodoxy of writings, and official recognition by the Church. The learning of the Doctors enlightens our minds. Their hearts speak to our hearts. They help us to answer the questions about Jesus Christ: who He is, what He taught, what He wants us to do, how to be more like Him. The Doctors were followers of Christ who entered deeply into the questions and problems of their time concerning Him.

The early centuries of the Christian era faced fundamental questions about the nature and person of Jesus Himself. The Acts of the Apostles and the New Testament epistles give a conspectus of what to expect. From the beginning there were teachers who distorted the words and acts of Jesus. Warning after warning against aberrations in doctrine comes through the epistles of St. Paul, St. Peter and St. James. Through the centuries, sparks of controversy have served to light flames in the hearts of champions for the truth. Great teachers and writers have helped to make clear what was being questioned. By preaching, teaching and writing, they took part in the ongoing quest for a deeper understanding of the truth about Jesus Christ. The scope of the questions widened, like a circle of waters rippling away from the center. But the focus was always on Jesus and His message.

The Doctors Are Safe Guides

The Doctors of the Church speak with a clear voice. They tend to cluster around the great Councils. They are champions of orthodox teaching, sounding a clear note in a babble of confusion, paving the way in a time of crisis, pointing out a sure path in times of doubt. Because they have clear vision, they are safe guides. Because they are saints, they are fully human. Often they show this in strong love and affection for family and friends. They give generously to all people, especially to the suffering, the sick and poor and to the poorest of all, sinners rushing on toward spiritual ruin and loss of Heaven. Often the pages of the Doctors glisten with tears shed over the person they were writing to, or because of their depth of feeling over someone’s resistance to truth, seeing how this hindered the cause of Christ and frustrated the cause of His Church. Their writings have a fully human approach, embedded in the history and culture of their time and place. Most often they wrote to answer an immediate need of a person, of the Church, or of civil society. Their writing is thus not abstract or merely intellectual. Especially in earlier times, they were not writing for publication. Their writing has punch and it names names. The Doctors used their pen as a weapon for embattled truth, and the truth involved Jesus Christ and those He suffered and died for. The individual personalities of the Doctors run the gamut. Some were very tough, some very sensitive. John Chrysostom walked the last weary miles of exile in forgiving silence. Cyril of Alexandria, defender of Our Lady as the Theotokos—the Godbearer—died with a prayer to Mary on his lips. His enemies, against whom he had shown himself very tough, suggested that a very heavy stone be put on his grave so that he would not show himself again. Sensitive Gregory of Nazianzen struggled through many years to forgive another Doctor and his closest friend, Basil the Great. He forgave, but hurt feelings lingered. We also find other memorable relationships among the Doctors: Ambrose who converted Augustine, Albert who taught Thomas Aquinas. The Doctors include choleric St. Jerome and gentle St. Francis de Sales.

The Doctors spoke and wrote with unadorned directness. They were not image-conscious, not camera-conscious, posing for history. They drove hard for the immediate objectives of their writing and preaching. The Doctors have helped to shape the decrees of the twenty-one General Councils of the Church. Their writings have inspired and shaped the hearts and minds of uncounted millions who follow the God-man. The Doctors bring us an important part of our Christian heritage. In some ways, through the varied channels of world communications, their writings have entered into the proverbs of the people and the literature of the masters of prose and poetry. The eminence of these thirty-three as Doctors of the Universal Church shines forth as evidence of God’s special Providence. Their writings tell us of the ongoing guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

The Questions about Jesus Go On

The early questions about Jesus Christ—who He is, what He did and said, what He wants us to do—have never stopped. The succeeding centuries reveal the old questions hiding under new names. It has to be that way. There was once a Man in the Mediterranean area, visible like all of us. Others could see Him, hear Him, talk to Him, embrace Him or strike Him with a whip; yet He could also say with full truth: I am God. In one Person He united the eternal Son of God and the human nature received from a human mother. He grew in the dark security of her womb for nine months. He was born and lived for 33 years. He died and rose again. He ascended into Heaven and promised to return one day to judge all humanity. Even as man He has the full right to do so, for He is King of Creation. He is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. . . . all things were created by Him and in Him. He is before all, and by Him all things consist.” (Col. 1:15-17). He can claim every throne, every presidency, every position of leadership anywhere. Nothing human in this world lies beyond His control or His possession. It is impossible that questions about Him should not continue to challenge the greatest of minds— or that He should not continue to comfort the weak and confound the proud.

