|Venerated in East and West as a pillar of
Christian orthodoxy, Athanasius championed the full divinity and
consubstantiality of the Son with the Father
Wednesday, 20 June , prior to the General Audience, the Holy Father spoke
briefly in various languages to pilgrims gathered in St. Peter's Basilica.
He then went to the Paul VI Auditorium for the General Audience.
Continuing his Catecheses on the Teachers of the early Church, the
Holy Father commented this week on St. Athanasius of Alexandria. The
following are translations of the Pope's brief Address in St. Peter's and
of his Catechesis in the Paul VI Hall.
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Continuing our revisitation of the great Teachers of the ancient
Church, let us focus our attention today on St. Athanasius of Alexandria.
Only a few years after his death, this authentic protagonist of the
Christian tradition was already hailed as "the pillar of the Church" by
Gregory of Nazianzus, the great theologian and Bishop of Constantinople (Orationes,
21, 26), and he has always been considered a model of orthodoxy in both
East and West.
As a result, it was not by chance that Gian Lorenzo Bernini placed his
statue among those of the four holy Doctors of the Eastern and Western
Churches — together with the images of Ambrose, John Chrysostom and
Augustine — which surround the Chair of St. Peter in the marvellous apse
of the Vatican Basilica.
Athanasius was undoubtedly one of the most important and revered early
Church Fathers. But this great Saint was above all the impassioned
theologian of the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God who — as the
Prologue of the fourth Gospel says — "became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn
For this very reason Athanasius was also the most important and
tenacious adversary of the Arian heresy, which at that time threatened
faith in Christ, reduced to a creature "halfway" between God and man,
according to a recurring tendency in history which we also see manifested
today in various forms.
In all likelihood Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in about
the year 300 A.D. He received a good education before becoming a deacon
and secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria, the great Egyptian metropolis.
As a close collaborator of his Bishop, the young cleric took part with him
in the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical Council, convoked by the
Emperor Constantine in May 325 A.D. to ensure Church unity. The Nicene
Fathers were thus able to address various issues and primarily the serious
problem that had arisen a few years earlier from the preaching of the
Alexandrian priest, Arius.
With his theory, Arius threatened authentic faith in Christ, declaring
that the Logos was not a true God but a created God, a creature
"halfway" between God and man who hence remained for ever inaccessible to
us The Bishops gathered in Nicaea responded by developing and establishing
the "Symbol of faith" ["Creed"] which, completed later at the First
Council of Constantinople, has endured in the traditions of various
Christian denominations and in the liturgy as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan
In this fundamental text — which expresses the faith of the undivided
Church and which we also recite today, every Sunday, in the Eucharistic
celebration — the Greek term homooúsios is featured, in Latin
consubstantialis: it means that the Son, the Logos, is "of the
same substance" as the Father, he is God of God, he is his substance.
Thus, the full divinity of the Son, which was denied by the Arians, was
brought into the limelight.
In 328 A.D., when Bishop Alexander died, Athanasius succeeded him as
Bishop of Alexandria. He showed straightaway that he was determined to
reject any compromise with regard to the Arian theories condemned by the
Council of Nicaea.
Athanasius' treatment of Arians
His intransigence — tenacious and, if necessary, at times harsh —
against those who opposed his episcopal appointment and especially against
adversaries of the Nicene Creed, provoked the implacable hostility of the
Arians and philo-Arians.
Despite the unequivocal outcome of the Council, which clearly affirmed
that the Son is of the same substance as the Father, these erroneous ideas
shortly thereafter once again began to prevail — in this situation even
Arius was rehabilitated —, and they were upheld for political reasons by
the Emperor Constantine himself and then by his son Constantius II.
Moreover, Constantine was not so much concerned with theological truth
but rather with the unity of the Empire and its political problems; he
wished to politicize the faith, making it more accessible — in his opinion
— to all his subjects throughout the Empire.
