St. Athanasius (296?-373) was a great Egyptian bishop who played a major role in opposing the heresy of Arianism and in preserving the Church’s true faith. He was born of a Christian family in Alexandria, where he received a classical education. In 319 Athanasius was ordained a deacon, and later became a priest; he served as secretary to Bishop Alexander, who vigorously opposed the Arian heresy. This false belief, named after Arius, a priest who promoted it, claimed that Jesus wasn’t truly divine, but merely human. After being expelled from Alexandria, Arius gathered support elsewhere, and soon his heresy became widespread.
In 325 Athanasius accompanied Bishop Alexander to the Council of Nicea, which officially condemned Arianism — but the Arian controversy had barely begun. Alexander died shortly after the Council, recommending on his deathbed that his secretary Athanasius be chosen as his successor. Athanasius ruled his diocese some forty-six years, struggling with Arianism throughout this period. Arius gained the sympathy of the emperor, and his heresy flourished; many bishops and priests abandoned the Church’s true teaching, accepting Arianism instead. The emperor ordered Athanasius to reinstate the heretical priest; when the bishop refused to do so, he was banished from Egypt.
On four separate occasions Athanasius was sent into exile (spending seventeen of his forty-six years as bishop away from his diocese); nothing, however, could make him cease defending the divinity of Christ. St. Athanasius played perhaps the major role in helping the Church eventually overcome Arianism (though it continued for some years after his death in 373); for this reason, and because of his learned writings (including the Life of St. Anthony), he is considered a Doctor (an eminent and reliable teacher) of the Church.
1. As St. Athanasius realized, Christian truth is unchanging and worth defending, even at the cost of considerable personal sacrifice.
2. In his Life of St. Anthony, Athanasius described the great monk’s many struggles with demons, while he himself spent his life fighting against the Church’s enemies. St. Athanasius recognized the reality of evil and of human sinfulness — but he firmly believed in the all-conquering power of Christ.