Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Saint Cyril of Alexandria
Saint of the Day for June 27
(378 – June 27, 444)
Saint Cyril of Alexandria’s Story
Saints are not born with halos around their heads. Cyril, recognized as a great teacher of the Church, began his career as archbishop of Alexandria, Egypt, with impulsive, often violent, actions. He pillaged and closed the churches of the Novatian heretics–who required those who denied the faith to be re-baptized–participated in the deposing of Saint John Chrysostom, and confiscated Jewish property, expelling the Jews from Alexandria in retaliation for their attacks on Christians.
Cyril’s importance for theology and Church history lies in his championing the cause of orthodoxy against the heresy of Nestorius, who taught that in Christ there were two persons, one human and one divine.
The controversy centered around the two natures in Christ. Nestorius would not agree to the title “God-bearer” for Mary. He preferred “Christ-bearer,” saying there are two distinct persons in Christ–divine and human–joined only by a moral union. He said Mary was not the mother of God but only of the man Christ, whose humanity was only a temple of God. Nestorianism implied that the humanity of Christ was a mere disguise.
Presiding as the pope’s representative at the Council of Ephesus in 431, Cyril condemned Nestorianism and proclaimed Mary truly the “God-bearer”–the mother of the one Person who is truly God and truly human. In the confusion that followed, Cyril was deposed and imprisoned for three months, after which he was welcomed back to Alexandria.
Besides needing to soften some of his opposition to those who had sided with Nestorius, Cyril had difficulties with some of his own allies, who thought he had gone too far, sacrificing not only language but orthodoxy. Until his death, his policy of moderation kept his extreme partisans under control. On his deathbed, despite pressure, he refused to condemn the teacher of Nestorius.
Lives of the saints are valuable not only for the virtue they reveal but also for the less admirable qualities that also appear. Holiness is a gift of God to us as human beings. Life is a process. We respond to God’s gift, but sometimes with a lot of zigzagging. If Cyril had been more patient and diplomatic, the Nestorian church might not have risen and maintained power so long. But even saints must grow out of immaturity, narrowness, and selfishness. It is because they—and we—do grow, that we are truly saints, persons who live the life of God.
“I will put enmities between thee and the woman, and thy seed and her seed: she shall crush thy head, and thou shalt lie in wait for her heel.”
THESE WORDS, addressed to the serpent in the days which the Church now seeks to bring before the minds of her children, have dominated the world’s history. The woman, who was the first to fall victim to Satan’s deceits, was, in Mary, the first to rise. In her Immaculate Conception, in her virginal motherhood, in her offering of the new Adam to God on the mount of expiation, the new Eve made the enemy of mankind feel the power of her victorious foot; and so the rebel angel, who by man’s complicity has become the prince of this world, has never ceased to direct against the woman who has triumphed over him the united forces of this double empire, over the legions of hell and the children of darkness. Mary in heaven continues the conflict she began on earth. As queen of the blessed spirits and of the children of light she leads to battle as one army the heavenly hosts and the battalions of the Church Militant. The triumph of these faithful soldiers is that of their sovereign lady—it is the continual crushing of the head of the father of lies by the defeat of error and the exaltation of truth, the victory of the Divine Word, who is both Son of Mary and Son of God.
But the connection between the victory of the Divine Word and the triumph of his glorious Mother has never been more manifest than in the combats sustained by the Pontiff whom we are to honor today. Cyril of Alexandria is the Doctor of the Divine Maternity as his predecessor Athanasius was that of the Consubstantiality of the Word. The dogma of the Incarnation is founded upon these two ineffable mysteries, which they confessed and defended in two succeeding centuries. As Son of God Christ must be consubstantial with the Father, for the infinite simplicity of the divine essence excludes all idea of division.
To deny the unity of substance and principle in Jesus, the Divine Word, was to deny His divinity. As Son of Man, as well as true God of true God, Jesus was to be born on earth of a daughter of Adam, and yet in His humanity be still one Person with the word which is consubstantial with the Father. To deny the personal union of the two natures in Christ was again equivalent to denying His divinity; it was also equivalent to declaring that the Blessed Virgin, who until then had been honored as having given birth to God in the nature which He assumed for our salvation, was only the mother of a man.
Three centuries of persecution had not been able to wring from the Church a denial of the divinity of her Spouse. But hardly had the world witnessed the triumph of the Incarnate Word, when the enemy turned the victory to his own advantage. Profiting by the new position of Christianity and its security from public violence, he sought to win in the domain of false science the denial which had been refused him on the field of martyrdom. Apostasy did less to serve the hostile influence of the serpent and foster the growth of his accursed race than the bitter zeal of heretics for the reform of the Church’s faith.
