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Catholic Heroes . . . St. Hilary Of Poitiers

January 12, 2016 saints No Comments


In the fourth century, despite the results of the Council of Nicaea in 325, the Arian heresy spread throughout the Christian world. Not only did the emperor support the Arians, but many bishops and priests inside the Church also promoted the heresy. In God’s mercy and Providence, many holy men suffered persecution and even martyrdom to preach the Truth: Jesus Christ is one divine person having two natures, the human and the divine. These men included Saints Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, Athanasius, Eusebius of Vercelli, and a Frenchman who was born into a pagan family, but became a doctor of the Church — St. Hilary of Poitiers.
Hilary, the son of prominent pagan parents, was born in western France in Poitiers around the year 310. Being from a family of distinction, Hilary received a classical education in the Latin and Greek scholars, including the Old and New Testaments. The more he studied the Sacred Scriptures, the more he recognized the inherent truth they contained. No other religion was as compatible with science and philosophy as were the Christian studies.
He continued to study for many years, thereby increasing his knowledge of Christianity and becoming more and more certain he wanted to become a Christian. In 345, St. Hilary, his wife, and his daughter were all baptized.
Hilary became well known as a great theologian and defender of all the truths of the faith. Therefore, when the bishop of Poitiers died, the people unanimously chose Hilary as their bishop. Although he was married, he accepted the position with the agreement that he and his wife would then live a celibate life.
As bishop a he adopted a lifestyle more like a monk than either a married man or a prelate. He lived simply, shedding his attachments to worldly possessions and pleasures. He spent time in study and prayer, which prepared him thoroughly for the fight he faced.
As a bishop, Hilary traveled to Arles to correct the errors of Arianism. One of his first acts as bishop was to excommunicate Saturninus, the bishop of Arles, and Ursacius and Valens who supported Saturninus, because of their promotion of the Arian heresy. These men continued to spread this error even though more than 20 years earlier, in 325, the Council of Nicaea condemned the Arians who denied the divinity of Christ.
Hilary also wrote to Constantius II, the emperor who also supported the Arians, because the Arians continued to persecute those who opposed their tenets. The bishops he excommunicated also wrote to Emperor Constantius, who then called a council in 356 to settle the dispute. The result was that Hilary was forced into exile to Phrygia in modern-day Turkey.
During his exile, Hilary continued to guide his diocese in Poitiers. Providentially, the exile enabled him to write some of the Church’s most detailed and profound documents on the Holy Trinity as a defense against the Arians, who held that the Son is a creature, and not eternal nor of the same substance with the Father.
He wrote On the Trinity quoting extensively from Sacred Scriptures to prove one of the most sublime mysteries of our Catholic faith.
As a good apologist, he worked harder to convert his sinners than he did to win the argument about Christ’s divinity. He excelled at this, earning the respect of those in error. Hilary believed most Arians were misguided or misinformed about the teachings of Christ’s two natures. In his discussions with them, he spoke with charity, patience, and humility.
He did not gloat when they accepted the teachings on the Holy Trinity. He welcomed them and encouraged them to live fully the teachings of Christ — especially on Christ’s eternal existence as one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
In his zeal to put an end to the Arian heresy, Hilary even traveled to Constantinople to persuade the emperor to end his support of the Arians. He also met with the bishops there, but still his exile from Poitiers was not lifted.
Finally in 361, after Emperor Constantius II died, Hilary was allowed to return to Poitiers. Although he was banished because of his defense of Christ’s divinity, this time he was welcomed with much acclaim when he returned to his hometown in western France. The mood in his native land had changed. He had finished the race and persevered by the grace of God.
Hilary continued to head the Diocese of Poitiers, preaching and administering with integrity, firmness, and charity. During this time he also continued his theological writings which are why images of this saint usually show three books to the side and a quill pen in his hand.
He continued opposing the errors of Arianism. He denounced Auxentius, the bishop of Milan, who was eventually relieved of his post. This paved the way for his successor of whom Hilary greatly approved: St. Ambrose.
St. Monica visited St. Ambrose when he was bishop of Milan, and lamented the spiritual state of her son, Augustine. Largely through the influence of St. Ambrose, Augustine converted, and also became one of the most prolific writers in the history of the Church.
Another disciple of St. Hilary also became a saint — St. Martin of Tours. Hilary convinced him to build a monastery at Ligugé, and he handed on all of his teachings to Martin.
In 367, St. Hilary died at Poitiers. St. Augustine called him “the illustrious doctor of the churches.” In 1851, Pope Pius IX declared St. Hilary a doctor of the Church. His feast day is celebrated on January 13.
Dear St. Hilary, with intellectual honesty you studied the Greek and Latin scholars, including the Scriptures of the Christians. This led you to the one true Church whose teachings you ceaselessly defended for the rest of your life. Help us to study and to know the fullness of Truth so that we too may lead others closer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. 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.)

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