St. Hilary of Poitiers

The picture above is “The Ordination of Saint Hilary” from a 14th century manuscript.

Today, January 13, is the Memorial of St. Hilary of Poitiers, the “Hammer of the Arians” and “Athanasius of the West.”  Bishop of Poitiers in modern-day France and a Doctor of the Church, St. Hilary defended the truth of Christ’s divinity against the Arian heresy and offered great reflections on the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Born at Pictavium in Gaul, which is now Poitiers, at the turn of the third century into the fourth, Hilary’s parents were pagans.  He received an excellent pagan education and remained a pagan until his mid-thirties.  It was at this time that he came upon the Old and New Testaments and, after a reflective reading of the Pentateuch and the Gospel According to John, abandoned his Neo-Platonism in favor of Christianity.  He and his wife, St. Alba, along with their daughter, were baptized and received into the Catholic Church.

The Catholics of Poitiers so respected Hilary that at the middle of the fourth century the elected him bishop of their city.  Hilary’s great task was to defend the true faith against the heresy of Arianism, which denied the divinity of Christ.  To do this, he gathered support among the local orthodox bishops to excommunicate the Arian Bishop of Arles, Saturninus.  Hilary wrote the emperor, Constantius II, condemning the persecution of Christians by Arians.  Constantius called a council in 356 to settle the dispute, but it turned against Hilary and, after refusing to condemn Athanasius and the Nicene Creed, Hilary was exiled from Poitiers.

While in exile in Phrygia, however, Hilary continued to govern his diocese from afar and wrote some of his most important works, including De Trinitate (“The Trinity”).  He also wrote a commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew and a reflection on the Psalms.  While in exile, Hilary continued to demand a hearing before the emperor and to debate his Arian rivals.  Hilary became such an annoyance to his enemies that he was allowed to return to his diocese in 360 or 361.  On his return, he dedicated his time to the reconversion of his clergy to orthodoxy and to his writings.  He also encouraged St. Martin, the future bishop of Tours, to found a monastery in his diocese.

According to St. Jerome, St. Hilary died in Poitiers in 367.  He was esteemed by many in the West, and St. Augustine of Hippo regarded him an “illustrious doctor of the churches.”

“A man is ignorant indeed — he does not even know his own life — if he is ignorant of the fact that Christ Jesus is true God as well as true man.  And it is equally perilous to deny Christ Jesus, whether as Spirit of God or as flesh of our body. … He Himself has been appointed Mediator in His own person for the salvation of the Church.  And in that very mystery of mediation between God and man, He is one and both; for by the fact of His union of natures, He has the reality of each nature equally; and this in such wise that He lacks nothing in either, lest perhaps He might cease being God by reason of His birth as man, or lest, on the other hand, He might not be a man while remaining God.  This, therefore, is the true faith which brings blessedness to men: to acknowledge Him as God and man, to confess Him as the Word and as flesh, neither forgetting His divinity in view of His humanity, nor ignoring His flesh because He is the Word.”  St. Hilary of Poitiers, De Trinitate, c. 356-359.

St. Hilary of Poitiers, pray for us.

Be Christ for all.  Bring Christ to all.  See Christ in all.

 

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