Arius was the first of these teachers of the doctrines of hell—a worthy first in his pride. He carried his questionings into the very depths of the divine essence, and rejected consubstantiality on the evidence of texts which he misunderstood. Upheld principally by the powers of this world, Arianism fell at the end of a century, having no root but in recently converted nations who had not had to shed their blood for the divinity of the Son of God.
It was then that Satan produced Nestorius, crowned with a fictitious halo of sanctity and knowledge. This man, who was to give the clearest expression to the hatred of the serpent for the woman, was enthroned in the Chair of Constantinople amid the applause of the whole East, which hoped to see in him a second Chrysostom. The joy of the good was of short duration. In the very year of his exaltation, on Christmas Day 428, Nestorius, taking advantage of the immense concourse which had assembled in honor of the Virgin Mother and her Child, pronounced from the episcopal pulpit the blasphemous words: “Mary did not bring forth God; her Son was only a man, the instrument of the Divinity.” The multitude shuddered with horror. Eusebius, a simple layman, rose to give expression to the general indignation, and protested against this impiety. Soon a more explicit protest was drawn up and disseminated in the name of the members of this grief-stricken Church, launching an anathema against anyone who should dare to say: “The Only-begotten Son of the Father and the Son of Mary are different persons.”
This generous attitude was the safeguard of Byzantium, and won the praise of Popes and Councils. When the shepherd becomes a wolf, the first duty of the flock is to defend itself. It is usual and regular, no doubt, for doctrine to descend from the bishops to the faithful, and those who are subject in the faith are not to judge their superiors. But in the treasure of revelation there are essential doctrines which all Christians, by the very fact of their title as such, are bound to know and defend. The principle is the same whether it be a question of belief or conduct, dogma or morals. Treachery like that of Nestorius is rare in the Church, but it may happen that some pastors keep silence for one reason or another in circumstances when religion itself is at stake. The true children of Holy Church at such times are those who walk by the light of their baptism, not the cowardly souls who, under the specious pretext of submission to the powers that be, delay their opposition to the enemy in the hope of receiving instructions which are neither necessary nor desirable.
The emotion produced by the blasphemy of Nestorius spread through the East and soon reached Alexandria. Cyril was then ruling the see which had been founded by Mark in the name of Peter and raised to the second place by the Head of the Church. The union of Athanasius and the Roman Pontiffs had overcome Arianism in the previous century, and now Rome and Alexandria were once more to unite in crushing heresy. But the enemy had learned by experience and acted with infernal foresight.
When the future champion of the Mother of God was raised to the Chair of St. Athanasius, this formidable alliance was a thing of the past. Theophilus, the late Patriarch, who was the principal author of the condemnation of St. John Chrysostom at the Pseudo-council “of the Oak,” had refused to subscribe to the rehabilitation of his victim by the Holy See, and Rome had been obliged to break with her eldest daughter. Cyril was the nephew of Theophilus. He knew nothing of the secret motives by which his uncle had been governed. He had been brought up to honor him as his superior, his benefactor, and his master in sacred science, and when, in his turn, he became Patriarch, he had no thought of reversing the decisions of one whom he had always regarded as a father. Alexandria remained separated from the Church of Rome.
Like the serpent, whose venom poisons all that it touches, Satan turned the most noble sentiments against the cause of God, but our Lady, who loves an upright heart, did not abandon her champion. After a few years of mishaps, which taught him to know men, the young Patriarch had his eyes opened to the truth by a holy monk named Isidore of Pelusium. Once convinced, he did not hesitate to restore the name of John Chrysostom to the sacred diptychs. The schemes of hell came to naught. Rome found a new Athanasius on the banks of the Nile to assist her in her new combats for the faith.
Cyril, restored to Christian unity by a monk, showed as great a devotion to the holy solitaries as his predecessor had done. He confided to them his grief at the first news of Nestorius’ impiety. The letter in which he appeals to their faith and warns them of the danger which threatens the Church has become celebrated. “Those,” he says, “who have embraced in Christ the noble and enviable lot which is yours, ought to shine most brilliantly with the light of a perfect and unhesitating faith, and add to this light the special radiance of virtue. Then they ought to employ their wealth in increasing in themselves the knowledge of the mysteries of Christ, and striving to understand them perfectly. This,” says the holy Doctor, “is what I think St. Paul means when he speaks of the development of the perfect man, the way to arrive at the measure and the fullness of Christ.”