As old Simeon said in the Temple at Jerusalem, He is a sign that shall be contradicted. He is set for the fall and for the resurrection of many in Israel. (Luke 2:34). Mary asked the first question about Jesus. The angel Gabriel answered it: “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee. And therefore also the Holy One which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35). Joseph struggled silently with the first question about Mary. He came to the wrong decision and was corrected by an angel in a dream. Elizabeth asked at Ain-Karim in sheer amazement: “And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43).

The questions of Joseph and Elizabeth about Mary were ultimately questions about Jesus. The same is true today in questions about the Blessed Virgin’s spiritual maternity of the Church as spouse of the Holy Spirit. Like Joseph’s, today’s questions may be perplexing and painful. Like Elizabeth’s, they may be exclamatory and joyful. It is thus with all the questions that come up regarding the ramifications of Christian doctrine and practice: about Saints and Sacraments, Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, authority, liberty; all are ultimately questions about what Jesus Christ did and said, questions about what He wants, about what He has said is unchangeable and what may be changed. In the Temple at the age of twelve, Jesus answered the questions of the learned doctors. His mother asked him a direct and pained question: “Son, why hast Thou done so to us? Behold in sorrow Thy father and I have been seeking Thee.” He answered by putting to her two more questions: “How is it that you sought Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49).

Mary and Joseph took Jesus home to Nazareth. By silent prayer, by much reflection, by the events and conversation of daily living, they little by little learned more about the Son under their roof—the Son so close to their hearts, so close to them in affection and obedience, yet so elusive to them in His pursuit of the Father’s plan in His life.

Jesus on the New Horizons of Today
The explosive expansion of human achievement in the past century—in communications, in travel, in exploration of the universe, in piercing some of the secrets locked in the tiniest pieces of matter—will raise inevitable new questions about Jesus Christ and all that pertains to Him. Our present era has exciting questions about the consciousness of Jesus, the formative influence on Him by Mary and Joseph, and the relation of His teaching to modern medicine, science, space exploration and to the proper distribution of the territories and goods abundantly supplied by the Creator. But this is still Christ’s universe—even as man. The mystery of Him will become clearer and more intimate, but as in the case of Mary and Joseph, He will remain elusive, for the expansion of horizons will reveal questions about Him on more distant horizons. These will serve to help us understand that in eternity the finite creature will pursue the infinite Creator endlessly: always knowing more, loving more, yet always swept along to more distant vistas. The Day of Eternity is an endless dawn.

A review of the 33 Doctors of the Church will help show us where we have been for 20 centuries and 21 General Councils. The light cast by the Doctors is a beam onto the present and into the future. A look at the Doctors helps bring understanding of the place of Jesus in the life of our times and, more importantly, in our own lives. The Doctors are specialists among specialists. Collectively their hand is on the pulse of all that is Christian. They help us understand the need for an immense patience in learning about Jesus. They give us a valuable clue about the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. None of the Holy Spirit’s work is to be snubbed. It comes through Scripture and Tradition, through the liturgy, through the strong central current of the Faith as it exists in the followers of Jesus, through special gifts given to some persons, and through private revelations, especially those meant for the Church and the world. It comes through the careful sifting of scholars. The mosaic of the Holy Spirit’s work continues to be put into place, bit by bit, according to the plans of the Father. But all must be tested, and the final decision is made by those who speak for Jesus Christ in today’s world: the Holy Father,
successor of Peter, and the bishops collectively as successors of the Apostles.

The Next Doctor?

As time goes on, there can be more Doctors chosen by the Church. We need new champions who guide minds and hearts by the clarity of their teachings. Who will be the next Doctor of the Church? This is difficult to say. St. Therese of Lisieux’s proclamation as a Doctor of the Church came as a surprise to many, if not most Catholics. One name that has been suggested is that of St. Louis De Montfort (1673-1716), so influential by his writings in promoting the Rosary and total consecration to Our Lady. Most of his writings are now available in a volume entitled God Alone, while his Marian writings have become famous: The Secret of the Rosary, True Devotion to Mary and The Secret of Mary. Franciscans have long cherished a hope that Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) would be canonized and honored by the title of Doctor of the Church. He is honored by Franciscans as a Blessed, and his Cause for Canonization is current.