Thus, the Arian crisis, believed to have been resolved at Nicaea,
persisted for decades with complicated events and painful divisions in the
Church. At least five times — during the 30 years between 336 and 366 A.D.
— Athanasius was obliged to abandon his city, spending 17 years in exile
and suffering for the faith. But during his forced absences from
Alexandria, the Bishop was able to sustain and to spread in the West,
first at Trier and then in Rome, the Nicene faith as well as the ideals of
monasticism, embraced in Egypt by the great hermit, Anthony, with a choice
of life to which Athanasius was always close.
St. Anthony, with his spiritual strength, was the most important
champion of St. Athanasius' faith. Reinstated in his See once and for all,
the Bishop of Alexandria was able to devote himself to religious
pacification and the reorganization of the Christian communities. He died
on 2 May 373, the day when we celebrate his liturgical Memorial.
The most famous doctrinal work of the holy Alexandrian Bishop is his
treatise: De Incarnatione, On the Incarnation of the Word,
the divine Logos who was made flesh, becoming like one of us for our
In this work Athanasius says with an affirmation that has rightly
become famous that the Word of God "was made man so that we might be made
God; and he manifested himself through a body so that we might receive the
idea of the unseen Father; and he endured the insolence of men that we
might inherit immortality" (54, 3). With his Resurrection, in fact, the
Lord banished death from us like "straw from the fire" (8, 4).
The fundamental idea of Athanasius' entire theological battle was
precisely that God is accessible. He is not a secondary God, he is the
true God and it is through our communion with Christ that we can truly be
united to God. He has really become "God-with-us".
Among the other works of this great Father of the Church — which remain
largely associated with the events of the Arian crisis — let us remember
the four epistles he addressed to his friend Serapion, Bishop of Thmuis,
on the divinity of the Holy Spirit which he clearly affirmed, and
approximately 30 "Festal" Letters addressed at the beginning of each year
to the Churches and monasteries of Egypt to inform them of the date of the
Easter celebration, but above all to guarantee the links between the
faithful, reinforcing their faith and preparing them for this great
Lastly, Athanasius also wrote meditational texts on the Psalms,
subsequently circulated widely, and in particular, a work that constitutes
the bestseller of early Christian literature: The Life of
Anthony, that is, the biography of St. Anthony Abbot. It was written
shortly after this Saint's death precisely while the exiled Bishop of
Alexandria was staying with monks in the Egyptian desert.
Athanasius was such a close friend of the great hermit that he received
one of the two sheepskins which Anthony left as his legacy, together with
the mantle that the Bishop of Alexandria himself had given to him.
The exemplary biography of this figure dear to Christian tradition soon
became very popular, almost immediately translated into Latin, in two
editions, and then into various Oriental languages; it made an important
contribution to the spread of monasticism in the East and in the West.
It was not by chance that the interpretation of this text, in Trier,
was at the centre of a moving tale of the conversion of two imperial
officials which Augustine incorporated into his Confessions (cf.
VIII, 6, 15) as the preamble to his own conversion.
Anthony's influence on Christians
Moreover, Athanasius himself showed he was clearly aware of the
influence that Anthony's fine example could have on Christian people.
Indeed, he wrote at the end of this work:
"The fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere, that all regard
him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is
clear proof of his virtue and God's love of his soul. For not from
writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Anthony
renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of
God no one will deny.
"For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa,
was the man heard of who dwelt hidden in a mountain, unless it was God who
makes his own known everywhere, who also promised this to Anthony at the
beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in
obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who
hear may thus know that the precepts of God are able to make men prosper
and thus be zealous in the path of virtue" (Life of Anthony, 93,
Yes, brothers and sisters! We have many causes for which to be grateful
to St. Athanasius. His life, like that of Anthony and of countless other
saints, shows us that "those who draw near to God do not withdraw from
men, but rather become truly close to them" (Deus Caritas Est, n.