St. Hilary, Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church
by Fr. Dom Prosper Gueranger
After having consecrated the joyous Octave of the Epiphany to the glory of the Emmanuel who was manifested to the earth, the Church--incessantly occupied with the Divine Child and His august Mother, during the whole time from Christmas Day to that whereon Mary will bring Jesus to the Temple, there to be offered to God, as the law prescribes--the Church, we say, has on her Calendar of this portion of the year the names of many glorious Saints, who shine like so many stars on the path which leads us, from the joys of the Nativity of our Lord, to the sacred mystery of our Lady's Purification.
And firstly, there comes before us, on the very morrow of the day consecrated to the Baptism of Jesus, the faithful and courageous Hilary--the pride of the Churches of Gaul, and the worthy associate of Athanasius and Eusebius of Vercelli in the battle fought for the Divinity of our Emmanuel. Scarcely were the cruel persecutions of paganism over, when there commenced the fierce contest with Arianism, which had sworn to deprive of the glory and honours of His divinity that Jesus, who had conquered, by His Martyrs, over the violence and craft of the Roman Emperors. The Church had won her liberty by shedding her blood, and it was not likely that she would be less courageous on the new battlefield into which she was driven. Many were the Martyrs that were put to death by her new enemies--christian, though heretical, Princes:--it was for the Divinity of that Lord, who had mercifully appeared on the earth in the weakness of human flesh, that they shed their blood. Side by side with these, there stood those holy and illustrious Doctors, who, with the martyr-spirit within them, defended, by their learning and eloquence, the Nicene Faith, which was the Faith of the Apostles. In the foremost rank of these latter we behold the Saint of today, covered with the rich laurels of his brave confessorship, Hilary: who, as St. Jerome says of him, was brought up in the pompous school of Gaul, yet had culled the flowers of Grecian science, and became the Rhone of Latin eloquence. St. Augustine calls him the illustrious Doctor of the Churches.
Though gifted with the most extraordinary talents, and one of the most learned men of the age, yet St. Hilary's greatest glory is his intense love for the Incarnate Word, and his zeal for the Liberty of the Church. His great soul thirsted after martyrdom, and, by the unflinching love of truth which such a spirit gave him, he was the brave champion of the Church in that trying period, when Faith, that had stood the brunt of persecution, seemed to be on the point of being betrayed by the craft of Princes, and the cowardice of temporising and un-orthodox Pastors.
Thus did the holy bishop, Hilary of Poitiers, receive the honours of the Church's love for his having so courageously, and even at the peril of his life, fought in defence of the great Mystery. Another of his glories is, that he was one of the most intrepid champions of that principle, which cannot be compromised without the vitality and very existence of the Church being endangered--the priciple of that Church's Liberty. A few days ago we were celebrating the Feast of our holy Martyr, St. Thomas of Canterbury; today, we have the Feast of the glorious Confessor, whose example enlightened and encouraged him in the great struggle. Both Hilary and Thomas a Becket were obedient to the teaching left to the Pastors of the Church by the Apostles; who, when they were arraigned the first time before the authorities of this world, uttered this great maxim: We ought to obey God rather than men (Acts, v. 29). The Apostles and the Saints were strong in the battle against flesh and blood, only because they were detached from earthly goods, and were convinced, that the true riches of a Christian and a Bishop consist in the humility and poverty of the Crib, and that the only victorious power is in the imitation of the simplicity and the weakness of the Child that is born unto us. They relished the lessons of the School of Bethlehem; hence, no promise of honours, of riches, or even of peace, could make them swerve from the principles of the Gospel.