Another saint whose name has been suggested by speculators is St. John Bosco (1815-1888), the 19th-century wonder-worker known for his prophetic dreams, miracles, deep understanding of Christian education and also for his writings. Without even knowing it, we may assist at the Mass of a future Doctor of the Church. His hand may have touched us in blessing. A saintly woman writer of today may be a Doctor of the Church tomorrow. But one thing is sure. The 33 Doctors of the Church have already touched us by helping the Church to have a deeper understanding of the doctrine we cherish and the piety we practice. They are all stars of Bethlehem, and each in some way has pointed out where Jesus is and has invited us to come and adore Him.
—Fr. Christopher Rengers, O.F.M. Cap.

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The Father of Orthodoxy
c. 297-373

A great controversy that involved emperors, popes and bishops, that stirred up intrigue and bloodshed, that shook Christianity to its depths, centered on one simple, sure answer in the Catechism. The answer goes very simply: “The chief teaching of the Catholic Church about Jesus Christ is that He is God made man.” In the providence of God, one man more than any other made the right answer prevail. Because of his championship of this fundamental truth he is called “The Father of Orthodoxy”— “orthodoxy” meaning “right teaching.” Cardinal Newman compares him to St. Paul as a defender of Christ’s divine Sonship. He calls him “Royal-hearted Athanase, with Paul’s own mantle blest.”

Counting from the date of his birth, St. Athanasius, defender of Christ’s divine Sonship, is the earliest Doctor of the Church. It is fitting that the first man to merit this rare title of honor should have earned it by devotion to a truth of such primary importance. St. Athanasius defended the divine Sonship at the cost of immense personal discomfort, suffering and danger. His whole life was shaped around his defense of the divinity of Christ at a time when powerful imperial forces, and perhaps even the majority of churchmen, had fallen into the Arian Heresy. This situation is summed up in the famous saying: Athanasius contra mundum—“Athanasius against the world.” At a famous meeting at Milan between the Emperor Constantius and Pope Liberius, the Emperor had challenged the Pope: “Who are you to stand up for Athanasius against the world?”

St. Athanasius’ life was a life of high adventure that developed precisely from his firm adherence to and clear exposition of the doctrine that Christ is the true Son of God. From the Emperor Julian’s description of St. Athanasius as a “manikin,” we gather that he was not very tall. In earlier years his hair was auburn, later turning white. He was energetic in manner, bright and pleasing of countenance, with vivacious eyes; he was engaging and pleasing in conversation. St. Gregory Nazianzen said that St. Athanasius was hospitable to strangers, kindly to suppliants, accessible to all, slow to anger, pleasant in conversation, still more pleasant in temper, effective alike in discourse and in action, assiduous in devotions, helpful to Christians of every class and age . . . a theologian with the speculative, a comfort to the afflicted, a staff to the aged, a guide of the young, a physician to the sick . . . a prelate as St. Paul described by anticipation, when in writing to Timothy he showed what a bishop ought to be.

“The Father of Orthodoxy”
St. Athanasius first attracted considerable attention at the First Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D., where he had accompanied Alexander, then Patriarch of Alexandria. Here the term homoousios, “of one substance,” was formally introduced to describe the consubstantiality of God the Son with God the Father. The term homo-ousios, or “consubstantial,” was to become the watchword and standard of orthodoxy. Here the creed known as the Nicene Creed was essentially formulated, though not yet completely. St. Athanasius championed the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, explaining with clarity and force why the Son was equal to and consubstantial with the Father. The First Council of Nicaea anathematized the teaching of Arius, but the Arian struggle was to continue for 50 years. Five months after the Council of Nicaea, Alexander, Patriarch of Alexandria, died. The bishops of Egypt, spurred on in part by the enthusiastic cries of the people: “Give us Athanasius! He will be a bishop indeed,” elected the youthful Athanasius to be the Bishop of Alexandria. He was then just about 30 years old.

The exact date of his birth is not known. He was born about 297 A.D. and died on May 2, 373. Nothing is known of his family. From the thoroughness of his education, it is presumed that he came from well-to-do parents who could afford a good education. But he could have received much of this through the influence of Alexander, who very likely took early notice of him and brought him into the episcopal household.

