The lives and times of Holy Roman Pontiffs
who saved the Church during great crises
To our Holy Father
Pope John Paul II
respectfully and lovingly dedicated
May Saint Peter and all our glorious Popes
help him to save the Church and Christendom
in this present crisis!
For over nineteen hundred years, Saint Peter and the Popes who have descended in unbroken succession from him have never ceased to feed, with the life-giving Sacraments and doctrines of the Catholic Church, the sheep whom Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, left to their infallible guidance and in their keeping. That this will be so until the end of time, we know, because He Who can neither deceive nor be deceived has given us His promise of it.
And that Saint Peter, the Apostle who loved Jesus and whom Jesus chose to be His Vicar upon earth, lives again in the Popes who have succeeded him, we know from the story of the Church. The story of the Church, lovingly and justly told, is a glorious one, in spite of all that its enemies have done to becloud it. There enfolds for those who read it with eyes that see, a story of conflict so gigantic, so fierce, so cunning, so unrelenting, so rewarding, so glorious, so magnificent that never is it possible for those who have thus glimpsed it, ever again to give their minds to any lesser loyalty.
The story of the Church is the story of struggle for the hearts and the minds of men. It is the story of the struggle of Peter against Caesar, of the Spiritualty against the encroachments of the Temporalty. It is, above all, the story of the conflict of the Blessed Virgin Mary against Lucifer, the Father of Lies, for the souls of men. “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.” (Gen. 3:15.)
The story of the Church is vital and living, because the Church is vital and living — and loving and teaching and fighting. We are the Church Militant! And we can ever be sure that weakness and compromise have replaced the spirit of watchful combat when we see the intensity of the Church’s battle against the dark forces which beset her — and which will always beset her — in any way relaxing. Our Lord’s promise to His first Pope that the gates of Hell would never prevail against His Church tells us clearly that the gates of Hell, presided over by the mighty intelligence of the fallen Lucifer, would make every effort to prevail against her.
It was not Our Lord’s way to belittle Lucifer, Lucifer whose name means light bearer — the light of knowledge bearer. Jesus spoke of Satan as “the prince of this world,” both to give the devil his due and to warn us not to underestimate the enemy. For Lucifer did not lose the blazing gifts which are an integral part of him when, after his terrible battle with Saint Michael, he was hurled forever into Hell. He still retains in the natural order his marvelously brilliant intellectual powers, the awareness of which led him to desire to be like unto God — the identical temptation of every proud and accomplished mind ever since.
Pope Leo XIII, who died in our own century, in 1903, had a vision during his pontificate of Lucifer and his devils. He saw their fearful triumphs in all the countries of the world in the days soon to come. He beheld their evil glee and unholy mockery as they ravished the Mystical Body of Christ, stilled heavenly espousals in the hearts of maidens, muted the voices of priests and bishops, imprisoned the Popes, and silenced the song of monks and nuns in monasteries and convents grown empty of vocations.
The vision, given the Holy Father one morning after his Mass, was so beyond bearing, so overpowering in its sheer unrelieved, inexpressible evil, that it stopped the heart of Christ’s Vicar. The Pope lost consciousness. His frail body sank to the floor. The physicians who rushed to him could not, for long moments, hear the beat of his heart or feel the throb of his pulse. When they were about to pronounce him dead, he awoke, in great labor and groaning, in overwhelming pain of spirit.
He told, as much as such things lend themselves to words, what it was that he had seen. He told that when he was filled with so much terror for the world that he thought he would die of it there appeared to him, beside the maliciously triumphant Satan, the gloriously shining Saint Michael, the Archangel. And when he recovered, Pope Leo XIII wrote letters of warning to the bishops all over the world. He fearlessly named the enemy behind whose deceiving mask Satan looked out upon the twentieth century world and plotted its destruction. In the encyclical letter Humanum Genus, he instructed his bishops as to what they must teach and do before it would be too late, in order to overcome Lucifer and his devils.
It was then that Pope Leo XIII drafted, to be added to the prayers at the end of Low Mass and said by the priests and the faithful over the whole world, the intercession to Saint Michael which is now so familiar to us all:
“Holy Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle; be our safeguard against the wickedness and snares of the devil. Restrain him, oh God, we humbly beseech Thee, and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host, by the divine power of God, thrust down to Hell Satan and all the other evil spirits, who wander through the world seeking the ruin of souls.“
Our Lord Himself told us that this life is a warfare. “Do not think that I came to send peace upon earth,” Jesus said. “I came not to send peace, but the sword.” When the battle is fought on His side, against His and our own ages-long enemy, Lucifer, it is a glorious battle. The history of the Church is the story of it. Sometimes the Church wins, and for a long time, and often — when her children are cowardly, self-seeking, world-loving, and weak in their Faith — she loses; but on and on it goes.
The story of the Church is perforce packed with drama. Its conquests and defeats become the hope and the despair of the world. Its heroes are of such sublime stature that their lives and accomplishments put to shame the tales of all the secular conquerors who ever lived. The story of the Church not only dwarfs every legend and myth and fairy tale woven to fire the imaginations of men, but it gives us, along with the inspiration of lofty and holy adventure really undertaken, an absorbing account of the dealings of God with man, of man with God, and of man with man.
The heroes and heroines of the Catholic Church are stalwart men and valiant women. They stir one’s heart, burn in one’s brain, and inflame one’s soul with their own high purpose and consuming love. And conversely, the villains of the Church’s story, be they her own trusted sons or her avowed enemies on the outside, surpass in iniquity all the rogues of fiction. For their guilt bears the heinousness of sacrilege because of the august purpose of her whom they would defile: the one, holy, inviolate Bride of Christ.
In the story of the Church, there is clearly to be seen Saint Peter dramatically living again in the Popes who follow after him, and who rule in his name. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, the first Holy Roman Pontiff; Peter, of the deeply loving heart, the burning zeal, the impetuous honesty, the dogged loyalty; Peter, whose tears wore furrows in his cheeks for the memory of three denials, the vivid sorrow for which thirty-three years of unwearying confession of Jesus Christ never dimmed; Peter, crucified upside down, avowing his unworthiness to hang as Jesus hung; Peter, protesting with his last breath, “Lord, Thou knowest that I love Thee!”
Peter, whom Jesus made the foundation of His Holy Church. “I have already called thee the Rock,” the great Doctor, Saint Ephrem, exclaimed with regard to Jesus’ words to Peter, “because thou shalt sustain My whole building! Thou art the bishop of those who build Me a church on earth. If they would build anything reprobate, do thou, the foundation, repress them. Thou art the source of the fountain whence My doctrine is derived. Thou art the head of My disciples. Through thee will I give all nations to drink. Thine is that life-giving sweetness which I bestow. Thee have I chosen to be in My institution as the first-born, and to become the heir of My treasures. I have given to thee the keys of My kingdom. I have appointed thee the chief over all My treasures.”
“This, then, is the city to which, most blessed Apostle Peter,” Pope Saint Leo the Great cried out, speaking, in 451, to the bishops of Italy, “you did not fear to come, while the Apostle Paul, the fellow heir of your glory, was still occupied in the ordering of other churches. You entered that forest of howling beasts, that ocean whose abyss was swept by storms, with more assurance than when you walked upon the water. You who, in the house of Caiphas, trembled at the voice of a serving-maid, do not fear Rome, the mistress of the world. Had Claudius less power than the judgment of Pilate, or Nero less cruelty than the rage of the Jews?
“The force of your affection overcame what there was reason to dread, nor would you endure to fear those whom you had promised to love…. But your confidence was increased by the signs of so many miracles, by the gifts of so many special favors, by the experience of so many virtues. You had already instructed populations of the circumcision, who had believed. You had already founded the Church of Antioch, where the dignity of the Christian name first arose. You had instructed in the gospel laws, Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, Bithynia. You could neither be doubtful of the success of your work, nor ignorant as to the age which you would reach when you bore the standard of Christ’s cross before Rome’s citadel, where the divine preordination had assured you beforehand both the rank of your power and the glory of your passion.
“In this your blessed colleague as Apostle, Paul, the vessel of election and the special teacher of the Gentiles, meeting you, was associated with you at a time when all innocence, all modesty, all liberty was at the last gasp under Nero’s Empire. Nero’s rage, enkindled by the excess of every vice, hurried him to such a degree of madness, that he was the first to inflict a general persecution on the Christian name, as if the grace of God could be extinguished by the murder of saints. For to them it was the very greatest gain that the contempt of this dying life was the perception of eternal happiness. Precious, then, in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints; nor can any kind of cruelty destroy the religion which is founded on the mystery of Christ’s cross. The Church is not lessened but rather increased by persecutions, and the Lord’s field clothes itself in a richer harvest when the grains which are buried singly spring up multiplied….”
