By CAROLE BRESLIN
Over the 2,000-year history of Christianity, the Catholic Church has only recognized 35 persons as doctors of the Church. A doctor of the Church is one whose writing or preaching is outstanding for guiding the faithful in all periods of the Church’s history. Such well-known saints as St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Therese of Lisieux, and St. Francis de Sales are doctors of the Church.
In the beginning there were four men from the Western Church and four from the Eastern Church who were considered doctors of the Church. St. Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, and St. Jerome were from the West and St. John Chrysostom, St. Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen, and St. Athanasius were from the East.
Included among the early fathers and doctors is St. Cyril of Alexandria.
The times of the third and fourth centuries of Christianity were times of great turmoil and upheaval with many heresies promoted. In order to withstand the onslaught, the defenders of the true faith had to be stalwart and strong individuals.
There is no little amount of controversy surrounding the life of St. Cyril.
Born at the end of the fourth century in Alexandria, he was the nephew of Theophilus, the patriarch of that city. As such, Theophilus mentored the young man, seeing to his education beginning with grammar in his early years followed by rhetoric, and finally by the study of theology and philosophy. When Theophilus died in 412, Cyril was named to succeed him.
He did not come into the position easily. The Jews and Novatians and other Christians were in great conflict. In fact, there were some riots as a result of Cyril’s actions. In an effort to promote authentic Christianity at the time, he closed all the churches belonging to the Novatians and seized their sacred vessels.
The Novatians held that if someone was accused of idolatry, then he was condemned such that he was no longer open to salvation. This position goes against Church teaching that our sins can be forgiven if confessed to a priest.
St. Cyril also drove the Jews out of Alexandria, even though they had been tolerated since the time of Alexander the Great. His reasons for expelling them were based on their attempts to undermine the Christian followers and some acts of violence.
These actions did not sit well with the governor, Orestes, who then determined to oppose St. Cyril. However, the Emperor Theodosius gave his approval to what Cyril had done. Thus the power struggle between St. Cyril and the governor began and continued. Zealous supporters of St. Cyril began their own campaign to thwart false teachings. This led to some tragic results.
One of the great criticisms of St. Cyril was that he seemed to be the cause of much violence, including the murder of Hypatia. Although a pagan, she acted with wisdom, being a renowned teacher of philosophy with many followers. She was of noble character. So highly respected was she that a bishop as well as the governor sought her advice. Thinking that she was responsible for the enmity demonstrated by the governor to St. Cyril, a mob attacked her in 417 and murdered her. It was a crime that many deplored, including St. Cyril.
After this political upheaval came the heretical teachings of Nestorius. Although he may not have been the author of this heresy, he certainly was the main person responsible for propagating the false teachings. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 466: “The Nestorian heresy regarded Christ as a human person joined to the divine person of God’s Son. Opposing this heresy, St. Cyril of Alexandria and the third ecumenical council, at Ephesus in 431, confessed ‘that the Word, uniting to himself in his person the flesh animated by a rational soul, became man’.”
The conflict between those holding to the truth of the Incarnation of Christ and those following Nestorius became more and more heated. Eventually both Nestorius and St. Cyril appealed to Pope St. Celestine I in Rome. It was made very clear by the Pope that Nestorius was in error and that he must retract his erroneous teachings or be excommunicated from the Church.
To execute this pronouncement, the Pope assigned St. Cyril to carry out his orders.
St. Cyril then sent a document to Nestorius informing him that he must renounce his errors. There were 12 points that Nestorius was to confirm in keeping with the orthodox teachings of the Church or face excommunication. In addition, he was to make a public refutation of his errors. He remained obstinate, however, and refused to comply with the summons.
Next, they called for a third general council to be held in Ephesus in 431. Although he was present in Ephesus, Nestorius refused to attend. Those bishops following the teachings of the Incarnation remained with the Pope who chose St. Cyril as his representative. There were 200 bishops in attendance who sided with St. Cyril. They condemned the doctrines of Nestorius and issued a sentence of excommunication.
Six days later, Archbishop John of Antioch arrived with 41 bishops who sided with Nestorius, though they did not necessarily agree with his teachings. Rather than participate in the council, they held their own council and voted to remove St. Cyril from his position. When both sides appealed to the emperor, both Cyril and Nestorius were arrested and put in jail.
Soon a three-man delegation from the Pope arrived. After serious deliberation on the events, they found that Nestorius was in error, that Cyril had acted appropriately, and that Nestorius was to be excommunicated if he did not recant.
Despite this the bishops from Antioch remained against Cyril, in effect creating a schism. Thankfully, in 433, this schism ended when they made amends with St. Cyril and the Church. Nestorius, thus defeated, returned to his old monastery at Antioch and later resided in exile in the deserts of Egypt.
After this, St. Cyril spent his remaining days in Alexandria tending to the responsibilities of his office. He became known as a staunch defender of the faith, praised by Pope St. Celestine I as a “generous defender of the faith.” He died in 444. In 1882 he was declared a doctor of the Church. (Although his feast day is now celebrated in June, it had been celebrated on February 9.)
Not to be overlooked is his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the center, summit, and source of our faith. In his blunt way, Cyril defended the teachings of this great mystery as well. “I hear that they say that the sacramental consecration does not avail for hallowing if a portion of it be kept to another day. In saying so they are crazy. For Christ is not altered, nor will His holy body be changed; but the power of the consecration and the life-giving grace still remain in it.”
Dear St. Cyril, your love for Christ Incarnate was unequaled. By your intercession, help us to grow in love and zeal for the greater glory of God that we, too, may fearlessly defend the true teachings of the Church as handed on to us by Christ Himself. 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. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)