Saint Athanasius was born around the year 297 A.D (296-300?) in the city of Alexandria. Not much is known of his family besides that they were Christians. He did receive a great classical education, a common education of the time that focused on philosophy, rhetoric, Greek literature, law, and Christian theology. His understanding of the Sacred Scriptures was vast, although the Canon of the Bible had not yet been established. We do know that he learned theology from confessors who endured persecution under the reign of Maximian. As a young child, he knew many of the desert hermits very well, including St. Antony of the Desert.
At the age of twenty-one years old, he was ordained to the diaconate and served as the secretary to Alexander, Patriarch of Alexandria. It’s believed that it was during this time in his early life that he wrote his impressive work, On the Incarnation of the Word. This great document focuses on the work of redemption by Jesus Christ.
A few years later, as Athanasius was reaching his mid-twenties, the heresy that would plague the Early Church for years was first rising to the stage in Alexandria. This heresy proclaimed that Jesus Christ wasn’t really God nor was he just a man, but he was a demi-god. The bishop was Arius and the heresy Arianism. At a council in Egypt, in its early stages, the heresy was condemned, however that did not stop it since Arius and some of the clergy that agreed with him moved on to Caesarea where the movement continued to grow swallowing up clergyman that adhered to it.
In May of 325 A.D., the Council of Nicaea gathered and condemned the Arian heresy. It was the genesis of what would come years later in the Nicene-Constantinople Creed, the same profession of faith we still recite today. St. Athanasius was present at this council and embraced the council’s theological definition of what the Church believed to be true about Jesus Christ.
Not yet thirty years of age, at the death of Alexandra, Athanasius was appointed his successor. As soon as he was elevated to the episcopate, Athanasius got to work on his gigantic diocese. He worked very closely with the monastic orders he knew since he was a young man. Under his early years as patriarch, the country of Ethiopia grew in the Christian faith. He appointed a bishop who oversaw the growth in that country.
In the year 330 A.D., Bishop Eusebius, a bishop loyal to Arian thought, returned from exile and asked Emperor Constantine to write a letter to Athanasius asking that Arius be reunited into full communion with the Church. Knowing full well the intentions of these men, Athanasius responded and said that the Church would not allow heretics who questioned the divinity of Jesus Christ into communion. Angry at his reply, Eusebius wrote a damaging letter to Athanasius justifying Arius’ position.
After failing to make the point with Constantine, Eusebius reached out to the Meletians, a group that fell prey to the Arian hype and embraced the theology completely. They trumped up a variety of charges against Athanasius. During the trial before the emperor, Athanasius cleared his own name of the accusations and returned to Alexandria triumphed, and even with a letter of good standing from the emperor himself.
Not being satisfied with this outcome, his enemies; accused him falsely of killing a Meletian bishop. He was summoned to attend a council to speak against the charges, but he ignored the summons since he knew the bishop was alive and well, but in hiding. In 335 A.D., the emperor asked him to attend a council in Tyre to answer the charges brought against him. The council was packed with many of his Arian enemies seeking to destroy and run him out of Alexandria. By this time, there were many Arian bishops in the Church, including the hijacked see of Antioch.
Although he knew he was innocent, the council was essentially a kangaroo court who condemned before he even arrived. Knowing what he faced, Athanasius left the assembly and proceeded to Constantinople, where he met with the emperor. Favored by the emperor, Athanasius was vindicated. However, before the emperor could send this letter to the Council of Tyre telling him that Athanasius was cleared of all charges, the council sent letters to Constantinople declaring that Athanasius had been exiled to Trier in Belgian Gaul (modern day Germany).
In the year 337 A.D., Emperor Constantine died and his empire was divided among this three sons. His son, Constantine II, who oversaw the region where the see of Alexandria presided, recalled Athanasius from his exile and sought to make him patriarch once again. Although Athanasius returned in triumph, the honeymoon would not last long since Eusebius won the favor of Constantine II. Eusebius brought up many false charges against Athanasius again. He also created a council in Antioch where they decided that the see of Alexandria would now have an Arian bishop.
Following this council, a letter from the hierarchy in Egypt and other Catholic bishops, was sent to Pope St. Julius asking him to also condemn Athanasius. The Pope suggested that a synod gather to discuss the charges brought against Athanasius. With the violence that had besieged Alexandria, Athanasius wisely decided to travel to Rome and reside there.
The synod finally gathered and Athanasius was completely freed of all the charges brought against him. The one main reason why this happened is because Eusebius and his followers, the very group that charged St. Athanasius, never appeared at the synod. In 344 A.D., the Council of Sardica declared Athanasius vindicated. Although the charges had been dropped, he could not return to Alexandria until the death of the Cappadocian Gregory. The emperor, Constantius, also told his brother Constans, that returning Athanasius to his see would be beneficial to them both.
After nearly eight years in exile, St. Athanasius returned to Alexandria again in triumph. Enduring many hardships for years, things were finally at peace…at least for some time. In around the fourth year back, Constans was murdered. This was not a good thing for Athanasius since all his orthodox support and security had now vanished. Finding himself as the ruler of the entire empire, both east and west, Constantius set out to stomp Athanasius, since he saw the saint has a personal enemy. Twice, once in 353 A.D., and again in 355 A.D., the emperor with the help of his advisors; condemned Athanasius.
Thinking that he was safe with the flock and clergy that supported him, Athanasius served his diocese once again with much vigor. In reality, this was not the case since his life was threatened as he celebrated Holy Mass one night. Some of the faithful attending Mass were killed. Athanasius escaped into the desert where the monks protected him for nearly six years.
Coming from the supporters of the Arians and the Alexandrian see, Constantius was killed. The new emperor, Julian, destroyed all the condemnations against Athanasius and he was allowed to return to his city. Realizing how Catholic and orthodox Athanasius actually was, Julian banished him to his fourth exile. It was Julian’s plan to create a pagan culture in Egypt, but that would have never been accomplished if St. Athanasius were allowed to stay in the city. As it was for the six years before, the monks of the desert, his good and faithful friends took in Athanasius. He practiced the ascetic life with great zeal.
At the death of Julian, St. Athanasius returned to Alexandria yet again since the new emperor, Jovian destroyed the declarations of banishment. Athanasius was threatened again, but this time for only a short period. Emperor Valens was afraid that the people who loved their bishop dearly would rise up against him.
Overall, Saint Athanasius was exiled from his see a total of five times. He spent a total of seventeen years in complete banishment from his flock. For the last seven years of his life, he was pretty much left alone and was allowed to minister to his diocese. Having a great love for the desert monks that protected time and time again, he wrote the Life of St. Antony.
On May 2, 373 A.D., Saint Athanasius entered Heavenly Glory. His body was taken from Alexandria to Constantinople. Its finally resting place is Venice, Italy. He is considered one of the great four Eastern Doctors of the Catholic Church. In the Latin Church, his feast day is today, May 2. The Eastern Orthodox Church venerates him on January 18, and on May 15, the Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates him.
Including the two works mentioned above, Saint Athanasius also wrote four letters on the Holy Spirit that pertain to the Arian crisis to his friend, Serapion, Bishop of Thumuis; thirty “festal” letters written to churches and monasteries informing them when the great solemnity of Easter would be celebrated; and texts for meditations based on the Psalms.
Benedict XVI, Pope. Church Fathers. Ignatius Press., 2008.
Hoever, Rev. Hugo. Lives of the Saints. Catholic Book Publishing Co., 1989.
Walsh, Michael. Butler’s Lives of the Saints. HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.