The Popes who followed Saint Peter as the Vicars of Jesus Christ, themselves became part of the seed from which the Church of Christ sprang up and covered the earth. During the first four hundred years of the Church, every successor of Saint Peter with but one exception was a canonized saint, and the first thirty Popes after Peter were martyrs.Linus, Cletus, Clement, Anacletus, Evaristus, Alexander, Sixtus, Telesphorus, Hyginus, Pius, Anicetus, Soter, on and on; all gave their lives for the love of Jesus Christ and for His Holy Church. For the servant is not greater than his Master, and “if they have persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.”
To accept the papacy, or even a bishopric, in the early centuries of the Church was the same as consenting to violent and bloody death, invariably lying in wait for each successor of the Apostles of Jesus Christ. What an enticement to office! And yet the spiritual giants who were our older brothers and sisters in the Mystical Body of Christ, so perfect was their Faith and so intense their love, eagerly embraced or fervently prayed for the grace of martyrdom! On such realization of the Gift of God, on such pure and blazing Faith, on such supreme and invincible courage was the early Church foundationed. Such is our heritage!
And even after three hundred years of persecution, when the first great Ecumenical Council assembled in Nicea, in Asia Minor, in 325, so many of the three hundred and eighteen bishops who attended bore on their bodies testimony of the torture they had undergone for the Faith in the last and most cruel of the persecutions, that the Fathers of the Council broke into tears of love and veneration at the sight of them.
“The first meeting of these devout men,” we are told, “was marked by touching scenes. United by one and the same Faith and by common trials, but separated by seas and mountains, they were personally unacquainted with one another, knowing only each other’s merits and sufferings …. The most illustrious servants of God were pointed out. In the first rank were the survivors of the persecution, bearing on their bodies the stigmata of a glorious confession.
“There was Potamon, Bishop of Heraclea in Egypt, who had lost an eye; Paphnutius, of the Upper Thebaid, who had both lost an eye and been maimed in the knee, and was renowned for his miracles, as were also Spiridion of Cyprus and James of Nisibis. There was Paul, Bishop of Neocaesarea on the Euphrates, lamed in both hands by the hot irons of the Emperor Licinius…. When they entered, a feeling of compassion swept over the assembly, and many of those present ran up to them to kiss the scars of those holy wounds….
“At the head of the Western bishops walked the deputation from the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, Saint Sylvester, whose advanced age made the journey impossible for him. He was represented by two priests, Vitus and Vincent, and his deputation was under the direction of Constantine’s friend, the light of Spain, Hosius of Cordova. Lastly . . . a Persian named John, and a Goth named Theophilus, completed this assembly of mankind. The mixture of accents and even of different languages made the oneness of sentiment even more striking. It was a reminder of the gift of tongues and the first Pentecost. All the nations which on that day had been scattered were now reunited after three centuries, proud of the trials they had undergone for the sign of the Faith, and of the countless children they had brought forth in Jesus Christ.”
We see Saint Peter living again in Sylvester, the Pope of this First Ecumenical Council — so-called because to an ecumenical council come for deliberation, at the consent or the invitation of the Pope, patriarchs, archbishops and bishops from all over the world. An ecumenical, or general, council represents the whole Church.
It is significant that this First Ecumenical Council was held in what ancient Christendom called the East (and what we now refer to as the Near East). For it was in the East that the Incarnate Son of God was born; it was in the East that He lived and died, resurrected from the dead and ascended into Heaven. It was in the Eastern Roman Empire that the Catholic Church was born. And even though by the time of the death of the last Apostle, Saint John, in the year 100, the Catholic Faith had been preached to every part of the then known world, the East — where Our Lady lived until she was seventy-two, and Saint John until he was ninety — continued for centuries to be the center of Christian civilization.
The Emperors of the East and the West alike persecuted the Christians. The sands of Alexandria, in the East, received the blood of the fair young Catherine; the sea-drenched shores of Sicily, in the West, witnessed the passion of Agatha and Lucy. Agnes and Cecilia, in transports of joy, gave up their lives, scarce begun, in Rome; Perpetua and Felicitas, in Carthage. Simeon, the holy successor of Saint James the Less, at the age of one hundred and twenty was denounced by the Jews and crucified in Jerusalem. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, bound with chains, was dragged from his see, sent to Rome, and thrown to the wild beasts in the Coliseum. Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna, disciple of Saint John the Evangelist and the last of the Apostolic Fathers, was burned to death in the East, when he was an old, old man, because he would not deny Jesus Christ.
On and on it went, through three centuries. The blood of the martyrs became the seed from which the Church flowered and grew until, over the whole Empire, Christian cathedrals replaced the pagan temples. And then one day, in the year 312, there occurred a simple act of such humble beauty that it pleased God, because of it, to change the history of the world and bring to an end the long years of the Church’s passion. Constantine, the son of the Emperor Constantius Chlorus and the Empress Helena, one evening before the battle which would decide the imperial power in the West, knelt down to pray to the one, true God of the Christians. He prayed to the Lord, Jesus Christ, for victory, and he reminded Him that it was from out of the depths of his own weakness and inadequacy that he cried.
Constantine was a pagan, but already he was known, in the rough and unbridled life of the camps and the dissolute society of the courts, for the singular purity of his morals and the deep religious bent of his mind. The Lord heard his prayer. The next day, at noon, while he was leading his army in their march on Rome, there appeared in the sky above them a cross; over the cross there was written in Greek the words, “In this sign thou shalt conquer.”
On the night which followed, the God of the Christians — and of Heaven and earth and all things — came to Constantine while he slept. Jesus bore in His hand the same sign that had appeared in the sky. He ordered the son of the Empress who would one day find the True Cross, and who would be loved by future generations of Catholics as Saint Helena, to place on his standards the sacred symbol of His Passion.
Constantine had the new standard — known ever since as the Labarum — made, and his army, marching behind it, defeated his rival, Maxentius, at the famous Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine became the Emperor of the West. In the next year, in 313, he persuaded the Eastern Emperor, Licinius, to issue conjointly with him the Edict of Milan, acknowledging at long last the existence and the rights of the heretofore outlawed Christian Church within the whole Roman Empire. The Church of Jesus Christ was, from the day on which the Edict of Milan was published, free to come out of the catacombs! The great general persecutions were over.
Constantine, in time, became the sole Emperor of the East and the West. In time, and certainly under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, he removed the seat of the Empire from Rome to Constantinople, leaving the city which Saint Peter had chosen for the lasting site of the Holy See free from the domination of the Emperors and the stifling influences of the Imperial Court.
He chose for his new capital the old Greek city of Byzantium, on the Bosphorus. Like Rome, Byzantium was enthroned upon seven hills, but instead of facing the muddy waters of the Tiber, the city of Constantine’s choice looked north to the Black Sea and south to the Sea of Marmora. It sunned itself on the shores of the lovely harbor of the Golden Horn; it lay between Europe and Asia. Its perfect climate and idyllic surroundings were almost paradisal. Magnificent mountains reared as giant sentries above the city, glorious seas washed it, and sea winds cooled it; wooded hills rose gently behind it. But above all else, as Constantine assured himself, it should, from its very birth, be Christian. No infidel or pagan hand ever had ruled it.
It was called New Rome, a title which, alas, was ever after to tempt and torment the imaginations of ambitious men. On its official opening, on the eleventh day of May, in the year 330 — when it was dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary — its bishop, then but a suffragan bishop of the metropolitan of Heraclea, entertained no notions of precedence of honor or jurisdiction, such as later would bring endless anxiety and suffering to the successors of Saint Peter, the Holy Roman Pontiffs, and to the whole Catholic world.
New Rome came also to be known, in honor of Constantine, as Constantinople, and in ten years, because of the presence of the Emperor within it and his permanent residence there, the see of Constantinople, alas, was the most coveted bishopric in the East. Constantinople the Beautiful — though it would give to the Church patriarchs and bishops of the stature of Saint Gregory Nazianzen, Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Germanus, Saint Ignatius of Constantinople — for the most part would raise up bishops who were ambitious not for God’s glory so much as their own and who were the obedient sons, not of the Father of Christendom, the Holy Roman Pontiff, but of Caesar, the Roman Emperor.
