St Athanasius – May 2, helping Catholicism’s official status

Features Mgsr John Broadbent3 May 2011 Catholicism was briefly the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD before it crumbled in the fifth century. Last month…


Mgsr John Broadbent
3 May 2011

Catholicism was briefly the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD before it crumbled in the fifth century.

Last month we saw how, at the beginning of the fourth century AD, Diocletian perpetrated perhaps the most ferocious of all the persecutions against the Christians. He also initiated reforms in the empire because it was now so vast with two co-equal emperors – he was emperor in the West while the Eastern emperor made his centre Nicomedia (now in Turkey).

St Athanasius - May 2, helping Catholicism's official status Archdiocese of WellingtonHe also created crown princes or caesars to be possible successors and to guard the frontiers. Large standing armies were needed to defend the empire against the Barbarians who were now infiltrating over the Rhine while the Persians were breaching the eastern borders. The governor of a province was not allowed, under the old system, to keep a large army for fear that he would, as history had shown, overthrow the emperor in Rome.

The caesar in the West was a very capable general, Constantius, who took for his wife St Helen, a British princess and devout Christian. Had she been able to convert her husband, he would have lost his job. However, she did influence their son Constantine who rebelled and marched on Rome.

Just as Diocletian had begun his persecution on seeing numerous conversions make Christianity the largest religion in the empire, he believed that restoring the old pagan religion would renew the empire which was now decaying morally and economically.

Constantine, on the other hand, thought rather of how Christianity, the impact of which he could see in his mother’s life, could genuinely provide a moral basis for the empire’s restoration.

When Constantine drew near Rome, he saw a vision in the sky of a cross with, next to it, the words ‘In this sign, thou shalt conquer.’ He ordered his soldiers to put a cross on their helmets and, at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, conquered Rome.

He did not become a Christian until he was on his death bed, but he gave the Christians freedom to practise many privileges, made the Sabbath a public holiday, gave bishops many privileges, territories and palaces (our word basilica [a palace] comes from this time), and made them judges even in the civil court.

Favoured though it was, Christianity did not become the official religion until after Constantine’s death. Many modern church historians saw this as the beginning of decay in the church and blamed Constantine for helping the church to lose its innocence.

Enter Athanasius
Constantine tried unsuccessfully to unify heretics and Christians in North Africa. He needed one powerful religion to effect the change he wanted for the empire.

During these days of persecution and struggle at the beginning of the fourth century a young lad, Athanasius, was growing up in the empire’s second largest city, Alexandria in Egypt. He attracted the attention of its bishop Alexander who had him well educated and ordained a priest, appointing him his secretary. But as Athanasius was ordained, an influential parish priest in the city, Arius, was preaching a strange doctrine that had been held by factions in the church some years before – that Jesus was not God but man – a very special human being, most perfect, but not God.

‘How can Jesus redeem the world?’ Athanasius countered in his sermons and writings. ‘If he were not God, how else could we humans be saved unless God became man, suffered and died for us and proved it by rising from the dead?’

Arius was a great populariser and through hymns which sailors and traders took from the great port of Alexandria, Arianism spread like wildfire. Constantine realised its threat to Christianity.

By now he was sole emperor of both East and West, and engaged in building his capital at Constantinople. He called a general council (the first) at Nicaea, a town near the new city where more than 220 bishops from all over the empire attended and condemned Arius.

But despite being able to prove from many texts of scripture that Jesus said he was God, the bishops could not find one word from scripture to define it. Finally homoosius, or consubstantial, was agreed though the debate continued. Constantine presided over the council, but afterwards, many bishops returned to Arian formulas, particularly Eusebius of Nicomedia, Constantine’s spiritual adviser. He slowly brought Constantine to an Arian way of thinking.

Athanasius’ bishop, Alexander, died soon after the council. As his successor, Athanasius was loved by his people. He was a great preacher and gave many of his possessions to the poor. However, through political machinations, he was falsely accused of many things and was exiled five times for a total of 17 years. He died in 373 without seeing Catholicism restored as the orthodox religion of the empire.

Other articles in this series
Ss Agape, Chionia and Irene

The martyrdom of Perpetua, Felicitas and companions