The Empire’s Most-Wanted “Criminal”
When one thinks of a bishop, one pictures him as residing in his diocese, directing its affairs. If he is banished or martyred, that is the dramatic end of the story. St. Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria, Egypt for almost 47 years. During that time he was driven into exile not once, but five times, and by four different Roman emperors: Constantine, Constantius, Julian and Valens. His banishment by Julian lasted as he had predicted, just a short time. The first exile—that under Constantine—was from February 5, 336 until November 23, 337. The time spent away from his see under Constantius and Valens covered at least 10 actual years. The gathering storms that led to his flights or banishments covered many of the other years of his life. In between, he did have some periods of relative calm in which to administer his patriarchate.

But the bitter enemies that sought to destroy him were always at work plotting, at times trying to have him discredited and condemned by Church councils, at times whispering lies against him into the ears of the Emperor, trying—and at times succeeding—in having him removed from his bishopric. For some time he was officially condemned to death. He was often in danger of being killed by fierce personal enemies. The roughness of the times is shown by the fact that two usurpers to his see of Alexandria, Gregory and George, both met violent ends. The latter was kicked to death by the pagans of the city, who disliked him so much that his body was then burned and his ashes flung into the sea.

Both these usurping bishops were Arians. They followed Arius, the tall, pale heresiarch who denied that Christ is really God. Arius was a priest of Alexandria. The most active persecutor of St. Athanasius, however, was the Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia. This powerful, scheming diplomat never gave up. He invented one false charge after another against Athanasius; he won over the Emperor Constantius II to the Arian viewpoint and made him the “scourge and torment” of Athanasius. Constantius said that he would prize a victory over Athanasius more than over Silvanus or Magnentius, his political enemies.
Constantius II eventually stood alone as undisputed ruler of the empire. He had overcome all opposition. Even Hosius of Cordova, who had been the presiding bishop at Nicaea, when beyond the age of 100 was browbeaten and literally beaten into signing an Arian creed (357 A.D.).

Appeals to Rome
When St. Athanasius, who was Patriarch of an important Eastern diocese, was deposed by Eastern Arian bishops, he appealed to Rome. Writing to the Emperor, he said: “When I left Alexandria, I did not go to your brother’s headquarters or to any other persons, but only to Rome; and having laid my case before the Church (for this was my only concern), I spent my time in the public worship.” (Quoted in Upon This Rock, Stephen Ray, ed., Ignatius Press, 1999, p. 201).

In his correspondence, St. Athanasius has also preserved for posterity the celebrated letter of Pope St. Julius I, which defended Athanasius and restored the bishopric from which he had been wrongfully deposed. The letter of Julius called the action of the Arian bishops a novel action, indicating that earlier practice had been to refer such cases to Rome. Instead, the bishops had deposed Athanasius and then sent legates to ask approval for their action. Pope St. Julius writes: Why was nothing said to us [Pope Julius and the Roman Church] concerning the Church of the Alexandrians in particular? Are you ignorant that the custom has been for word to be written first to us, and then for a just decision to be passed from this place? If then any such suspicion rested upon the Bishop there, notice thereof ought to have been sent to the Church of this place [Rome]; whereas, after neglecting to inform us, and proceeding on their own authority as they pleased, now they desire to obtain our concurrence in their decisions, though we never condemned him.

Not so have the constitutions of Paul, not so have the traditions of the Fathers directed; this is another form of procedure, a novel practice. I beseech you, readily bear with me; what I write is for the common good. For what we have received from the blessed Apostle Peter, that I signify to you; and I should not have written this, as deeming that these things were manifest unto all men, had not these proceedings so disturbed us. (Quoted in Upon This Rock, pp. 199-200).

On a less happy note, we have the equally famous (though disputed) signature of Pope Liberius on a weak Christological statement, known in history as “the fall of Liberius.” Though historians are not unanimous, it is widely agreed that, under duress, Pope Liberius signed an Arian or semi-Arian formula— which he later retracted—and that at one point he signed a condemnation or excommunication of St. Athanasius. This temporary lapse on the part of Pope Liberius is referred to by St. Jerome, by St. Athanasius himself, St. Hilary and by the famous 5thcentury historian Sozomen. Cardinal Newman treats of the fall of Liberius in his The Arians of the Fourth Century. Rev. Alban Butler in his classic Lives of the Saints wrote that Pope Liberius “yielded to the snare laid for him, to the great scandal of the Church. He subscribed the condemnation of St. Athanasius and a confession or creed which had been framed by the Arians at Sirmium. . . .”