They would, one day, after centuries of heresy and schism — and after the repudiation of their promise to the Vicar of Christ, Pope Eugenius IV, at the Council of Florence — exhaust God’s patience. His protecting hand would be removed from the wicked city which so completely failed its founder’s high hopes for it. Constantinople, in 1453, would go down to terrible defeat before the armies of the Turk. It would be no longer the city of Christ and Constantine, but Istanbul, the capital of European Turkey, become the land of Mohammed, the infidel.
The favor of the Emperors, unspeakable relief though it was after the anxious centuries of persecution, was to prove not an unmixed good for the Church. Very soon the temptation to meddle in religious affairs and to settle questions of doctrine, despite the protests of the Popes, would prove too much for the imperial pride to resist. Even the great Constantine — although the thirty-two years of his wonderfully vigorous reign were an untold blessing for the Church, which he never ceased to love, defend, honor and endow — was not entirely above this interference.
“You are bishops of the things inside the Church,” Constantine once told a gathering of bishops, “while I, being appointed by God over the things without, am bishop there.” And while he bore always toward the bishops the greatest reverence, and while his realization of the powers given to them by Jesus Christ and which were theirs alone never waned, this indication that the Church had a political role which constituted an external bishopric to be held by the Emperor, would, when developed by rulers who had none of Constantine’s greatness, bring endless trial and suffering upon the Holy Roman Pontiffs.
Constantine eventually came under the disastrous influence of Eusebius, the Arian Bishop of Nicomedia, whom he took for his counsellor instead of Saint Athanasius. As a result, the Emperor helped to undo much of the invaluable work of the First Ecumenical Council which, with the consent and authority of Pope Sylvester, he had summoned to meet at Nicea — across the lake from Constantinople — in May, 325, to consider the peril to the Church of the heresy of the Alexandrian priest, Arius.
As a result of the influence upon him of the heretical Bishop of Nicomedia, Eusebius, the great Emperor whom God had so favored remained until the end of his life not even a catechumen. It was not until he was dying that Constantine, then overwhelmed with the sins and lost opportunities of his life, begged for Baptism and the Holy Eucharist. He received the Sacrament of Baptism with every evidence of deepest piety. He refused after it ever again to wear the imperial purple, and he died, on the feast of Pentecost, May 22, 337, at the age of sixty-four, clad in his baptismal robes.
It was as a result of Eusebius of Nicomedia’s influence upon Constantine that Arianism became so well established in the see of Constantinople that for fifty years, from the death of Constantine until the coming to the throne of Theosius the Great, every bishop of Constantinople was an Arian!
Arianism, which Constantine in the beginning — having only a busy soldier’s little or no knowledge of doctrine — had looked upon as an “idle war of words,” was one of the most terrible of all the heresies which have arisen to afflict the Church. It was worked out in the subtly nimble mind of Arius, a priest of the intellectually renowned city of Alexandria, in Egypt, which for more than a century had been the center of philosophical and theological controversy. Arius had been a student of the priest Lucian, at the famous catechetical school of Antioch, out of which came many of the false teachings which were the basis of the heresies of the time.
The astute Arius, in a short time, secured the support of a fellow disciple of Lucian’s, none other than the same notoriously ambitious Bishop of Nicomedia, Eusebius. Eusebius became eventually the real head of the Arian party, as well as the counsellor of Constantine, into whose confidence he had cleverly insinuated himself through his friendship for Constantine’s sister, Constantia. Arius was well aware of Eusebius’ friendship with Constantia. “Arius,” wrote Saint Jerome, “intent on leading the world astray, began by misleading the Emperor’s sister.”
“Eusebius and Arius,” said Saint Athanasius later, “like serpents coming out of their holes, have vomited forth the poison of this impiety; Arius daring to blaspheme openly, and Eusebius defending his blasphemy. He was not, however, able to support the heresy until he found a patron for it in the Emperor….”
The subtle and wicked doctrine which opened the way for the succession of heresies which were soon to harass the Church in the East, was an attack on the Divinity of Our Lord, Jesus Christ. Arius declared, in his satanic assault on Jesus, that the Second Person of the Most Adorable Trinity was subordinate to, and not equal with, the Father; which was to say, that the nature which Jesus possessed in the Godhead from all eternity, antecedent to the Incarnation, antecedent to the creation of the world, was not divine! Christ was not God, in other words; He was but the first and most exalted of creatures.
With the insolent arrogance and audacity which has ever been the mark of the race that rejected Christ, Arius, a heretic sprung from the Jews, used every device within his power to propagate his false doctrine. He used his very persuasive gifts of oratory and writing, his reputation for learning, his handsome person, his genius for making and flattering friends, even his ability to bring fine theological problems within the understanding of the people through the medium of popular songs. During the height of the Arian heresy, the attributes of the august Son of God and His life in the Adorable Trinity — before the contemplation of which the angels in Heaven veil their faces — resounded in coarse song in the market places, rose in shrill humor from the hoarse throats of fishwives on the water front, rang in noisy chorus through the night, the theme of drinking songs in the inns and hostelries!
Most fearful liberties were taken, most revolting and blasphemous intimacy with holy things was permitted. At one time, when years had passed and it seemed as if the whole world would become Arian, a bishop of Constantinople, Bishop Eudoxius, mounted his pulpit and said to his people, in the course of his sermon, “God the Father has a Son, you say? You must, then, find a mother for Him also.” And the congregation screamed with laughter!
There can be but one explanation for all this, for the evil blasphemies, the mad inconsistencies, the wild confusions, the contradictions, hatreds, lies, intrigues, and unrelenting martyrdom and persecution of the orthodox, which went on all through the long, long years while the Church fought Arianism and the heresies which immediately grew out of it. It is true that Saint Paul said (in 1 Cor. 11:19), “For there must be also heresies: that they also, who are approved, may be made manifest among you.” But this was more than heresy.
This was an all-out assault upon the Church of Jesus Christ of such magnitude that while it lasted all Hell seemed to have been let loose upon Christendom. Looking back, it is not difficult to see that it takes its place, in the sheer intensity and scope of its attack, with three other exceedingly grave trials which the Church was forced to undergo: the Great Western Schism, the Protestant revolt, and the French Revolution, together with the chain of revolutions which followed in the nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth.
This is clearly seen in the importance which is attached to the great councils which met to resolve these crises, for the four most momentous ecumenical councils are, without question, the first Council of Nicea, against Arianism, in 325; the Council of Constance, to settle the Great Western Schism, in 1415; the Council of Trent, in 1545, to legislate for the sorely wounded Church after the Protestant revolt; and the Vatican Council, in 1869, to define against the vicious swarm of false teachings bred, fostered and spread by the leaders of the anti-Christian secret societies which engineered the French Revolution, the revolutions which occurred all over Europe in 1830 and 1848, and which finally succeeded, in the crowning revolution of all, in taking away from the Vicar of Christ, the Holy Roman Pontiff, Pope Pius IX, the Papal States, in 1870. (The same subversive, anti-Christian forces brought on, for the promotion of their sinister plans, the two World Wars and the Korean War of our own century.)
There can be no doubt, in a battle so far-flung and of such proportions, that the protagonist in the Arian heresy was none other than Lucifer, and the target — She of whom God wrote, “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed.” It is hard to conceive of a man more manifestly of the seed of Satan than the proud, ambitious, insincere, cunning, stubborn, constant creator of disorder, Arius of Alexandria. The holy Bishop, Saint Epiphanius, who knew him well, calls him a perfidious serpent.
It has never been the way of the devil to work alone. Always he must work through someone, or something. Satan entered Judas. He worked in a serpent, in the Garden of Eden. His shouts and loud cries, in the Gospels, came through diabolically possessed men. He went into swine. He even works through a race, that people who stood in Jerusalem at the time of Christ’s Crucifixion and cried out, “His blood be upon us and upon our children!”
There can be no doubt that the great war of the world in the spiritual order is not primarily between Lucifer and God, nor even between Lucifer and Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Lucifer suspects and fears the Divinity of Jesus Christ, as is shown by the manner in which the three temptations of Our Blessed Lord were conducted by him.
