May 1, 2016

May 2: Memorial of St. Athanasius, Bishop & Doctor

St. Athanasius
Saint Athanasius was the "champion of orthodoxy," and a great defender of the early Church. He born in Alexandria in the year 297 c. AD. He studied under the tutelage of Orthodox Patriarch Alexander and St. Anthony of the desert. Ordained a deacon at age 22, Athanasius dedicated his life to opposing the teachings of Arias, a priest of the Alexandrian Church who denied Christ's divinity. As Bishop he endured, like St. Cyril of Jerusalem, his contemporary, many wrongs and sufferings for the sake of the faith at the hands of the Arians.

Athanasius took part in the Council of Nicea in 325 and actively promoted its teaching on Christ. It is probable that he helped composed the encyclical letter announcing the condemnation of Arius. Five months later, Patriarch Alexander died. Athanasius was named his successor and in 326, was unanimously elected Patriarch, all before the age of thirty. One of his first acts was to tour his immense diocese, which included a number of monastic settlements.

Athanasius was subjected to numerous persecutions for upholding the true teaching concerning the person of Christ and was sent into exile from his see five times. He died on May 2, 373 in Alexandria, after an episcopate spanning five decades. The Church venerates him as one of her great Doctors. [Video below.]

The Life of St. Athanasius

He did not die a martyr, but his life was martyrdom in the truest sense. Athanasius was the Church's greatest hero in the battle against Arianism (a heresy that denied Christ's divinity). Even as a young deacon at the Council of Nicea (325), he was recognized as "Arius' ablest enemy" and the foremost defender of the Church's faith. After the death of his bishop (328), "the entire Catholic congregation with one accord, as one soul and body, voiced the wish of the dying bishop Alexander that Athanasius should succeed him. Everyone esteemed him as a virtuous, holy man, an ascetic, a true bishop."

There followed fifty years of constant conflict. Under five emperors and by exile on five different occasions, he gave testimony to the truth of the Catholic position. His allegiance to the Church never wavered, his courage never weakened. As consolation in the face of horrendous calumnies and cruel persecution, Athanasius looked to the unwavering love of his Catholic people. Even time brought no mitigation in Arian hatred. For five years he hid in a deep, dry cistern to be safe from their raging wrath and their attempts to assassinate him. The place was known only to one trusted friend who secretly supplied necessary food.

That Athanasius enjoyed God's special protection should have been obvious to all. On one occasion when the emperor's assassins were pursuing him, Athanasius ordered the ship on which he was fleeing to double-back and sail upstream so that he might meet and by-pass his persecutors. Not recognizing the boat upon meeting in semi-darkness, they naively asked whether the ship carrying Athanasius was still far ahead. Calmly and truthfully Athanasius himself called back, "He is not far from here." So his persecutors kept sailing on in the same direction, allowing the saint to complete his escape.

Preserved by divine Providence through a lifetime of trial and danger, he finally died in his own quarters at Alexandria during the reign of the Emperor Valens. Athanasius enriched Christian literature with many important works, some pointed toward piety and edification, others polemical and dogmatic in nature. He ruled the Church of Alexandria for forty-six years.

Adapted excerpt from The Church's Year of Grace, Pius Parsch.

Symbols: open book; two columns; boat on the Nile; equilateral triangle; open book between two Greek Doric columns; archbishop's pallium; scroll with quotation from his writings.

Collect Prayer

Almighty ever-living God, who raised up the Bishop Saint Athanasius as 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, one God, for ever and ever.

St. Athanasius' Prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary

It is becoming for you, O Mary, to be mindful of us, as you stand near Him who bestowed upon you all graces, for you are the Mother of God and our Queen. Come to our aid for the sake of the King, the Lord God and Master Who was born of you. For this reason you are called "full of grace."

Be mindful of us, most holy Virgin, and bestow on us gifts from the riches of your graces, O Virgin, full of grace. Amen.

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