The document which Pope Liberius signed while in exile was likely that of the first formula of Sirmium. The formula was not heretical, but it was defective and weak because it omitted the term homo-ousios. The case of Pope Liberius passed scrutiny at Vatican Council I (1869-1870), which defined papal infallibility. Liberius, strong defender of Athanasius and of the doctrine of the Council of Nicaea, but weakened by the rigors of exile and apparently hoping to return to Rome, had signed a defective formula. Athanasius mentions the fact in his history of the Arians (Apologia contra Arianos). Pope Liberius’ weakness was both preceded and followed by firmness in upholding the true Catholic teaching. The fall of Liberius was a temporary lapse, of which he soon repented, and Liberius is now Saint Liberius. In these times St. Jerome could express his feelings with the sad exaggeration: “The whole world groaned and was amazed to find itself Arian.” But the symbol of opposition to Arianism, its powerful antagonist, could not be subdued. When Constantius wanted to end the story by killing him, St. Athanasius escaped into the desert.

The importance of St. Athanasius to the Catholic cause can be judged by the universal opposition of those who wanted to make the world Arian, or at least semi-Arian. It can be judged from the political importance of those who sought to destroy him. When the new Emperor, Julian the Apostate, wanted to restore paganism, his advisers told him that the worship of the gods could not be re-established with the Archbishop of Alexandria on the scene. It was then that Julian contemptuously called St. Athanasius “this manikin” and threatened him with worse than banishment.

The Adventures of Athanasius
St. Athanasius fled Alexandria and was pursued up the Nile. When the imperial officers were gaining on him, he ordered his boat turned around. At the time it was still hidden from the pursuers by a bend in the river. When the two boats crossed paths, the Roman officers, not personally knowing Athanasius, shouted out, asking if anyone had seen Athanasius. St. Athanasius himself answered them: “He is not very far off.” The other boat hastily continued up the river. Had he wanted to, St. Athanasius could have written a very interesting account of his hairbreadth escapes. He was a fugitive for many years. He is said to have returned at times in disguise to Alexandria. Even if this is not true, the fact that he was the most wanted “criminal” in the Roman Empire for such a long time would have meant a constant dependence upon places of hiding and shelter; it would have meant a great deal of quick thinking to escape arrest.

At one time St. Athanasius was accused of practicing magic. This was a charge not easy to refute, as it immediately stirred up fear. His accusers showed a wooden box holding the blackened, withered hand of a dead man. This, they said, was the hand of Arsenius, the bishop of Hypsele. They claimed he had been poisoned by Athanasius, who had allegedly also cut off his hand and used it in the practice of magic. Even after St. Athanasius had refuted all the other charges levied against him at this particular time, the suspicion of practicing magic lingered. Then, in the presence of a council of bishops at Tyre in 335, St. Athanasius dramatically introduced Arsenius, who was supposed to be dead. Arsenius was clothed in a long-sleeved robe. Athanasius asked him to put forth slowly first one hand, and then the other. “You see,” he told the council, “he has two hands. Where is the third, which I cut off? God has created men with two hands only.”

It was at this same council that a woman, bribed to accuse St. Athanasius of immorality, was brought forward. On this occasion a priest named Timothy did some quick thinking and stood up to confront the woman: “Do you really accuse me of this crime?” he asked. She replied, “Certainly,” thus showing the whole group that she did not even know St. Athanasius by sight.

His Writings
A convenient sample of St. Athanasius’ many writings is provided by the eleven Readings used in the Liturgy of the Hours as published in 1971. The earliest of the Doctors of the Church greets us on the first day of each year, now observed as the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God. The selected Reading II for the day shows his “clarity, precision and simplicity,” qualities by which the great patrologist, Johannes Quasten, characterizes the style of St. Athanasius. In this passage St. Athanasius declares:

Gabriel used careful and prudent language when he announced His [Christ’s] birth. He did not speak of “what will be born in you,” in order to avoid the impression that a body would be introduced into her womb from outside; he spoke of “what will be born from you,” so that we might know by faith that her child originated within her and from her . . . What was born of Mary was therefore human by nature, in accordance with the inspired Scriptures, and the body of the Lord was a true body: It was a true body because it was the same as ours. Mary, you see, is our sister, for we are all born from Adam . . . Even when the Word takes a body from Mary, the Trinity remains a Trinity, with neither increase nor decrease. It is forever perfect. In the Trinity we acknowledge one Godhead; and thus one God, the Father of the Word, is proclaimed in the Church. (Letter to Epictetus).