The center of Lucifer’s attack is that which is the center of his proud jealousy. The center of his attack is the great eminence bestowed upon a little Virgin of Nazareth, become the Mother of the true God. The war of all the ages, and the great fight of the Church, is between Lucifer and Mary. For the odds, so to speak, are ridiculous if God fights the enemy He has created, whom He can at any moment annihilate with one act of His Will. True wars are carried on at essentially equal levels, as between creature and creature, and that is why, in the Garden of Eden, as recounted in Genesis 3:15, God declared to the mighty Lucifer inhabiting a snake, “I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
Just as the enemies of Jesus Christ — individuals, or groups, or movements — are devil-possessed, so the lovers of Jesus are Mary-possessed, by partaking of the fullness of grace that flows from her, and of the Flesh and Blood conceived in her womb. In the Arian heresy, it was Mary shining in the eyes of Athanasius who fought Lucifer, glaring in the eyes of Arius.
The great Pope, Saint Damasus, who ruled the Church from 366 to 384, writing to the bishops of the East, said of the heretical Bishop Apollinaris and his disciple Timothy, “. . . But if that old serpent, once and again struck down, raises his head again for his own punishment, and . . . does not cease trying with his poison-fangs certain men without faith, avoid him as a pestilence…. If anyone, filled by the spirit of the devil, should say that Our Lord Jesus Christ has an imperfect Godhead or Manhood, he shows himself the son of Hell….”
The Arian heresy — brought on by Lucifer’s raging fury before the fact that the Church, in the wonderful new freedom given her by Constantine, was sweeping all before her and making enormous inroads into his territory — was, besides an attack on the Divinity of Jesus, an assault on the Divine Maternity of Mary, for if Jesus is not God it follows that Mary is not the Mother of God. If one would undo such a Mother, he has but to deny such a Child.
Lucifer did not stop there. The plan unfolds with startling clarity in the heresies which immediately follow. Around the year 360, Macedonius, then Bishop of Constantinople, denied the Divinity of the Holy Ghost, reducing the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity to the role of a creature and Mary’s title, Spouse of the Holy Ghost, to an absurdity. In 428, Nestorius, also Bishop of Constantinople, threw all subterfuge to the winds and declared openly that Mary was not the Mother of God. He did this by making Jesus out to be not one Person, but two persons! In 451, the Council of Chalcedon, under the valiant successor of Saint Peter, Pope Leo the Great, condemned the doctrine of the Abbot Eutyches, of Constantinople, who said that Christ had only one nature, the divine, instead of two, the divine and the human; thus making Jesus out to be not true man, and not, therefore, the fruit of Mary’s womb.
Christendom rocked upon its foundations. It was torn and bleeding and wounded. But Lucifer, in the end, had raged in vain. For, as is always His way in times of great stress in His Church, God raised up strong men and holy women who, fortified by grace and firm in their love, made up the vanguard of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Heaven’s Queen, when the interests of her Divine Son and His Mystical Body are imperiled, is ever terrible as an army set in array. And so a veritable host of champions of the Faith arose, men who were so carried away with the love of God and irrepressible ardor for the Faith that they became not only saints, but glorious Doctors of the Church. They are known through all the centuries since for the extraordinary quality of the heroic courage and doctrinal insight with which they preached, wrote, suffered and did battle for the sacrosanct Persons of Jesus and Mary.
The echoes of their voices still fill the world. Their golden oratory, their abundant writing, their holy lives, the mere use of their names, now as in the centuries when they lived, have the power to hurl Satan back into Hell when he would overcome less sanctified and endowed intellects and less stalwart and loving hearts.
They were, these great heroes, the renowned Athanasius, who, for a long time singly and alone, did battle against Arius; Basil, Ambrose and Hilary, who followed him; Gregory Nazianzen, who valiantly waged war against Macedonius; Cyril of Alexandria, who, with inimitable courage, held out against Nestorius; Pope Leo the Great, who, in the name of Peter, vanquished Eutyches and his Monophysitism; the renowned Augustine who fought Donatism; and Augustine and Jerome, each of whom attacked Pelagianism, two heresies which also occupied this time. They were joined by the intrepid John Chrysostom, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ephrem the Syrian, and two who are not Doctors, Gregory of Nyssa and Epiphanius of Salamis.
Arius was condemned by the eminent and holy Fathers of the First Ecumeni cal Council at Nicea, of whom, “some were celebrated for their wisdom, others for the austerity of their lives and for their patience, others for their modesty; some were very old, some full of the freshness of youth…. Many shone from apostolic gifts, and many bore in their bodies the marks of Christ.” The true Catholic Faith which had come down from Jesus through His Apostles was formulated by the Council in a creed, the Nicene Creed, so called, which is to this day said by bishops and priests throughout the world in the Mass of Sunday and all major feasts.
The most powerful and uncompromising enemy of heresy at the Council of Nicea was, as we have said, the young deacon, Athanasius, who came with his Bishop, Alexander of Alexandria — whose priest Arius had been and who was in the thick of the battle from the beginning. Patriarch Alexander, knowing perhaps better than anyone the roots of the diabolical heresy which deprived Jesus of His Divinity and Mary of her Divine Maternity, stated positively that its ultimate source lay in Judaism, and its original seat at the famous catechetical school at Antioch.
The deacon Athanasius would, when he was but thirty years old, at Alexander’s request succeed him in the see of Alexandria, and from it, because of his unyielding stand for orthodoxy, he would suffer exile five times; he would be excommunicated by practically every influential bishop in the East. But a grateful Church would canonize him, his story would ring through the world until the end of time, a glorious creed embodying all the truths for which he had suffered so long and so fearlessly would bear his name, and whenever through the centuries to come one man, alone, would carry the whole weight of the beleaguered Church upon his frail shoulders, such a one would receive, as the highest award of an admiring Christendom, the acclaim that he was another — ATHANASIUS AGAINST THE WORLD!
Even from his childhood, God had marked Athanasius for His own. He was born in Alexandria, around the year 300. One day, when he was a small boy, the same Patriarch of Alexandria with whom he appeared at the Council of Nicea, chanced to come upon him by the seashore where he and several other children were, as the Archbishop thought, playing at imitating the ceremonies of the Church. But as he watched them, the expression of tender amusement on the face of the saintly Patriarch changed to one of alert interest. Perhaps, after all, the children were not at play! The Church’s ritual was being followed with the most precise exactness. Athanasius, who took the part of the bishop, solemnly baptized several small catechumens, all of whom received the Sacrament with every sign of eager intelligence and reverent joy.
The Patriarch questioned the children, and from their answers he — and later his clergy — were convinced that Athanasius had “really administered the Sacrament of Baptism to his little playfellows, and that it only required the confirmation of the Church.” At the advice of the holy Patriarch, all of the children were consecrated to the work of the priesthood. Alexander — whose own heroic and virtuous life and unfaltering defense of doctrine raised him, after his death, to the altars of the Church as Saint Alexander of Alexandria — himself took Athanasius, to bring him up under his direction. In 319, he ordained him deacon, and he came, finally, to place so much confidence in him that he raised him above all the other clergy and made him an archdeacon when he was scarcely twenty years old.
Constantine had had an opportunity to hear both Athanasius and Eusebius of Nicomedia at the Council of Nicea, to which he had come, to quote an eyewitness, “as a messenger from God, covered with gold and precious stones — a magnificent figure, tall and slender, and full of grace and majesty. To this majesty, he united great modesty and devout humility, so that he kept his eyes reverently bent upon the ground, and only sat down upon the golden seat which had been prepared for him when the bishops gave him the signal to do so.”
Despite this reverent and modest bearing on the part of the Emperor, and his assurance that he looked upon the Nicene Creed as inspired by God and as a revelation from the Holy Spirit dwelling in men so holy, he nevertheless succumbed to the intrigues of the heretics, Arius, Eusebius of Nicomedia, and the other Arian bishops, and recalled them, after a short time, from the banishment he had put upon them after the great Council. He then sent into exile Athanasius of Alexandria, the one man best equipped by nature and grace to see through the doctrinal pretexts and sham holiness of the heretics and bring back the true Faith to the people. As a result, the Arian heresy, instead of diminishing, went on gathering in fury until Saint Jerome, writing thirty-four years after the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea, was forced to cry out, “The whole world groaned, and marveled at finding itself Arian!”
