Born in the last decade of the III century in Alexandria, Egypt.
Alexandria, Egypt. May 2, 373.
St. Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, during the last decade of the III century. Little is known about the first couple years of his life. However, we know that he received a good formation in philosophy and theology before he was ordained a deacon in 320.
During the 320s, a priest named Arian began to spread a heresy that declared that Jesus did not have a divine nature, that he was not true-God but only a mediator between God and men. The Church proclaimed the Nicene Council in 325 to clarify the faith in this subject. St. Athanasius accompanied his bishop Alexander to the Council, serving him as his secretary. The council confirmed that Jesus is God, wrote a new Creed (more explicit in this point), excommunicated Arian, and condemned his heresy.
Returning from the Council, in 328, bishop Alexander died and Athanasius was chosen as his successor. Although the Nicene Council had condemned it, the Arian heresy continued to spread through Alexandria and had many followers. Saint Athanasius fought vigorously against Arianism and because of this was exiled several times. The first 30 years of his episcopal ministry were spent between exiles and other subtle attacks, putting him to the test and proving what a great saint he was. His enemies went as far as naming illegitimate bishops to usurp his episcopal see. In 343, he travelled to Rome to present his case to the Holy Father Julius I, who solemnly restored him to his position as the only legitimate bishop of Alexandria. However, because of the persecution, he was unable to definitively establish himself as bishop until 366. It’s estimated that he spent a total of 17 years in exile.
This saint overcame all these trials with an authentic and vigorous faith, which we could call heroic. He was a true shepherd who had to guide his flock by offering himself up and through prayer. During one of his exiles, Athanasius took refuge in the Egyptian desert where some monks who lived the way of life of St. Anthony received him. This experience awakened in him a great interest for the monastic life.
St. Athanasius had a very broad personality. It’s known that he had a good sense of humor and great courage, which allowed him to confront all the necessary dangers and sufferings that came upon him for defending the true faith. He is considered to be one of the two greatest doctors of the Church because of his apologetic doctrine. St. Gregory of Nyssa affirmed that he is a true “column of the Church.”
He passed away on May 2, 373. Eight years later, during the I Council of Constantinople, the Nicene doctrine was reaffirmed and the Arian heresy, against which Athanasius had fought so much, was definitively ended.
St. Athanasius’ love of the Blessed Sacrament is understood by his writings. In the following quote, for example, we see his great amazement and admiration for the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of the Lord.
“You’ll see the ministers who bring bread and a cup of wine and they place it on the table; as long as they have not done prayed the invocations and supplications, it is nothing more than pure bread and drink. But when these marvelous and extraordinary prayers have ended, the bread is converted into the Body and the challis into the Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ…Let us consider the culminating moment of these mysteries; this bread and this challis, before they have prayed and supplicated, are pure bread and drink; but as soon as these extraordinary prayers and holy supplications have been pronounced, the Word himself comes down to the bread and challis and they are converted into his Body.” (Sermon to the Baptized, 25)
Although the most well known aspect of St. Athanasius’ doctrine is his defense of the divinity of Jesus Christ, his defense of the virginity of Mary is no less firm and insistent, precisely because it is a clear sign that Jesus is God.
“When he descend to us in the beginning, he makes for himself a body, born of a virgin, as a great proof of his divinity, for all men. He who formed this body is also the Creator of the other bodies.” (The Incarnation of the Word)
“The Virgin Mary is like a house which is closed on all sides, except for a small, clear-glass window facing East through which the rays of the sun penetrate and illuminate everything; although the rays pass through the glass, it remains intact and unharmed. In the same way, the Virgin Mary is three-times chaste; the Son of God, the divine ray which comes down from the Father, is the Sun of justice who enlightens her entirely, enters into and leaves her without leaving even the smallest stain on her virginity.” (Quaestiones, 19).
-St. Athanasius’ body, initially buried in Alexandria, was moved to Venice, Italy during the middle ages. In 1973, Shenouda III, the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria, received permission from Pope Paul VI to transfer the saint’s remains to the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria, Egypt, where they currently rest.
- After his remains were moved, a few relics of St. Athanasius remained in the church of St. Zechariah in Venice, Italy, where they can still be venerated.
- In the church of St. Athanasius the Great in Santa Sofía d’Epiro, Cosenza, Italy, one of the saint’s fingers is conserved.
By the saint:
The written works of St. Athanasius are many. A great part of them defend the doctrine of Nicaea concerning the divinity of Jesus Christ, for example: “Apology against the Arians,” “Epistle about the Decrees of the Nicene Council,” “Epistle on the Doctrine of Dionysius,” “Letter to the Bishops of Egypt and Libya,” “History of the Arians,” “The Four Discourses against the Arians,” and “The Treatise on the Synods.”
Another central topic of his writings, the incarnation of the Word, can be found in: “Letter to Epictetus,” and “Against the Pagans and on the Incarnation of the Word.”
His biography of the abbot St. Anthony is also very important; it is titled, “The Life of Saint Anthony.” It was written shortly after the saint’s death, while St. Athanasius was with the hermits in the desert.
In addition to these works, he wrote many other letters, biblical commentaries, treaties of exegesis and apologetics, meditations, etc.
By de Popes:
- Catechesis of the Holy Father Benedict XVI dedicated to St. Athanasius, general audience of June 20, 2007.
By other authors:
Various biographies of St. Athanasius can be found in bookstores and online, such as “St. Athanasius,” by F.A. Forbes. Other works have been written on his doctrine.
Here you can read an article written by the Franciscan Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, preacher of the Pontifical House. It is a Lenten talk given in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI, which, among other things, speaks about St. Athanasius and the faith in the divinity of Christ.