Some remarks on St. Athanasius, Doctor of the Church—who memorial is celebrated today—from Pope Benedict XVI's June 20, 2007, general audience:
Only a few years after his death, this authentic protagonist of the Christian tradition was already hailed as "the pillar of the Church" by Gregory of Nazianzus, the great theologian and Bishop of Constantinople (Orationes, 21, 26), and he has always been considered a model of orthodoxy in both East and West.
As a result, it was not by chance that Gian Lorenzo Bernini placed his statue among those of the four holy Doctors of the Eastern and Western Churches - together with the images of Ambrose, John Chrysostom and Augustine - which surround the Chair of St Peter in the marvellous apse of the Vatican Basilica.
Athanasius was undoubtedly one of the most important and revered early Church Fathers. But this great Saint was above all the impassioned theologian of the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word of God who - as the Prologue of the fourth Gospel says - "became flesh and dwelt among us" (Jn 1: 14).
For this very reason Athanasius was also the most important and tenacious adversary of the Arian heresy, which at that time threatened faith in Christ, reduced to a creature "halfway" between God and man, according to a recurring tendency in history which we also see manifested today in various forms.
In all likelihood Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in about the year 300 A.D. He received a good education before becoming a deacon and secretary to the Bishop of Alexandria, the great Egyptian metropolis. As a close collaborator of his Bishop, the young cleric took part with him in the Council of Nicaea, the first Ecumenical Council, convoked by the Emperor Constantine in May 325 A.D. to ensure Church unity. The Nicene Fathers were thus able to address various issues and primarily the serious problem that had arisen a few years earlier from the preaching of the Alexandrian priest, Arius.
With his theory, Arius threatened authentic faith in Christ, declaring that the Logos was not a true God but a created God, a creature "halfway" between God and man who hence remained for ever inaccessible to us. The Bishops gathered in Nicaea responded by developing and establishing the "Symbol of faith" ["Creed"] which, completed later at the First Council of Constantinople, has endured in the traditions of various Christian denominations and in the liturgy as the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed.
And the opening of the chapter on St. Athanasius in Adrian Fortescue's The Greek Fathers: Their Lives and Writings:
SAINT ATHANASIUS (293-373)
Athanasius, some time Patriarch of Alexandria, is the first and, without question, the greatest of the Greek Fathers.
The apostolic Fathers and apologists had written in Greek, but they form classes of their own. When we speak of the Greek Fathers, we mean the great saints who in the eastern part of the empire wrote defences of the faith in various forms after the age of persecution was over, during the time of the great heresies, that is, in the fourth and fifth centuries.
Of these Greek Fathers, Saint Athanasius is the first in order of time. Against each of the heresies, the Church had some one great champion, one leader who stood for the Catholic side against the heretics as the chief defender of the faith, who was the acknowledged guide of the others. The first heresy after the persecution was Arianism; it was also the most disastrous and far-reaching in its effects. And Saint Athanasius was the defender of the faith against the Arians.
There were others too, Saint Hilary in the west, Saint Basil and the Gregories. Every Father of this time has something to say against the Arians, but they all acknowledged Athanasius as their leader. From the beginning, he had been the chief opponent of Arius, so much so that "Athanasian" was often used as the name of the Catholic party, as opposed to "Arian". To tell the story of his life is practically to tell that of the Arian troubles. He lived through the whole movement. As a young deacon he saw it begin, and for nearly fifty years he fought it from his throne by the Nile. His name was always the watchword for either side.
Every Arian synod declared its policy to be "away with Athanasius"; every Catholic synod took up his defence. Under five emperors and five popes, he was the one tower of strength and rallying point to all Catholics in that hopeless confusion of synods and anti-synods, banishments and usurpations. Five times he himself was driven into exile for the faith, and when at last he died in his own home, the most famous bishop of his time, he had won his fight; Arianism was practically dead too. And he left a name whose glory no length of time can ever make us forget.
Read the Foreword to The Greek Fathers: