January 12, 2017

Optional Memorial of Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Bishop, Defender of Trinitarian Orthodoxy

Saint Hilary of Poitiers

January 13th, is the optional memorial of Saint Hilary of Poitiers (c. 310 – 367), the 4th century philosopher, bishop and Doctor of the Church, whose staunch defense of orthodox Trinitarian theology protected the deposit of faith against heretical attacks in a period of discord. His spiritual formation and extensive education included the classic literature of Latin and Greek as well as Sacred Scripture. Much of St. Hilary's life before his episcopacy is a mystery. What is known comes almost entirely from details contained in his theological writings.

He was born in present-day France to a pagan family, three years before the Roman Empire ceased its persecution of Christians and officially recognized Christianity. Although he came of age without any significant Christian influence, his comprehensive study of Greek philosophy and the Bible enabled him to acknowledge the truths of the Faith. This acceptance occurred gradually. At age 35, Hilary was baptized together with his daughter and wife. His rise within the Church was rapid. In 543, he was made Bishop of Poitiers to great acclamation.

Hilary's elevation as bishop providentially coincided with the second wave of Arian dissent within the Church. Arianism held that Jesus was only human, not divine. Although the Council of Nicaea in 325 had rejected Arianism completely, powerful entities, both ecclesiastical and secular, clung to the heresy. This was especially true concerning the bishops of Gaul. Alone among them, Hilary’s defense of Christ’s divinity would cost him dearly. The Arian bishops appealed to Emperor Constantius II, an adherent to Arianism, who exiled Hilary to Phrygia (Turkey).

There, he wrote his greatest work on the Blessed Trinity, the 12 volume, "On the Trinity," illustrating Sacred Scripture’s constant witness to the central mystery of Christian faith. During his exile, he journeyed to Constantinople to explain to the city’s bishops why their emperor was heterodox. After four years, Constantius II died. Hilary returned to his diocese at Poitiers in time to see Arianism roundly condemned by the local church. Still, this guardian of orthodoxy showed great compassion toward those he believed were honestly mistaken. He worked with clergy and the faithful whose articulations of dogma were imperfect, but not heretical, to embrace fully the correct understanding as taught by the Church.

Saint Hilary died at Poitiers in 36. His personal example and prolific writings on behalf of the true religion influenced numerous souls, including his student, Saint Martin of Tours. A favorite motto of St. Hilary was Ministros veritatis decet vera proferre, "Servants of the truth ought speak the truth." Long venerated as a saint within Catholicism, in 1851, Pope Pius IX declared him a Doctor of the Church. He is often symbolized by three books and a quill pen. Grant, we pray, almighty God, that we may rightly understand and truthfully profess the divinity of your Son, Jesus Christ, which the Bishop Saint Hilary taught with such courageous fidelity.

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