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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Saints for Today: Hilary of Poitiers, Bishop (315-368)

Feast Day: January 13

Born of two pagan parents, Hilary used his own powers of reason and concluded that there must be a God. He was introduced to the Scriptures, which led him to convert to Christianity after reading the Prologue to Saint John’s Gospel. He was married at the time of his episcopal consecration and, out of humility, didn’t want to take a religious office—but he was unanimously nominated.

Hilary fought strenuously against the semi-Arians, who were supported by the emperor, and he was sent into exile for doing so. The point at issue was the consubstantiality of the Son with the Father (of the same nature), which had been defended by St. Athanasius in the East. After his return from exile, Hilary had the courage to protest vigorously against the emperor’s unwarranted intervention in religious matters. In fact, it was under Hilary that the clergy recognized more and more that even in a Christian state the Church must be separate and independent.

Hilary, a staunch defender of the divinity of Christ, was a gentle and courageous man, devoted to writing some of the greatest theology on the Trinity, and was like his Master in being labeled a “disturber of the peace.” In a very troubled period in the Church, his holiness was lived out in both scholarship and controversy.

In his treatise on the Trinity (in twelve books) Hilary became the first theologian of the Latin Church to combat the Arian heresy and to introduce into the language of the West the precisions of Catholic doctrine and Greek thought. He also helped Saint Martin of Tours promote the monastic life and he composed several liturgical hymns.

Hilary, an immovable defender of orthodoxy, was also very gentle in reconciling the bishops of France who, in fear or ignorance, had accepted the Arian creed. And while he wrote a blistering indictment of the emperor for sponsoring heresy, he could also point out, calmly, that sometimes the difference between heretical and orthodox doctrines was in the words rather than the ideas. He counseled bishops of the West, therefore, to be reserved in their condemnation. And this, of course, won him new enemies.

The relevance of Saint Hilary’s message can be deduced from the Opening Prayer of the Mass:

All-powerful God, as Saint Hilary defended the divinity of Christ your Son, give us a deeper understanding of this mystery and help us to profess it in all truth.”

Foley, Leonard, O.F.M., and Pat McCloskey, O.F.M. “Saint of the Day.” Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2009.
Lodi, Enzo. “Saints of the Roman Calendar.” New York: Alba House, 1992.
Trigilio, Rev. John, Ph.D, Th.D, and Rev. Kenneth Brighenti, Ph.D. “Saints for Dummies.” Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, 2010.

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