On Saturday we celebrate a Saint who is widely revered in theory, but little so in practice in contemporary Roman Catholicism. For our brethren in the East, Athanasius the Great is the father of orthodoxy. Traditionalists in the West have long pointed to his example as one to follow. Yet if you ask most Catholics in the average parish, few will know who Athanasius is. When it comes to biography, there are those who are far better at providing those details than yours truly.
For me, Athanasius matters because of a popular phrase that is said to describe his life: Athanasius contra mundum, or Athanasius against the world. The stories of this struggle are well known. Whether it was the constant deposition and restoration of his patriarchy at Alexandria, six hundred Roman soldiers entering the front door of his Church to arrest him while he leaves out the back, or how he traveled all over the known world because of his constant exile, Athanasius is an example to all of us about the price and reward of absolute fidelity to the Gospel.
Yet what animated this zeal? Why was he willing to go to such great lengths? For Athanasius, the source of this belief was simple: God incarnate became man, and that has real consequences for our lives. Though simple, this view was quite radical for its time. Though the Roman Empire professed Christianity, and even had some pious emperors, most Caesars looked at religion as still primarily a political question. They had a global empire to manage, and in that empire there were many flavors of belief. Even when Christianity became the official religion of the empire, there existed various forms of Christianity, and not all of them orthodox. While sometimes there were attempts to foster unity and orthodoxy (see the Council of Nicaea), for the most part the Caesars advocated a go-along-to-get-along type of unity.
This type of unity was unacceptable for Athanasius. If Jesus Christ was God, then what we think about Jesus is of primary importance towards the faith, because erring about Christ means erring about God. Furthermore, if Christ became man to show us a new way of living, then that meant that new way of living was both possible and mandatory. All had to be subservient to that new way of living.
This view in and of itself threatened the stability of daily life. When a Caesar held to a different view than one of the most powerful bishops in the world, then that was a direct threat to his power as well. They tried to make Athanasius treat Christ’s divinity and Incarnation like any other political issue: something to bargain over, and accept that sometimes you can only get half a loaf. To make nice with everyone else, dilute your message. Yet if the truth about Christ is to be diluted, what’s so special about Christ? If there’s nothing special about Christ, why not just treat Christianity as another political ideology? If just another ideology, why was the Cross necessary?
This is why Athanasius’ message matters. He lived in a world that, in the words of St. Jerome, “groaned and was surprised to find itself Arian.” Most of the Church and world had fallen into heresy. Those who were supposed to be guardians of orthodoxy, even at the highest levels, either fell into heresy, or bargained away their duty in opposing heresy, or faced exile. Today, being a faithful Catholic is difficult, even inside the Church. A sizeable faction of bishops wants to bargain away the faith to keep the peace with the world. They might not realize it, but in doing so, they are bargaining away Christ to obtain a peace with the spirit of the age that, if it comes, never lasts.
How did Athanasius stand strong against this spirit of the age that dominated his time? St. Gregory of Nazianzen stated that Athanasius “possessed all virtues”, and these virtues served as a code of conduct that “were the rule of Bishops.” He didn’t become a great doctor of the Church through some means that aren’t available to us. He had God’s grace, and he practiced all the virtues, without compromise.
That’s the true lesson of St. Athanasius. We often find excuses for not practicing virtue. Some of these excuses might even be convincing. Sometimes it’s just a lax feeling that we will get to it later. For now, we just have to go along to get along with our sins. Just as he was a fierce opponent of this view in doctrine, so Athanasius opposed this in spirituality. While he warred every step of the way with people over doctrine, he warred against the flesh to always overcome the laziness we are prone to. Without that laziness, he was able to do great things. If we follow that example, we can stand against the world just as he did. We might not be exiled or persecuted, but we can still celebrate alongside him because, like him, we always practiced the virtues of our faith.