Twice, during his five periods of exile, Saint Athanasius made his way for refuge to the Fathers of the desert — to those holy monks who, desiring for themselves the perfection which Jesus asked when He said, “Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect,” had fled from the corrupt cities of a decadent Empire to the immense solitudes and hidden recesses of the desert. They fled from the noise and sin and confusion of the world, from family and friends and all they held dear, to the Thebaid, or some other of the deserts of Egypt, where, by the wonderful holiness of their lives, by their extraordinary austerities and penances, virtues and miracles, they lifted up the minds, inflamed the hearts and drew out into the deserts after them that army of holy men and women — monks and widows and virgins — about whom it was truly written, “The deserts became peopled by innumerable angels who lived in mortal bodies, scarce holding to the earth.” There were, in Egypt, in the year 372, almost one hundred thousand monks, to say nothing of the thousands upon thousands of holy nuns. The saints of the desert were the new army of the Blessed Virgin Mary, consumed with her limitless love of Jesus, burning with her ineffable spirit. They, together with the Doctors, were her glorious seed, who would lay low and overcome the blasphemous heresies spewed out upon the world by the diabolical seed of Lucifer.
The golden-mouthed Doctor of the Church, Saint John Chrysostom, himself banished from his bishopric in Constantinople to die in exile, said of the monks and nuns of the desert: “Go to the Thebaid; you shall find there a solitude still more beautiful than Paradise, a thousand choirs of angels under the human form, nations of martyrs, armies of virgins, the diabolical tyrant chained, and Christ triumphant and glorified!”
Saint Epiphanius, the famous “oracle of Palestine,” who preached against Arius even in the courts of the Emperor, described the cells of the desert as so many beehives, each monk having in his hands the wax of labor, and in his mouth the honey of psalms and prayers.
The monks of the desert provided a heavenly haven for Athanasius, hunted and exile-weary, worn and wandering, constantly at war with the Arian enemies of the Church. The monks gave him a cell, and he lived among them as one of them, performing the same austerities and sharing the same life of contemplation, labor and study. The great solitude of the desert, the long hours of prayer, the silent companionship of deeply holy men — above all, of Saint Anthony, the Father of the Desert Fathers, whose life of seraphic love of God and heroic asceticism he faithfully recorded — flooded his soul with fresh strength and renewed vigor.
And when his persecutors sought him out, the monks hid him from them. At the first signal of the approach of his enemies, the Fathers of the desert would spirit Athanasius from one monastery to another, and when the danger penetrated even to the last house which sheltered him, he would take refuge in a cave hitherto unknown, to which only one faithful monk knew the road. More than one of his silent and saintly benefactors suffered martyrdom rather than reveal his hiding place. And more than once his escape was breathtakingly narrow.
Saint Athanasius lived, during one of his exiles, for six years in the desert, during all of which time he continued to guide his flock in Alexandria. He wrote, “to the bishops of Egypt to enlighten them, to his church in Alexandria to console it, and to the persecutors and heretics to confound them.”
Athanasius, as the fruit of all this, performed for the West the inestimable service which was, after the fall of Rome, in 476, and the flood of barbarian invasions which poured over and inundated the Western Empire, to preserve for the world the Catholic Faith and the culture of Christendom, through all the dark and slow and savage years which must pass before the Germanic nations could be converted and civilized, and the West take the place of the then atrophied East as the center of Christian civilization.
For it was Saint Athanasius who introduced monasticism to the West. He was the harbinger of Saint Benedict of Nursia and of the glorious monks of Ireland, who, under the holy and illustrious successors of Saint Peter, the Holy Roman Pontiffs, were to nurture and raise up, out of the ashes of the dead Roman Empire, the civilization of which we are a part. Saint Athanasius’ exile, three times to the West, was the instrument which God used to spread in lands distant from the East the vivifying seed of religious life, the rules for which have never basically varied.
Under the protection of the Popes, Saint Athanasius roused the minds and enkindled the hearts of the Romans with his tales of the lives of the monks of the Thebaid, of the marvelous deeds of his close friend and loved companion, Saint Anthony of the Desert, and of the enormous monasteries which Saint Pachomius was even then building upon the banks of the Nile. Athanasius’ biography of Saint Anthony finally brought his work to full fruition. “Under this narrative form,” Saint Gregory Nazianzen wrote, “Athanasius promulgated the laws of monastic life for the West!”
Soon, as a result, Rome was filled with monasteries. The holy contagion, fostered by the great Saint Ambrose of Milan, spread to all Italy. From Italy, it was diffused through Germany and Spain. Saint Augustine of Hippo protected and encouraged it in North Africa; Saint Martin of Tours, Saint Germanus of Auxerre, Saint Honoratus of Lerins, introduced it into France. Saint Jerome never tired of writing, from the wealth of his own monastic experience, of its unending spiritual joys and conquests. “O desert enameled with the flowers of Christ!” he wrote to a friend about whose salvation he was anxious, “O solitude, where those stones are born of which, in the Apocalypse, is built the city of the Great King! O retreat which rejoicest in the friendship of God! What doest thou in the world, my brother, with thy soul greater than the world? How long wilt thou remain in the shadow of roofs, and in the smoky dungeon of cities . . .?”
Saint Athanasius returned to Alexandria from his last exile, in 365, amid such popular acclaim that the Emperor Valens, ruling at the time, feared an uprising should he again banish him, and for the remaining eight years of his life, until his death on May 2, 373, he was allowed quietly to perform the duties of his office. The great warrior of Jesus Christ, against whom the whole world had leagued itself, to persecute him for the Catholic Faith, so that “there was nowhere left where he could hide himself in safety,” died peacefully in his residence in the forty-sixth year of his priesthood, renowned and beloved through out Christendom. His faithful, loyal, love-laden soul, our Holy Church assures us, winged its way straight to Heaven, to the feet of the Lord for whose sacred Divinity he had spent his life and to the Immaculate Virgin whose Divine Maternity it had been the privilege of his grateful heart ever to safeguard.
The death of the heretic who brought such storm and heartache and loss of souls to the Church was a fitting contrast to the holy death of the blessed Athanasius. Arius died horribly, thirty-seven years before the saint who fought him against the world. Arius died with God’s wrath clearly upon him, in the midst of his greatest triumph. Having overcome the doctrinal qualms of the worried Constantine, with the help of the heretical Bishop of Nicomedia, Eusebius, he was about to be received as a priest into the communion of the Church at Constantinople — on the orders of the Emperor to the holy man who at that time was Bishop of Constantinople, Saint Alexander, who in vain had pleaded with Constantine not to be deceived by the heretic.
“Saint Alexander, grieved to the heart,” the great Doctor, Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, tells us, “went to the church accompanied by only two persons, and prostrating himself on the floor, with tears in his eyes, prayed to the Lord: ‘O my God, either take me out of the world, or take Arius, that he may not ruin your Church.’ Thus Saint Alexander prayed, and on the same day, Saturday, at three o’clock, the Eusebians were triumphantly conducting Arius through the city, and he went along, boasting of his reestablishment, but when he came to the great square the vengeance of God overtook him; he got a terrible spasm in the bowels, and was obliged to seek a place of retirement. A private place near the square was pointed out to him; he went in and left a servant at the door.
“He immediately burst open like Judas; his intestines, his spleen, and his liver all fell out, and thus his guilty soul took her flight to her Creator, deprived of the communion of the Church. When he delayed too long, his friends came to the door, and on opening it, they found him stretched on the floor in a pool of blood in that horrible state. This event took place in the year 336,”
Saint Athanasius is revered in the Universal Church as one of the four great Greek Doctors, along with Saint Basil, Saint Gregory Nazianzen, and Saint John Chrysostom, who beautifully complement the four great Latin Doctors, Saint Ambrose, Saint Jerome, Saint Augustine, and Pope Saint Gregory the Great.
Almost six years after the death of Saint Athanasius, in the pontificate of the glorious Pope, Saint Damasus — the patron of Saint Jerome in his biblical studies — there came to the imperial throne in the East, the great Emperor Theodosius I. In the first year of his reign, in the winter of 379, Theodosius was instructed in the Catholic Faith and baptized by Ascholius, Bishop of Thessalonica. It was Ascholius who made known to Theodosius the religious state of his Empire. “At Constantinople and throughout the East in general,” he told him, “the Arian heresy and many other sects divide the people.”