St. Athanasius’ Letter to Epictetus was written in answer to questions put by Epictetus, Bishop of Corinth. The questions concerned the relationship of the historical Christ to the Eternal Son. The Letter gained much respect and would be used by the Council of Chalcedon in 451 A.D. as the expression of its own conclusions. The opening lines of the Letter illustrate St. Athanasius’ direct attack in fighting for the precious truths called into question.

What lower region has vomited forth the statement that the body born of Mary is co-essential with the Godhead of the Word? . . . Whoever heard in the Church, or even from Christians, that the Lord wore a body putatively, not in nature?

Reading II for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity is also taken from St. Athanasius. It is addressed to St. Serapion of Thmuis, who was himself a bishop and an influential writer. The Four Letters of St. Athanasius to him are in effect the first formal treatise on the Holy Spirit. The Reading for Trinity Sunday is from the First Letter to Serapion:

It will not be out of place to consider the ancient tradition, teaching and faith of the Catholic Church, which was revealed by the Lord, proclaimed by the Apostles and guarded by the Fathers. For upon this faith the Church is built, and if anyone were to lapse from it, he would no longer be a Christian, either in fact or in name . . . We acknowledge the Trinity, holy and perfect, to consist of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. In this Trinity there is no intrusion of any alien 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 . . .

Strange to say, a long interval of time separates the writing of St. Athanasius’ most notable books. Against the Pagans was written in 318, and On the Incarnation of the Word of God in 323 (both when St. Athanasius was only in his twenties), but his three Discourses against the Arians were not written until 368. Among his Festal Letters, sent yearly to suffragan bishops to announce Lenten practice and the Easter date, the one for 367 A.D. has special importance. It lists, for the first time we have a record of them, the 27 canonical books of the New Testament. The Old Testament list of St. Athanasius, however, does not include the deutero-canonical books of the Old Testament. Among his other letters, the Letter Concerning the Decrees of the Nicene Council defends the non-scriptural expressions in the Nicene Creed.

Some today think that the familiar Athanasian Creed, known also as the Quicumque, is actually not the work of St. Athanasius, though our tradition has long attributed it to him, and its tone is typical of his strong defense of the Faith and his entire cast of mind. Before the 1971 changes in the Liturgy, the Athanasian Creed, consisting of 40 rhythmic statements, had been used in the Sunday Office for over a thousand years. It closes with the words: “This is the Catholic Faith, which, except a man believe faithfully and firmly, he cannot be saved.” That the name of St. Athanasius should have been attached to it attests to his renown as a teacher of orthodoxy, that is, of a fully correct belief in what Jesus Christ teaches, as given to us in Scripture, Tradition and liturgical practice.

Evidence of Early Devotion to Mary
Because of his great defense of Christ as true God and true man, St. Athanasius was also a strong defender of Mary, His Mother. One cannot define Jesus and His place in God’s plan without defining Mary and her place in God’s plan. But St. Athanasius also had a warm, devotional attitude to Mary. A remarkable passage from one of his homilies makes this clear. And since a homily also reflects the heart and mind of the people, the passage also points to early popular devotion to our Blessed Mother.

O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all. O [Ark of the New] Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides. Should I compare you to the fertile earth and its fruits? You surpass them, for it is written: “The earth is my footstool.” (Is. 66:1). But you carry within you the feet, the head, and the entire
body of the perfect God. If I say that heaven is exalted, yet it does not equal you, for it is written: “Heaven is my throne” (Is. 66:1), while you are God’s place of repose. If I say that the angels and archangels are great—but you are greater than them all, for the angels and archangels serve with trembling the One who dwells in your womb, and they dare not speak in His presence, while you speak to Him freely. If we say that the cherubim are great, you are greater than they, for the cherubim carry the throne of God (cf. Ps. 80:1; 99:1), while you hold God in your hands. If we say that the seraphim are great, you are greater than them all, for the seraphim cover their faces with their wings (cf. Is. 6:2), unable to look upon the perfect glory, while you not only gaze upon His face but caress it and offer your breasts to His holy mouth. . . .