How dignified is this family of Soldiers of Christ, which springs up in the Church! If the policy of tyrants, who insist on being Christians without Christianity, carry on a persecution, in which they are determined that no one shall have the glory of Martyrdom--these brave Champions raise their voice, and boldly reproach the persecutors for their interference with that Liberty, which is due to Christ and His Ministers. They begin by telling them their duty, as Hilary did Constantius, when he sent him his first Memorial: "My Lord and most gracious Augustus! Your own great and admirable prudence tells you, that it is not right, nor possible, violently to compel, such as are unwilling and opposed to it, to submit to, and take part with, them that are sowing the corrupt seed of false doctrine. The one end of your endeavours, wise counsels, government, and vigilance, should be, that all your subjects may enjoy the sweets of liberty. There is no other means of settling the troubles of the state, or of uniting what discord has separated, than that every one be master of his own life, unconstrained by slavish compulsion. You should not turn a deaf ear to the voice of any subject, who thus appeals to you for support: 'I am a Catholic; I will not be a heretic: I am a Christian, and not an Arian: I would rather lose my life, than allow the tyranny of any man to corrupt the purity of my faith.'"
When some people spoke to Hilary in favour of those who had been traitors to the Church, and had been disloyal to Jesus Christ, in order to keep in the good graces of the Emperor, they ventured to tell the Saint, that their conduct was justifiable, on the ground that they had but obeyed the Law! The holy Pontiff was indignant at this profanation of the word, and, in his Book against Auxentius, courageously reminds his fellow Bishops of the origin of the Church--how her very establishment depended on the breaking of unjust human Laws, and how she counts it one of her glories to infringe all such Laws as would oppose her existence, her development, and her action.
"We have a contempt for all the trouble that men of these days are giving themselves; and I am "grieved to see them holding such mad opinions, as that God needs man's patronage, and that the Church of Christ requires to be upheld by an ambition, that curries favour with the world. I ask of you Bishops, what favour did the Apostles court, in order that they might preach the Gospel? Who were the princes that helped them to preach Christ, and convert almost the whole world from idolatry to God? Did they, who sang hymns to God in prisons and chains, and whilst bleeding from being scourged, did they accept offices from the state? Did Paul wait for a royal permission to draw men to the Church of Christ? Did he, think you, cringe for the patronage of a Nero, or a Vespasian, or a Decius, whose very hatred of our faith was the occasion of its being more triumphantly preached? These Apostles, who lived by the labour of their own hands, who assembled the Faithful in garrets and hiding-places, who visited villages and towns, and well nigh the whole world, travelling over sea and land, in spite of the Senate's decrees and Imperial Edicts--these men, according to your principies, had not received the keys of the kingdom of heaven! What say you to all this manifestation of God's power in the very face of man's opposition, when, the more there was a prohibition to preach Christ, the more that preaching was exercised?"
But the time came, at last, to speak to the Emperor himself, and to protest against the system whereby he aimed at making the Church a slave; then did Hilary, who was exceedingly gentle in disposition, put on that holy indignation, which our Lord Himself had, when He scourged the profaners of His Father's House, and drove them out of the Temple. He braved every danger, and held up to execration the system invented by Constantius for insulting and crushing the Church of Christ. Let us listen to the language of his apostolic zeal.
"The time for speaking is come, for the time for silence is past. Let Christ now appear, for Antichrist has begun his reign. Let the Shepherds give the alarm, for the hirelings have fled. Let us lay down our lives for our sheep, for thieves have got into the fold, and a furious lion is prowling around it. Let us prepare for martyrdom, for the angel of satan hath transformed himself into an angel of light. Why, O my God, didst thou not permit me to confess thy holy Name, and be the minister of thine Only Begotten Son, in the times of Nero or Decian? Full of the fire of the Holy Spirit, I would not have feared the rack, for I would have thought on Isaias, how he was sawn in two. I would not have feared fire, for I would have said to myself, that the Hebrew Children sang in their fiery furnace. The cross and the breaking every bone of my body should not have made me a coward, for the good thief would have encouraged me, who was translated into thy kingdom. If they had threatened to drown me in the angry billows of the deep ocean, I would have laughed at their threats, for thou hast taught us, by the example of Jonas and Paul, that thou canst give life to thy servants even in the sea.
