St. Athanasius, the great bishop of Alexandria and a Confessor and Doctor of the Church, was born between 296 and 298 in Alexandria, and died the 2nd May 373. He is remembered as “the Father of Orthodoxy;” the greatest champion of Catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation that the Church has ever known. Gifted with a powerful character and intellect, his childhood education was that common to youths of a better class and included grammar, rhetoric, jurisprudence, and philosophy.
Athanasius seems to have been brought up from his early years under the watchful eye of the ecclesiastical authorities of his native city. He had a reputation for self-discipline to the point of asceticism, as well as an enormous energy, a keen intuition, and an ease and affability in manner. He thus seemed bound early on for a brilliant ecclesiastical career.
His greatest preoccupation was at all times the integrity of his Catholic creed, above all an abiding conviction in and devotion to the divinity of Jesus Christ. Two of his most important works on this subject, the “Contra Gentes” and the “Oratio de Incarnatione”, as they are known by their Latin titles, were written between the years 318 and 323. The saint would find himself obliged to defend the Church’s doctrine on the equal divinity of all three Persons of the Holy Trinity, and in particular that of the Son of God. At some point between the years 318 and 320, Arius, a priest of Alexandria who had already fallen under censure and whose teachings had succeeded in making dangerous headway, would promulgate among other heresies the teaching that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, could not be the equal of the Father.
St. Athanasius would be Arius’ fiercest opponent. In the year 325, the Emperor Constantine, in the hope of putting an end to the scandalous disputes disturbing the peace of the Church, met the prelates of the entire Catholic world in council at Nicaea. Athanasius, though only a deacon at the time, would serve as a secretary and theological adviser during the Nicene Council’s proceedings. His abilities were displayed quite conspicuously at this all-important moment in the life of the Church. Five months after the close of the Council the Primate of Alexandria died, and Athanasius was chosen to succeed him. His election was welcomed by all, and he immediately set to work with episcopal visitations, synods, pastoral correspondence, preaching and the other duties of a bishop.
As happens with many great saints however, his wonderful reputation was not to remain unharmed by the treacheries of his enemies. In 330, false and malicious charges including magic and sacrilege were drawn up against him by Eusebius, the bishop of Nicomedia. Athanasius had despite the bishop’s wishes refused to readmit the priest-heresiarch Arius to ecclesiastical communion. The bishop of Nicomedia himself harbored Arian sympathies, thus his rancour at Athanasius’ intransigence in the defence of the Church’s integrity. The saint was granted a hearing by the Emperor Constantine, but was ultimately condemned to exile in Treves, Germany in 335. He was able however to return to his episcopal see two years later at the invitation of Constantine, the eldest son of the Emperor, to the great rejoicing of both clergy and laity.
His peace was not to continue. In 340 the saint was once again exiled to Rome by the infamous Arian heretic Gregory of Cappadocia. He continued on to Milan, and afterwards to Gaul. In 343 his innocence was finally reaffirmed by the Council of Sardica. In 355 however at the Council of Milan, despite the strong opposition of a handful of loyal prelates Athanasius was condemned again. In 356 he was arrested by a band of armed men, storming in and apprehending him during church services. This was the beginning of his third exile. The saint was able to reenter Alexandria in 362; upon doing so he set to work undaunted as ever to restore orthodoxy.
Later that year nevertheless, he would be expelled a fourth time by the Emperor Julian the Apostate, who had grown jealous of his influence in Alexandria. Julian was killed in battle in Persia on the 26th June 363, and Athanasius was able to return with the approval of the new Emperor, Jovian. The bishop convened a council reaffirming the terms of the Nicene Creed, most importantly the co-eternity and equality of essence between all Three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Jovian’s death in 364 led to the accession to power of the pro-Arian Emperor Valens, and Athanasius was exiled for the fifth time. Upon realising the danger of popular unrest caused by anger over his exile though, Valens ordered his return to Alexandria later that year. St. Athanasius’ well-earned tranquility would only come at the end of his life, when he died peacefully in his own bed, surrounded by his clergy and mourned by the all the faithful of the See of Alexandria. His feast in the Roman Calendar is kept on the anniversary of his death, the 2nd May.
Athanasius is one of those saints with some of the most recognisable artistic representations. His attributes include the image of a bishop arguing with a pagan, a symbol of his zeal for the conversion of all nations to the true religion, a bishop holding an open book, in memory of his written defences of the Faith, and a bishop standing over a defeated heretic, recalling most importantly the key role he played in the defeat of the Arian heresy.