Tag Archives: Doctor of the Church

St. Hilary, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

January 11, 2019

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St. Hilary was born in Poitiers, a town in southwest France, in 315, into an upper-class, non-Christian family. He was raised as a pagan, given a solid liberal education, and was fluent in both Latin and Greek. He was married as a young man, and had a daughter named Apra.

St. HilarySometime later he became aware of the Bible, and out of curiosity, and with his facility in the biblical languages, he began to read Scripture. He was fascinated with the prologue to the Gospel of John (Jn 1:1-18), and developed a deep appreciation for Jesus, the gospels, and the wisdom and truth of the Bible, which led to his conversion and baptism in 350.

Three years later, in 353, Hilary was elected bishop of Poitiers, over his objections, while still a married layman. He was a staunch defender of the Trinitarian doctrine of the Council of Nicaea (325) which declared that Jesus is divine, eternal, and consubstantial, of the same substance, as the Father. Furthermore, he strenuously opposed Arianism which held that Jesus is the greatest of human beings but less than God, created, and not eternal.

Arianism had many adherents, both in France and throughout the West. The emperor, Constantius II, himself an Arian, called a synod in Milan in 355 which Hilary refused to attend. The synod produced a document that condemned Athanasius, the chief proponent of Nicaea in the East, which all bishops were required to sign. Hilary defiantly refused. The synod of Beziers followed in 356, comprised mainly of Arian bishops, which condemned Hilary for his orthodox beliefs. Subsequently, Constantius exiled Hilary to Phrygia, a region in Asia Minor.

Upon his arrival in the East, Hilary was invited to attend the Council of Seleucia in 359, where he, like Athanasius, remained insistent about the divinity of Jesus. He was deeply disappointed that so many resisted him and clung to their erroneous ideas, and that so many bishops who supposedly were his allies remained silent and in effect yielded to the opposition. The Arians detested his presence, regarded him as “the sower of discord and the troublemaker of the Orient,” and petitioned the emperor to end his exile and allow him to return to Poitiers, and they were overjoyed when he departed in 360.

Hilary was warmly received upon his return. He convoked a synod of Gallic bishops in Paris in 361 to unify and solidify their support of Nicaea. He exerted his leadership, not only in France, but throughout Europe, and he traveled extensively, constantly a vigorous proponent of the Nicene Trinitarian doctrine. In 364 he publicly denounced Auxentius, the Arian bishop of Milan. He also objected to the emperor’s interference in the church, and insisted on separation between the church and government.

Hilary wrote De Trinitate, his most famous work, a multivolume treatise on Trinitarian theology, as well as De synodis and Opus historicum. He also wrote scripture commentaries, most notably on the gospel of Matthew and the Psalms, and composed a number of liturgical hymns. Hilary died at the age of 53 of exhaustion, worn out from his travels, his exile to the East, and the relentless bitter wrangling. St. Augustine called him “the illustrious doctor of the churches,” and in 1851 Pope Pius IX declared Hilary a Doctor of the Church.

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St. Alphonsus Liguori, Bishop and Doctor of the Church

July 29, 2016

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St. Alphonsus Liguori was born Alfonso Maria de’Liguori in Marianella, a town near Naples, Italy, in 1696.  He was a brilliant student who, by the age of seventeen, had already earned two doctor’s degrees, one in civil law, the other in canon law, both at the University of Naples.  He practiced law with much success for eight years until he lost a major case because of a serious blunder of his own, and he interpreted this as a sign from God to leave the legal profession and study for the priesthood.

Alphonsus threw himself into his theological studies and was ordained to the diocesan priesthood in 1726 at the age of 30.  He spent the next three years canvassing the countryside preaching and hearing confessions, and he quickly gained a reputation for excellence in both.

Three years later he became the chaplain for a college that trained missionaries for China.  There Alphonsus became friends with a senior colleague, Father Thomas Falcoia, who had spent a long while trying to found a religious order of nuns, but he had only been able to establish a single convent.  Falcoia was made bishop of Castellamare.  One of his nuns, Sister Celeste, claimed to have had a vision that confirmed Falcoia’s earlier vision regarding a new rule of life for their congregation.  Bishop Falcoia asked Alphonsus to offer a retreat for the nuns and to investigate Sr. Celeste’s vision.  Alphonsus found the vision to be authentic, and with a new rule and religious habits, a new religious order was founded, the Redemptorines.

With the religious order of women established, Bishop Falcoia asked Alphonsus to found a religious order of priests that would specialize in preaching and missionary work directed toward the poor in the rural areas around Naples.  The new institute was established in 1732 and called the Congregation for the Most Holy Redeemer, also known as the Redemptorists.  The Congregation was officially approved by Pope Benedict XIV in 1749.  Alphonsus did his best to guide the new community, but his efforts were hindered by the dissension among the members.

Meanwhile, Alphonsus continued to go from village to village preaching the gospel with a message that was understandable to all, especially common folk, children, and the elderly.  He also was in high demand as a confessor because of his gentle style and wise advice.

At this point Alphonsus increasingly turned to spiritual writing, and he composed thirty-six separate works, some scholarly, others devotional.  His first work was published in 1745 and his most famous work, Moral Theology, was published in 1748, which presented a reasonable middle ground between the morally stringent approach of Jansenism and laxity, an excessively lenient approach.  His contributions led him to being named a Doctor of the Church.

After leading the Redemptorists since 1732, Alphonsus was named the bishop of Saint Agata dei Goti in 1762.  His major initiatives were to reform the clergy and to serve the poor.  He was afflicted with rheumatic fever, and because of ill health, he resigned in 1775 after having serving for thirteen years.  He retired to Nocera dei Pagini in Campagna where he died in 1787.