And Theodosius, seeing at once the danger, not only to the Church but to the Empire as well, published, on the twenty-eighth of February, in the year 380, that document which, together with Constantine’s Edict of Milan, is one of the great signposts on the crossroads of history. The famous edict of Theodosius made orthodox Catholicism the religion of the State. It made the Faith “delivered by the divine Apostle Peter,” the religion of the land. Theodosius ruled:
“It is our will that all the peoples who are governed by our clemency hold the religion which is proved to have been delivered to the Romans by the divine Apostle Peter, since it has been maintained there from his time to our own, and which it is notorious that the Pontiff Damasus follows, and Peter, Bishop of Alexandria, a man of apostolic sanctity; that is, that according to the discipline of the Apostles and the doctrine of the Gospel, we believe one Godhead of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, of equal majesty, in the Holy Trinity. Those who follow this law, we order to take the name of Catholic Christians; the rest, whom we judge mad and insane, shall suffer the infamy of heresy; their meetings shall not take the name of churches: we reserve them, first to the divine vengeance, and next to that punishment which we shall be inspired to inflict.”
During the sixteen years of his reign — he died in January, 395, at the age of forty-nine — Theodosius the Great: enacted laws which dealt the deathblow to the still surviving paganism and which put an end to official Arianism in the East. Theodosius was powerless, however, to undo the work of the heretical bishops who had baptized into Arian Christianity the barbarian Goths, sojourning in Constantinople on their way to the West, where, as we shall see, they would bring with them the heresy of Arius, well on the wane in the East by 381.
One of the best-loved stories about the great Theodosius, and one which vividly illustrates the contrast between the attitudes of the Eastern and Western bishops toward the Emperor, is told in the firm and thorough humbling to which Theodosius was subjected at the hands of the intrepid saint and Doctor of the Church, Saint Ambrose of Milan, under whose holy influence Saint Augustine, the glory of the Church in every succeeding age, came into the Catholic Faith.
Theodosius, in a fit of grief and anger at the murder by the Thessalonians of their governor, a dear and close personal friend of his — because the governor had refused to release to them on a festival day a charioteer who had seduced a young serving maid in his family — at the urging of some of his officers issued a warrant, turning his soldiers loose upon the city. “Since the whole population was associated in the crime,” Theodosius ordered, “let the whole population bear the penalty.” When his anger cooled, he rescinded the order, but it was then too late. Seven thousand Thessalonians had perished.
Now the Emperor had formed a deep and lasting spiritual relationship with Saint Ambrose. Each had for the other the admiration which springs from mutual recognition of similar loves and values. They understood each other very well. And both were perfectly agreed that the spiritual and temporal welfare of the Empire w as dependent upon the close cooperation of the Church and the Empire in the teaching and the living of the Faith of the one true Church founded by Jesus Christ upon Peter.
When, then, the news of the massacre at Thessalonica reached Saint Ambrose he left Milan, and from his retreat he wrote to the Emperor the exact state of his feelings on the whole matter.
“That which was perpetrated at Thessalonica,” he wrote, “finds no parallel in the memory of men. There is only one remedy: for you to give public testimony of your repentance.” Until this was done, it would not be possible for him as bishop to celebrate the Divine Mysteries in the presence of Theodosius. He could not receive his offering, for no matter how great was his love for him, he loved God more. His love for “his majesty was not to his prejudice, but to his salvation.”
Theodosius did nothing about the letter, but after Saint Ambrose returned to Milan, he set out one day for Mass, accompanied by his entire suite. He was sure that the Bishop would not dare to censure him before the people. But he reckoned without Ambrose, a bishop of the West, who, apprised of his coming, met him at the door of the church. He forbade him to enter.
“It seems, sir,” the Saint addressed the Emperor, “that you do not yet rightly apprehend the enormity of the massacre which was so lately committed. Let not the splendor of your purple robes hinder you from being acquainted with the infirmities of that body which they cover. You are of the same mold with those subjects which you govern. And there is one common Lord and Emperor of the world! With what eyes will you behold His temple? With what feet will you tread His sanctuary? How will you lift up to Him in prayer those hands which are still stained with blood unjustly spilt? How could you with such hands presume to receive the Most Sacred Body of Our Lord? How could you carry His Precious Blood to a mouth whence the word of fury issued, commanding the wanton spilling of innocent blood? Depart, then, and do not aggravate your crime by a second offense. Quietly take upon you the yoke which the Lord has appointed for you….”
The Emperor protested that David also had sinned. “Him whom you would have followed in sinning,” Saint Ambrose flashed in reply, “follow also in his: repentance.”
For eight months, Theodosius submitted to the penance put upon him. He retired to his palace, where he remained, clad in the garments of mourning. For eight months he did not enter the church. The vigil of Christmas came, and he was still shut up in the great house. He spent much of the time weeping. This finally so moved Ruffinus — his comptroller, and the officer whose advice was mainly responsible for the massacre of Thessalonica — that he attempted to console him. When this failed, he endeavored by flattering him to make him less contrite, and so lead him to accept life without the approval of the Church.
“Ruffinus,” Theodosius chastised him, “you do nothing but mock me. You little know my anguish! I weep and bewail my miserable state. The Church of God is open to beggars and slaves, but its doors — and therefore the gates of Heaven — are closed to me. For Our Lord has declared, ‘Whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound in Heaven.'”
Ruffinus at last was profoundly touched. (He came into the Church some months later.) “If you will allow me,” he said, “I will run to the Bishop. I will use so many arguments with him that he will be unable to refuse to absolve you.”
“You will not be able to do it,” Theodosius dolefully answered him. “I know the justice of the sentence he has passed, and he is an inflexible man where the laws of religion are concerned. He will never, out of respect to the imperial dignity, do anything against the laws of God.”
Ruffinus persisted, and the Emperor, finally daring to hope, urged him, “Go quickly, then!” And he followed after him at a little distance.
“Ruffinus!” said Saint Ambrose when he caught sight of the officer coming toward him. “Your boldness is beyond all bounds! You were the instigator of this massacre. How can you then intercede for someone else? You have put aside all shame, and you neither blush nor tremble at the remembrance of so terrible a crime, so great an assault upon the image of God!”
Ruffinus pleaded. He informed the outraged and grieving Bishop that the Emperor would be along soon. “If he comes,” said Ambrose, “I tell you plainly, I shall forbid him to enter the church porch. And if he decides to turn his power against me for this, here I am. I am ready to undergo any death.”
When the Emperor arrived, he did not enter the church, but made his way to where the Bishop was sitting in the auditory; and there he begged him to give him absolution.
“What!” said Saint Ambrose rising and standing above him. “You come here to trample upon the holy laws of God?”
“I respect them,” Theodosius answered humbly. “I will not enter the sacred porch of the church contrary to the rules. But I beseech you to free me from these bonds, and not shut against me the door which the Lord has opened to all penitents!”
“What penance have you done, after such a crime?”
“It is your place to inform me what I must do!” the Emperor pleaded. “It is your place to prescribe the remedies and apply the plaster; it is mine to submit.” “Very well,” said Ambrose. And he ordered Theodosius to take his place among the public penitents in the church. Saint Ambrose himself tells, in the great tribute which he paid to the Emperor at his death, of the beauty of the public confession which Theodosius made of his terrible sin, and of the long, long time he lay prostrate in the ranks of the penitents, beating his breast, his tears running down his cheeks, begging God’s pardon and lamenting his crime until the people, touched to their hearts’ core, wept with him.
And even then, Saint Ambrose did not give Theodosius absolution. He did not absolve him until the Emperor had drawn up a law forbidding the execution of decrees made in haste and anger, and providing for a respite of thirty days before the execution or warrants for the seizure of life and property.
Later on, while Theodosius was still in Milan, Saint Ambrose, finding him one morning within the sanctuary of the altar, asked him if he were looking for someone. The Emperor answered, no, he wished merely to assist at Mass and to partake of Holy Communion. The Bishop, after some moments had passed, sent an archdeacon to him with the message, “My lord, it is lawful for none but the sacred ministers to remain within the sanctuary. Be pleased therefore to go out, and continue standing with the rest. The purple robe makes princes, but not priests.”
The abashed Emperor made haste to explain that he had not meant in any way to make of himself an exception. He was happy to do as the other worshipers did. He had merely believed that the same custom prevailed at Milan as at Constantinople, where his place was reserved within the sanctuary. He was grateful to the Bishop for informing him of his duty. Whereupon, he left the sanctuary, and took his place among the laity.
On Theodosius’ return to Constantinople, the Patriarch, wondering, found him one day hearing Mass outside the sanctuary. He sent word, begging him to resume his usual place inside the altar rail.
