By CAROLE BRESLIN
During the earliest years of Christianity, the Church survived even though she was persecuted endlessly from the outside. In fact, “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church” became the calling card of the growth of the Church as it converted so many people. First the Jewish leaders persecuted the followers of Christ, the most notable being St. Paul. Not long afterward the Roman emperors from Nero to Diocletian sought to destroy the Church. When Constantine issued the Edict of Milan in 311 proclaiming religious liberty, the attacks on Christianity from outside decreased but the persecutions from inside the Church multiplied. The Arians, who denied the divinity of Christ, grew in power and influence throughout the Roman Empire.
Providentially, this resulted in the development of the Catholic doctrines about the natures of Jesus Christ. A number of the saints wrote and spoke extensively throughout the empire on the divinity of Christ, refuting the teachings of Arius. Along with St. Athanasius and St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Hilary defended the divinity of Christ.
In the early fourth century, St. Hilary was born in Poitiers in Gaul. His parents, of ancient and noble lineage, were pagans. Over the years, Hilary contemplated the existence of man and concluded that man was made to practice virtue which would be rewarded after death. He also thought that there must be a supreme eternal being. As he sought for outside support for his theories, he came across the Hebrew Scriptures. Reading about the Hebrews and the interaction of God and Moses, he immediately recognized the truth when he read God’s response to Moses, “I Am Who Am.” Hilary wrote, “God shows that these words, ‘He Who Is,’ are the only ones which attest to His inalterable eternity.”
By further studying the Scriptures he came to understand other attributes of God such as His immensity and the beauty of His creatures. This quest for discovering God through truth helped him to know the Incarnation of the Word which then led him to become one of the staunchest defenders of Christ’s divinity, especially after reading the first verses of the Gospel of St. John, “And the Word was made flesh.”
Logically, he became a Christian and was baptized. He, his wife, and his daughter Apra also came into the Church. His zeal, his gentleness, and his knowledge were so great that even priests took their example from this new convert.
In 350, the bishop of Poitiers died. Although married, Hilary was called to be his successor, which he strongly resisted. His humility about accepting such a position in the Church only increased the desire of the people to have him as their bishop. With his wife’s agreement, he accepted the office. She said her farewells to him, saying, “I will see you at the altar.”
Sadly, at this time Constantine failed to defend the truth of Christ’s divinity. He did nothing to curtail the rising influence of those following the heresy of Arius. The emperor’s son, Constantius, who became emperor upon the death of Constantine, supported the Arians. He banished the rightful bishops and replaced them with Arians. He set up Arian councils and jailed those who fought against the Arians.
It seemed the Church would be all but destroyed by the heretical sect. After 355 following the Council of Milan, the errors moved toward France. In 356 Hilary, assuming the good intentions of the Emperor Constantius, wrote to him fearlessly but charitably denouncing the errors of Arianism. This earned him banishment to Phrygia to lessen his influence and silence his defense of the divinity of Christ. Needless to say, it did not work.
During his time in exile, he wrote some of his most profound works on the Trinity. Meanwhile, in Poitiers, his faithful priests were able to resist the tide of Arianism in Gaul. When they received letters from Hilary, they responded with fervent declarations of faith.
Though he wrote positively about correct doctrine without attacking errors, and though he proclaimed the truth rather than faulting the errors, the Arians became even more incensed with him. Hilary declared that such thinking results in men seeking more what they want than what is true.
Then Constantius called a council to be held in Constantinople. Hilary wrote to him. His letter was brilliantly written, making a marvelous case for preaching the divinity of the Son of Mary. Hilary was invited to attend the council. The debate about Arianism caused such chaos that the Arian bishops persuaded Constantius to send Hilary back to his Diocese of Poitiers away from the council. Oddly enough, his enemies who sought his exile now requested he return to his diocese.
St. Hilary received a rousing welcome from his sheep, including St. Martin of Tours whom St. Hilary mentored for many years. His first undertaking in Poitiers was to undo the damage done by the Arians in Gaul. He deposed several bishops supporting the heresy and sought to reconcile with others. Although criticized for such leniency, such charity helped to defuse the fire of the cult and win the wayward back into full communion with Holy Mother Church. If not for Hilary’s diplomacy, historians say, France would have been lost to Arianism.
Hilary wrote one more time to Constantius, urging him to cease his support of Arius. It is uncertain whether or not this letter ever reached the emperor, who died shortly thereafter in 361. In no uncertain terms, Hilary explained that the flattery of the Arians “does not threaten its victims with the sword but seeks to corrupt the faith with attraction of rewards…speaks of unity only to trouble the peace.” In short, it uses all the guile of the Devil to lead souls to Hell.
Eventually, a debate was arranged between Auxentius, an Arian, and Hilary in Milan under the auspices of Valentinian, the emperor. The Arians conspired against Hilary and he was again sent to Poitiers.
Upon his return, he learned that his daughter’s hand had been sought in marriage. He wrote to her beseeching her to take on the bridegroom of eternal happiness. The letter was eloquent and also contained several hymns he had written for her. She gave her life to Christ and died, “in the odor of sanctity some years later.”
Hilary continued to preach and catechize through his sermons, which have been collected into treatises. He continued defending the divinity of Christ with determination and charity. He died in 368. Pope Pius IX declared him a doctor of the Church.
Dear St. Hilary, you witnessed the many enemies within the Church and stood firm by the grace of God. Obtain for us the grace to recognize those who deny the teachings of the Church while claiming to be Catholic. May we also, while being firm in resisting their errors, work for their conversion. Amen.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. Mrs. Breslin’s articles have appeared in Homiletic & Pastoral Review and in the Marian Catechist Newsletter. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)