January 14, 2011

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The wisdom of the saints: St. Hilary

John F. FinkSt. Hilary, whose feast day is on Jan. 13, was a great fourth-century defender of the doctrine of the Trinity. As Bishop of Poitiers, France, he battled against the heresy of Arianism, which taught that God the Son was created by God the Father in time and, therefore, not eternal and equal to the Father.

The heresy was condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325, but its adherents spread it widely. St. Jerome wrote, “The world groaned and marveled to find that it was Arian.” The Roman Emperor Constantius, an Arian, exiled Hilary to Phrygia, in modern Turkey, but eventually he was permitted to return to France. He is one of the 33 Doctors of the Church.

Here are excerpts from one of his sermons, which he expressed as a prayer to God the Father:

He first acknowledged that God had given him the gift of speech to be at God’s service, to make him known as Father, the Father of his only-begotten Son. He must use this gift, he said, to preach to those who did not know him, and to the heretics who refused to believe in him.

He then prayed for the gift of God’s help and mercy, for the breath of the Holy Spirit “to drive us on as we begin this course of proclaiming your truth.” He promised to study the sayings of the prophets and Apostles “with unflagging attention.”

Hilary admitted that there is an inertia in our nature that makes us dull, and “we are held within the bounds of ignorance by the weakness of our minds.” Yet, in trying to comprehend divine truths, we can do so, he said, by earnest attention to God’s teaching and by obedience to the faith.

He then declared, “as part of the mystery of revelation: that you are the eternal God, the Father of the eternal, only-begotten God; that you are one and not born from another; and that the Lord Jesus is also one, born of you from all eternity.”

He went on to say that we must not proclaim a change in truth regarding the number of gods. “We must not deny that [Jesus] is begotten of the one God; nor must we assert that he is other than the true God.”

He then asked God to impart to him the meaning of the words of Scripture and the ability to understand it “with reverence for the doctrine and confidence in its truth.”

He repeated that it is through the prophets and Apostles that we know about the one God the Father and the one Lord Jesus Christ. He asked for the grace, despite the heretics who deny him, “to honor you as God, who is not alone, and to proclaim this as truth.”

Although this was a sermon-prayer on the Trinity, there was only that slight mention of the Holy Spirit. St. Hilary believed in the equality of the Holy Spirit as it was declared in the Council of Nicaea and proclaimed in the Nicene Creed, but the fight against the Arians concerned the nature of God the Son. †

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