"Happy me, could I thus have fought with men, who professed themselves to be the enemies of thy name; every one would have said, that they who had recourse to tortures, and sword, and fire, to compel a Christian to deny Thee, were persecutors; and my death would have been sufficient testimony to Thy truth, O God! The battle would have been an open one, and no one would have hesitated to call, by the honest name, these men that denied Thee, and racked and murdered us; and Thy people, seeing that it was an evident persecution, would have followed their Pastors in the confession of their faith.
"But, now-a-days, we have to do with a disguised persecutor, a smooth-tongued enemy, a Constantius who has put on Antichrist; who scourges us, not with lashes, but with caresses; who instead of robbing us, which would give us spiritual life, bribes us with riches, that he may lead us to eternal death; who thrusts us, not into the liberty of a prison, but into the honours of his palace, that he may enslave us; who tears, not our flesh, but our hearts; who beheads not with a sword, but kills the soul with his gold; who sentences not by a herald that we are to be burnt, but covertly enkindles the fire of hell against us. He does not dispute with us, that he may conquer; but he flatters us, that so he may lord it over our souls. He confesses Christ, the better to deny Him; he tries to procure a unity which shall destroy peace; he puts down some few heretics, so that he may also crush the Christians; he honours Bishops, that they may cease to be Bishops; he builds up Churches, that he may pull down the Faith.
"Let men talk as they will, and accuse me of strong language, and calumny: it is the duty of a minister of the truth, to speak the truth. If what I say be untrue, let me be branded with the name of an infamous caluminator: but if I prove what I assert, then am I not exceeding the bounds of apostolic liberty, nor transgressing the humility of a successor of the Apostles, by speaking thus, after so long observing silence. No, this is not rashness, it is faith; it is not inconsiderateness, it is duty; it is not passion, it is conscience.
"I say to thee, Constantius, what I would have said to Nero, or Decius, or Maximian: You are fighting against God, you are raging against the Church, you are persecuting the saints, you are hating the preachers of Christ, you are destroying religion, you are a tyrant, not in human things, but in things that appertain to God. Yes, this is what I should "say to thee as well as to them; but listen, now, to what can only be said to thyself: Thou falsely callest thyself a Christian, for thou art a new enemy of Christ; thou art a precursor of Antichrist, and a doer of his mystery of iniquity; thou, that art a rebel to the faith, art making formulas of faith; thou art intruding thine own creatures into the sees of the Bishops; thou art putting out the good and putting in the bad. By a strange ingenious plan, which no one had ever yet discovered, thou hast found a way to persecute, without making Martyrs.
"We owe much to you, Nero, Decius, and Maximian! your cruelty did us service. We conquered the devil, by your persecutions. The blood of the holy Martyrs you made, has been treasured up throughout the world, and their venerable relics are ever strengthening us in faith by their mute ceaseless testimony. But thou, Constantius, cruel with thy refinement of cruelty, art an enemy that ragest against us, doing us more injury, and leaving us less hope of pardon. Thou deprivest the fallen of the excuse they might have had with their Eternal Judge, when they showed Him the scars and wounds they had endured for Him, for perhaps their tortures might induce Him to forgive their weakness. Whereas, thou, most wicked of men! thou hast invented a persecution, which, if we fall, robs us of pardon, and, if we triumph, does not make us Martyrs!
"We see thee, ravenous wolf, under thy sheep's clothing. Thou adornest the sanctuaries of God s temples with the gold of the State, and thou offerest to Him what is taken from the temples, or taxed by edict, or extorted by penalty. Thou receivest his Priests with a kiss like that which betrayed Christ. Thou bowest down thy head for a blessing, and then thou usest it to trample on our Faith. Thou dispensest the clergy from paying tributes and taxes to Caesar, that thou mayest bribe them to be renegades to Christ, foregoing thy own rights, that God may be deprived of His!"