“Alas!” the Emperor sighed. “How hard it is for me to learn the difference between the priesthood and the empire! I am surrounded by flatterers, and have found but one man who has set me right and told me the truth. I know but one true bishop in the world: Ambrose.” And from that time on, he never again, even in the East, sat within the altar. A place was made for him outside the sanctuary, a little above the people, and here all the Emperors who succeeded him took their seats.
One other lesson Saint Ambrose taught the great Emperor. At the intercession of his son, Arcadius, Theodosius, then still in Milan, ordered the Bishop of Callinicus, in the East, to rebuild from his own funds a Jewish synagogue which had been destroyed by Christians who had been insulted by the Jews as they marched in religious procession through the streets. When Saint Ambrose heard of the Emperor’s order, he protested vehemently. “Christian conscience,” he said, “could not allow a bishop to erect a temple to a false religion!”
A few days later, Saint Ambrose caught sight of Theodosius entering the church just at the moment he was prepared to say Mass. He stood, and would not begin the prayers of the Holy Sacrifice until Theodosius promised to take back his order for the erection of the synagogue.
At the last, even though he rejoiced for his eternal happiness, it was Ambrose who mourned Theodosius. “I have loved this man,” he repeated over and over, as he wept beside his body. He believed, and rightly, that the sun had set on the Roman Empire with the death of Theodosius. The beloved and humble ruler was indeed the last of the great Emperors before the fall of Rome, but eighty-one years distant.
Saint Ambrose, because of the profundity and depth of learning contained in the imperishable works which he bequeathed to the Church — and which all ages have found to be inexhaustible treasures of Faith — as well as for his zeal, his invincible strength in the defense of doctrine, and his heroic and shining holiness, is the first of the Church’s four Western Doctors.
Pope Saint Leo the Great (440-461) is the first Pope who is a Doctor of the Church. Saint Leo followed after the glorious Popes: Saints Damasus, Siricius, Anastasius I, Innocent I, Zosimus, Boniface I, Celestine I and Sixtus III, all of whom, as with one voice, had proclaimed that when they spoke in papal utterance, they spoke through the mouth of the Prince of the Apostles, Peter.
“The entire Catholic Church spread over the globe is the sole bridal chamber of Christ,” Pope Damasus, the most influential Pope of the fourth century, declared. “The Church of Rome has been placed above all other churches not by virtue of a conciliar decree, but by virtue of the words of the Lord: ‘Thou art Peter!’ . . .”
“We bear the burden of all who are laden,” Pope Siricius wrote, “or rather the blessed Apostle Peter bears them in our person, who . . . protects and defends us as the heirs in all things of his government.”
“It is certain,” said Pope Boniface I to the bishops of Eastern Illyricum, “that this Church (of Rome) is to the churches diffused throughout the whole world what the head is to its members: from which whosoever cuts himself off, becomes an alien to the Christian religion, by ceasing to belong to the structure.”
“All bishops must observe this,” Pope Siricius again writes, in an instruction to his bishops on the Sacrament of Baptism, “unless they be willing to be torn from the solid mass of the apostolic rock, upon which Christ has built his Universal Church!”
Pope Saint Celestine I (422-432) is the Pope of the Third Ecumenical Council, at Ephesus, which deposed and anathematized Nestorius, the heretical Bishop of Constantinople, who taught that Our Lady was not the Mother of God. Saint Celestine was the Pope who sent Saint Patrick to Ireland.
It is said of Pope Saint Leo the Great that he bore in his hands the keys of Peter and the sword of Paul; that he bore them for twenty-one years without haste, without passion, without fear, with the serene dignity of one whose eyes were ever fixed upon the Lord Whom he represented. Known far and wide for his great learning and holiness, the deacon Leo, son of the Roman, Quintianus, was unanimously elected Pope, in August 440, while he was absent in France on a mission for the Emperor.
“More than forty days the Roman Church was without a bishop,” Saint Prosper wrote, “awaiting with wonderful peace and patience the arrival of the deacon Leo.” This alone is high praise of the virtues of Saint Leo, for the times were such as to awaken the extreme opposite of peace and patience in the hearts of men. Pope Leo the Great mounted the throne of Saint Peter at a time of terrible danger, both for the Church and the Empire.
The fierce barbarian tribes, one after the other, had been on the march for the whole of the century, plundering, ravaging and threatening the entire Empire. The dreaded Attila — the self-designated “Scourge of God,” who left in the wake of his savage army burned churches, murdered priests, devastated countrysides, people ravished and maimed, impoverished and homeless — was on his way into Italy. The great Saint Augustine died with the knowledge that the Vandals were at the gates of Hippo, his episcopal city — the great Saint Augustine, who for forty years was a contemporary of Pope Saint Leo; the great Saint Augustine, who cried to God:
Too late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new! Too late have I loved Thee. Thou wast with me and I was not with Thee. Thou hast called, Thou hast cried out, and hast pierced my deafness. Thou hast touched me, and I am all inflamed…. He loveth Thee less, who loveth anything else with Thee, which he loveth not for Thee. O love, which always burnest, and art never extinguished! true Charity, my God, set me all on fire!
In the midst of a world in chaos, Pope Leo — who had confessed to his Lord when informed of his election to the papacy, “Lord, I have heard Your voice calling me, and I was afraid; I considered the work which was commanded of me, and I trembled, for what proportion is there between the burden assigned to me and my weakness, this elevation and my nothingness . . .?” — fought with untiring courage the heresies of the Manichees, Arians, Apollinarists, Nestorians, Eutychians (or Monophysites), and the schisms of the Novatians and the Donatists!
And with the world going to pieces all around him, and the Church beset on all sides, Saint Leo, out of the calm depths of a heart completely absorbed in God, spoke and wrote on the eternal things of the Faith with so much learning and insight that he was as unanimously declared to possess the knowledge and holiness required of a Doctor of the Church as he had been wholeheartedly acclaimed Pope. Saint Leo wrote and preached on the Adorable Trinity, on Jesus and His Immaculate Mother, on Saints Peter and Paul, the Apostles, Holy Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors, the saints and martyrs, the feasts and fasts of the Church, its devotions and its liturgy, with such beauty and clarity and unction and wisdom that the hearts of the faithful of all ages have rarely failed, upon reading his words, to be uplifted to God and filled with the wonder of His love.
It was with the keys of Saint Peter in his hand that Saint Leo wrote his “Dogmatic Epistle” against Eutyches, the heretic, and saved the Faith. It was with the sword of Saint Paul, and unknowingly the vision of Saint Peter above him, that he overcame Attila the Hun — and later Genseric the Vandal — and saved Rome.
“PETER HAS SPOKEN BY LEO!” the Fathers of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon — in number, six hundred and thirty-six bishops — cried out, when Pope Leo’s famous letter setting forth the true doctrine of the Incarnation was read to them. “That is the Faith of the Fathers! That is the Faith of the Apostles! PETER HAS SPOKEN BY LEO!”
The dogmatic letter of Saint Leo, or Saint Leo’s Tome, as it is called, is one of the most precious documents of the Church. The story is told — and the extraordinary beauty of the Tome bears it out — that when Pope Leo had finished it, he placed it on the tomb of Saint Peter, imploring the Chief of the Apostles on whom the Church was founded to correct it with his own hand. He then fasted and prayed for forty days and forty nights, after which he returned to the tomb for the letter. To his overpowering joy, he found that Saint Peter had answered the prayer of his humble successor; the Prince of the Apostles had edited the Tome of Leo.
The dogmatic letter of Saint Leo is an answer to all the attacks on the Sacred Divinity and Humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the Divine Maternity of Mary which grew out of the heresy of Arius. It is of too great length to reproduce in full, but the heavenly grace and beauty of the true doctrine and the language in which it is expressed can be gleaned in the passages which follow. The letter is addressed to Saint Flavian, the great Bishop of Constantinople who later lost his life as a result of the violence inflicted upon him in the “Robber Synod” of Ephesus, where he defended the two natures of Jesus, the divine and the human, against the heretical Abbot Eutyches, who declared there was but one nature, the divine, in the Savior of Mankind. The heresy of Eutyches denied the reality of the flesh of Jesus, and made Him out to be not true man, and Our Lady out to be not true mother. Saint Leo wrote:
…Eutyches there shows himself as in a high degree ignorant and lacking in intelligence…. What knowledge of the Old and New Testament can he have who does not even understand the beginning of the creed? And that which the catechumens throughout the whole world confess, the heart of this old man cannot comprehend….