Alphonsus was beatified in 1816, canonized a saint in 1839, pronounced a Doctor of the Church in 1871, and named the patron saint of confessors and moral theologians in 1950.

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St. Cyril of Alexandria (370-444), Bishop and Doctor

June 24, 2016

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St. Cyril of Alexandria

St. Cyril of Alexandria

St. Cyril was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 370 AD.  His family was of the noble class.  His uncle was Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria.  Cyril received a classical and theological education under his uncle, who eventually ordained him to the priesthood.  A number of years later, in 412 AD, he succeeded his uncle as the patriarch or bishop of Alexandria.

Cyril was a fierce advocate for orthodox teaching and he aggressively went on the offensive against those who taught otherwise.  He strenuously opposed three major heresies that had numerous adherents in the Fifth Century:  Novatianism, which argued that certain sins such as murder, adultery, and apostasy, could not be forgiven by the sacraments; Nestorianism, which held that Jesus has two separate persons, one human, the other divine, and that Mary was the mother only of the human person; and Pelagianism, which held that salvation is achieved only through human effort and not by grace.  With decisiveness and stern authority, he closed the churches of heretical sects and expelled the Jews from Alexandria.

While Cyril’s actions provoked intense anger and bitter opposition, he was supported by Pope Zosimus (417-418) and a large number of bishops.

Meanwhile, Nestorius became the patriarch of Constantinople in 428, and he held that Jesus was the greatest of human beings but not divine, and that Mary was not the mother of God.  Cyril vehemently opposed Nestorius and his teaching, and he brought the matter to the attention of the new pope, Celestine I (422-432), who convoked a synod in Rome that condemned Nestorianism.  A decree was issued that condemned the teachings of Nestorius and removed him as patriarch, but Nestorius rejected the synod’s decision.

With the church beset by controversy, the Roman Emperor, Theodosius I, called for a council to resolve the conflict for the sake of peace in the empire.  The Council of Ephesus was convened in 431, Cyril presided, and two hundred bishops attended.  In a tactical move, the sessions began before forty-three oriental bishops that supported Nestorius arrived.  Under the leadership of Cyril, the council upheld the two natures of Jesus, proclaimed Mary as the Mother of God, and condemned Nestorianism.

When Archbishop John of Antioch and the other bishops that supported Nestorius arrived, they were outraged, convened a counter council, denounced Cyril as a heretic, and deposed him.  Aggravated by the dispute, Emperor Theodosius arrested and imprisoned both Cyril and Nestorius.  Pope Celestine issued a proclamation in support of Cyril and the Council of Ephesus, and when papal legates arrived, Cyril was exonerated and released, while the charges against Nestorius were confirmed and awhile later was exiled.

After the Council of Ephesus, Cyril dedicated himself to writing a number of treatises to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, the mystery of the Incarnation, and the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the Mother of God.  He also wrote Scripture commentaries on the Pentateuch and the gospels of Luke and John, and he supported the Egyptian monasticism.  Cyril died in 444 in Alexandria, and he was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1882.

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St. Gregory the Great (540-604), Pope and Doctor

August 30, 2011

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St. Gregory the Great

St. Gregory the Great in stained glass window at St. Clement in Minneapolis.

September 3 is the anniversary of Pope St. Gregory the Great’s ordination as Bishop of Rome in 590 AD. His feast is not celebrated on the anniversary of death because March 12 falls in Lent.

Gregory was born in Rome in 540 into a prominent family. His father was a senator, and he followed him as a public servant, first in a number of lesser offices, then as Prefect. Gregory desired to enter religious life, resigned his post, and left government work altogether.

Gregory converted his family home to a monastery and began to liquidate much of his personal wealth, using some to fund seven different monasteries in Rome and Sicily, and a large amount was distributed to the poor. For the next few years he was a monk in seclusion, and he spent his time in prayer and meditation, living simply, rigorously observing the Rule of St. Benedict.

Gregory was ordained a deacon by Pope Pelagius II in 578 and then sent by the pope as his personal legate to Constantinople (579-585). He returned to Rome in 586 and became abbot of St. Andrew’s Monastery. After a brief missionary venture to England and a stint as papal secretary, Pope Pelagius died in 590, and Gregory was elected unanimously as his replacement. He vehemently protested, finally relented, and he was consecrated on September 3, 590.

Pope Gregory was a tremendous leader and organizer. There was a plague in Rome; he spearheaded the relief effort. There were many poor and starving; he coordinated a food distribution network. The Lombards attempted to invade; he negotiated a treaty, appointed the highest military officers, and insured that the soldiers would be paid properly.

He worked diligently to reorganize the Church. He helped to establish the Papal States, developed a code of conduct for bishops, enforced clerical celibacy, replaced irresponsible clergy, facilitated better cooperation between the churches of Spain and France, and sent St. Augustine of Canterbury and a number of other monks as missionaries to England.

Gregory had a deep love for the liturgy, particularly liturgical music. He promoted “plainsong,” a form of chant which became known as Gregorian Chant. He placed the Lord’s Prayer within the Mass, developed other texts for the Eucharistic Prayer, and wrote a number of Prefaces, especially for Easter, Christmas, and the Ascension.

He wrote extensively on moral and theological subjects. His best known works are Moralia, a mystical and allegorical exposition of the Book of Job; Dialogues, the miracles and deeds of the saints of Italy; Pastoral Care (Rule), his treatise on how the bishop should serve as a shepherd; Forty Homilies on the Gospels; and Homilies on Ezekiel, a discourse for clerics and monks.

He died on March 12, 604. He is one of the four great doctors of the church, along with Sts. Ambrose, Augustine, and Jerome. He called himself the “servus servorum Dei,” the servant of the servants of God. He is best known as the patron saint of music. He is also the patron saint of singers, popes, scholars, teachers, schoolchildren, and the victims of plague.

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