As for Eve, she is the mother of the dead, “for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” (1 Cor. 15:22). Eve took [fruit] from the tree and made her husband eat of it along with her. And so they ate of that tree of which God had told them: “The day you eat of it, you shall die.” (Gen. 2:17). Eve took [fruit] from it, ate some of it, and gave some to her husband [that he might eat] with her. He ate of it, and he died. In you, instead, O wise Virgin, dwells the Son of God: He, that is, who is the tree of life. Truly He has given us His body, and we have eaten of it. That is how life came to all, and all have come to life by the mercy of God, your beloved Son. That is why your spirit is full of joy in God your Savior! (Quoted in Luigi Gambero, S.M., Mary and the Fathers of the Church, Ignatius Press, 1999, pp. 106-107).

His Place in People’s Hearts and in History
If St. Athanasius had bitter enemies, he also had loyal, devoted friends. The affection of the Alexandrians for their bishop never lessened during his many vicissitudes. His returns from exile were unmitigated triumphs. Hundreds of thousands of people streamed out of the city to meet him on his second return, in 346. Carpets and tapestries were spread out. Palms were waved. Shouting and clapping rolled out in a continuous wave of sound. The event became proverbial to describe a festive occasion. If there was a really extraordinary celebration, it was “like the return of Athanasius.” Moreover, the Patriarch’s return did not wear itself out in one big demonstration. Such was his influence that the vigorous pursuit of prayer and holiness continued on in homes and churches. Besides his many writings setting forth the doctrine of the Incarnation and giving the history of the Arians and refuting them, St. Athanasius wrote the famous Life of St. Antony (of the Desert). His authorship of this book, once attacked, is now considered certain.

The Life of St. Antony had much importance in making known the early history of monasticism and in helping to develop it. St. Augustine in his Confessions speaks of the Life of St. Antony as a deciding influence in his own conversion. One of the strange twists of history is that St. Antony has stirred the imagination of many artists, who have represented him in sculpture and paintings; whereas, St. Athanasius himself, who made St. Antony known and who had a more influential and interesting career, is unknown to art. St. Athanasius was a careful user of words. His comment about his own works on the divinity of Christ is a good example: “That which I wrote was unequal to the imperfect shadow of the truth which existed in my conceptions.” Erasmus compared St. Athanasius to other early Church writers and considered him free from their various faults. He said that St. Athanasius was “clear, acute, reasonable, appropriate; in short, fitted in all ways for teaching.” Cardinal Newman says: . . . “In my own judgment, no one comes near him but Chrysostom and Jerome.”

Such praise from two classicists of the stature of Erasmus and Cardinal Newman is high indeed. It is, however, only fitting that the defender of the most important teaching about Christ in the Catechism should be a writer of the highest skill. A number of Fathers of the Church have pointed out that there is a kind of divine judgment in the names of heretical factions. In their very names they show their origins. St. Jerome says, for instance, “If you ever hear those who are called Christians named, not from the Lord Jesus Christ, but from someone else, say, Marcionites, Valentinians, Montanists, Campestrians, know that it is not Christ’s Church, but the synagogue of Anti-Christ.”

Pacian pointed out that the word “Catholic” is not borrowed from man. He wrote, “Christian is my name, Catholic my surname.” The Arians tried to pin a name on Catholics, calling them “Athanasians.” The name did not stick; it was used only by Arians. But the attempt to use it is an unintentional tribute to St. Athanasius.

Today, unfortunately, there is not much general knowledge about St. Athanasius. He is not what we call a popular saint. It would be well if he were a popular saint, for we need his spirit and his arguments once again in the Church. For the divinity of Christ is again under attack today, as are many other dogmas. When our present-day champions of the Faith speak out, they indeed stand on the shoulders and in the tradition of St. Athanasius. He is, as Cardinal Newman says, “a principal instrument, after the Apostles, by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world.” His feast day occurs on May 2.

Taken from The 33 Doctors of the Church by TAN Books & Publishers, Inc.

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