If he did not know what he ought to believe respecting the Incarnation of the Divine Word, and would not search throughout the whole Scriptures on the subject, then he ought to have adhered to the creed, which all know and confess: To believe in God, the Father Almighty, and in Jesus Christ His only Son Our Lord, who was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. By these three propositions almost every heresy is overthrown. [Italics ours.] For, if one believes in God the Father Almighty, then is the Son declared to be co-eternal with Him, differing in nothing from the Father, because He is God of God, Almighty of the Almighty, Co-eternal of the Eternal, not later in time, not inferior in power, not unequal in glory, not divided in essence. And this only-begotten Eternal Son of the Eternal Father was born by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. This birth in time has taken nothing from, and added nothing to, the eternal birth (from the Father), and its only end is the Redemption of men. For we could not overcome sin and the author of death, unless our nature had been assumed and made His own by Him Whom neither sin could stain nor death could hold.
He was conceived by the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Virgin, and she bore Him without injury to her virginity, even as she conceived Him without loss of the same….
Since, then, the properties of both natures and substances remained uninjured, and united in one Person, lowliness was assumed by majesty, weakness by strength, mortality by eternity…. For He Who is true God, is at the same time true man, and in this unity there is no lie, for the lowliness of man and the loftiness of God have penetrated each other. …
For He Who is one and the same, as must be often repeated, is truly Son of God and truly Son of man. God in this, that ‘in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’; man in this, that ‘the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us’; God in this, that all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made; man in this, that He was made of a woman, and under the law.
The birth of the flesh is the revelation of human nature; the being born of a virgin is the sign of divine power. The weakness of the child is shown by the lowliness of the cradle; the glory of the Highest is proclaimed by the voice of the angels. He is like to the children whom Herod wishes cruelly to slay; but He is Lord of all, Whom the wise men rejoice humbly to adore. And that it might not be concealed that the Godhead is covered by the veil of the flesh, the voice of the Father called from Heaven: ‘This is My Beloved Son,’ etc.
He Who as man is tempted by the cunning of the devil, He, as God, is ministered to by angels. Hunger, thirst, weariness, and sleep are evidently human; but to feed five thousand men with five loaves, to walk on the sea, to command the storms, is without doubt divine. As it does not belong to one and the same nature to bewail a dead friend with deep compassion, and to call him back to life when he has been four days dead by the mere command of His word, or to hang upon the Cross and to make the elements tremble, so it does not belong to one and the same nature to say: ‘I and the Father are one,’ and ‘the Father is greater than I.’ For although in Jesus Christ there is only one Person of God and man, yet the common glory and the common lowliness of the two natures have a different source. From us He has the manhood, which is inferior to the Father; from the Father He has the Godhead, which is equal to the Father….
The heresies of Nestorius and Eutyches did not, alas, die along with their founders, but are to be found existing today in several countries, where their followers are known still as Nestorians and Monophysites. Eutyches was banished several times, and finally died in a remote and deserted part of the world, unloved and alone. Nestorius, Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori tells us, died of a cancer which rotted his tongue, which was “consumed by worms engendered by the disease — a fit punishment for that tongue which had uttered so many blasphemies against Jesus Christ and His Holy Mother.”
In the heresy of Arius, sprung from the Jews, there was contained the seeds of all the heresies, and so it is not surprising to find every one of the false doctrines of the first five hundred years of the Church faithfully preserved in the heretical churches of our own day. The Arian doctrines flourish still in the various sects which call themselves Christian and which come under the one general heading which best describes them, and which acknowledges their constant state to be one of protest — protest against the authority which Jesus Christ vested in His Vicars, the Holy Roman Pontiffs, and protest against many or all of His doctrines, which the Popes have never failed, all through the centuries, to guard, preserve, define when necessary, and pass down unchanged, to each succeeding generation.
Arianism is as frankly alive today in Unitarianism — which declares that only the Father is God — as it ever was in the days when Arius and Eusebius of Nicomedia befouled the Eastern air with its blasphemy. It lives still, though more subtly, in the other Protestant sects, whose members invariably answer the question, “Do you believe that Jesus is God?” with the reply which is so tragically revealing of just how far they are willing to go: “Well, I believe He is the son of God.” The true answer, of course, is that Jesus is both God and the Son of God, a full answer which no Protestant ever makes.
Eutyches and his Monophysitism, living quietly still in many of the sects, openly stalks the land of America under the name of Christian Science, which denies the reality of matter not only in the human nature of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, but in us all! Nestorianism, alas, is common to all of the Protestant sects. One has only to ask the question, “Do you believe that Mary is the Mother of God?” to receive the answer, “I believe she is the mother of Christ. I would not say that she is the Mother of God.”
In the year 452, Attila the Hun, having with remorseless cruelty sieged, burned, sacked and destroyed Aquileia — the city in northeastern Italy at the head of the Adriatic Sea — was as close as Mantua, on his march to Rome. He was boasting, as he advanced, that the total conquest of Italy was to be his crowning work of destruction. Rome was the dowry which he planned to present to his bride, Honoria, the granddaughter of the great Theodosius!
All Rome awaited the coming of the Mongol King in hopeless terror. They had no defense left against him. And then, in its darkest hour — as would so often be the case through the centuries ahead — the Eternal City was saved, not by its legions, its tribunes, its senators, or its suffering citizens. Rome was saved by its Bishop, the Holy Roman Pontiff.
Practically alone, Pope Leo went out to meet the wanton murderer who was the terror of the world. He climbed steadily northward, this holy and august Vicar of Christ, and over the mountains, an arduous journey indeed in those days. He found the Mongolian chief below Mantua, at the point where the Mincio River, flowing down from its Alpine source — the beautiful Lago Garda — emptied itself in the Po. Attila’s troops, hardened veterans seasoned in plunder and sack and rape, were ready and waiting to cross the Po when Saint Leo, in his papal robes, entered the disordered camp and stood before the King of the Huns.
The glorious Pope threatened Attila with the power which was his from Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, if he did not turn back and leave Italy unmolested. And it is one of the most dramatic, of all the dramatic facts with which the story of the Church is so enchantingly full, that Attila, the Hun, yielded before Leo, the Pope. The “Scourge of God” agreed to turn back. He gave up Rome. And Leo, absorbed in thanksgiving, returned to his See.
Attila’s servants, so the story is told, asked him why he had reversed his custom and capitulated so easily to the Bishop of Rome. The brigand chief answered that all the while the Pope was speaking, he, Attila, the generator of terror in others, was himself consumed with fear, for there had appeared in the air above the Pope’s head a figure in the dress of a priest, holding in his hand a drawn sword with which he made as if to kill him unless he consented to do as Leo asked. The figure was that of Peter!
In the year 454, Saint Leo confirmed the doctrinal decrees of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon. And in 455, once again he went out, alone but for some of his clergy, to meet the invader. This time it was the Arian Vandal King, Genseric, and while Saint Leo was able to prevail upon him to spare his people from massacre, and Rome from burning, he was not able to dissuade him from plunder. For fourteen days, Genseric’s army pillaged Rome; but the Romans, thanks to the Pope, remained unharmed.
On the tenth day of November, in the year 461, Pope Saint Leo, glorious successor of Saint Peter and one of the greatest men the world has ever known, died a deeply holy death. His most pure soul, we may be sure, was borne at once to the throne of the Queen of Heaven by the tender and triumphant Peter, through whom Saint Leo’s battles had been fought at every hour of his blessed pontificate, against the seed of her everlasting enemy, Lucifer.
There has come down to us, in the works of Saint Leo, his discourse on the supremely lovable, infinitely wistful, majestically humble lover of Jesus Christ, the Prince of the Apostles, the first Holy Roman Pontiff. Leo’s tribute to Peter has rung down the ages:
…In the Universal Church, it is Peter that doth still say every day, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and every tongue which confesseth that JESUS is Lord is taught that confession by the teaching of Peter. This is the Faith that overcometh the devil and looseth the hands of his prisoners. This is the Faith which maketh men free of the world and bringeth them to Heaven, and the gates of Hell are impotent to prevail against it.
With such ramparts of salvation hath God fortified this rock, that the contagion of heresy will never be able to infect it, nor idolatry and unbelief to overcome it. This teaching it is, my dearly beloved brethren, which maketh the keeping of this feast today to be our reasonable service, even the teaching which maketh you to know and honor in myself, lowly though I be, that Peter who is still entrusted with the care of all other shepherds and of all the flocks to them committed, and whose authority I have, albeit unworthy to be his heir….