The Patriarch of Alexandria could not rest content with opening his heart to those of whose sympathy he was assured. He strove to win back Nestorius by letters, in which his personal meekness is only rivalled by the vigor and breadth of his doctrine. But Nestorius was obdurate. Having no arguments at his command, he complained of the Patriarch’s interference.
As it always happens, there were pacifists who, though not sharing Nestorius’ errors, thought it would be best not to answer him for fear of embittering him, increasing the scandal, and wounding charity. Cyril thus answers that singular virtue which fears the affirmations of the Christian faith more than the audacity of heresy: “What! Nestorius dares to suffer men to say in public and in his presence that he who calls Mary the Mother of God is to be anathema! He hurls his anathema, through his partisans, at us, at the other Bishops of the Universal Church, and the ancient Fathers, who in all ages and all places with one accord have acknowledged and honored the holy Mother of God! And have we not the right to repay him in his own coin and say, ‘If anyone denies that Mary is the Mother of God let him be anathema’? Nevertheless, out of regard for him, I have not yet uttered these words.”
Men of another type, also represented in all ages, revealed the true motive of their hesitation when, after insisting on the advantages of peace and their ancient friendship with Nestorius, they suggested timidly that it would be dangerous to oppose so power an adversary. “Could I but satisfy the Bishop of Constantinople and heal the wounded spirit of my brother by suffering the loss of all my possessions!” was Cyril’s reply. “But the faith is at stake. The scandal has spread through the Church, and all men are inquiring about the new doctrine. If we, who have received from God the office of teacher, fail to remedy such great evils, will there be flames enough for us at the Day of Judgment?
I have already been struck by insult and calumny—let it pass. If only the faith be safe, I will yield to none in my love of Nestorius. But if the faith suffers through the deeds of some—let there be no doubt about it—I will not risk my soul even if distant death threaten me. If the fear of some disturbance is stronger than our zeal for God’s glory and prevents us from speaking the truth, how shall we dare in the presence of the Christian people to celebrate the holy martyrs, whose glory lies in the very fact that they carried out in their lives the words: Even unto death fight for justice?”
When the combat became inevitable, he organized the forces of the Church, and summoned monks and Bishops to his side. He did not attempt to conceal the holy enthusiasm which filled his heart. “As far as I am concerned,” he writes to the clerics who represent him in the imperial city, “my greatest desire is to suffer, live and die for the faith of Jesus Christ. As it is written: If I shall give sleep to my eyes, or slumber to my eyelids, or rest to my temples, until I have fought the battle which is necessary for the well-being of all. Therefore let your hearts be full of the same spirit and do manfully. Watch the enemy and inform us of his slightest movements. As soon as I can, I will send you some Bishops and monks, pious and prudent men, chosen out of many. I am already preparing my letters. I have resolved to labor without truce for the faith of Christ and to suffer all torments, yea death itself, which in such a cause would be sweet to me.”
Informed of these troubles by the Patriarch of Alexandria, Pope St. Celestine I condemned the new heresy, and commissioned Cyril to depose the Bishop of Constantinople in the name of the Roman Pontiff. But Nestorius prolonged the contest by his intrigues. At this point there appears at the side of Cyril the figure of a saintly woman who for forty years was the terror of hell, and who twice crushed the head of the hateful serpent in the name of the Queen of heaven. Pulcheria had assumed the reins of government at the age of fifteen. It was a time of disasters, but she arrested interior disturbances by her prudence and energy, and in union with her sisters, virgins like herself, held back the barbarian hordes by the might of divine Psalmody.
While the West was in its last agony, the East, thanks to its gifted empress, was enjoying once more the prosperity of its best days. The sight of a granddaughter of Theodosius the Great, who employed her private wealth in multiplying churches in honor of our Lady, taught Byzantium that devotion to Mary which was her safeguard in evil days, and which obtained for her from Mary’s Son a thousand years of mercy and incomprehensible patience. General Councils have hailed St. Pulcheria as the guardian of faith and the bulwark of unity. St. Leo says that the greatest share in the defense of divine truth was hers. “A double palm is in her hands,” says this great Pope, “a double crown on her head, for the Church owes to her a double victory over impiety in the persons of Nestorius and Eutyches, who from different sides tended towards the same point—the denial of the Incarnation of the Son of God and of the share of the Virgin Mother in the salvation of mankind.”
But we must overstep our limits. The summary of the life of this great Pontiff read by the Church at Matins will give us some idea of those glorious combats witnessed by the city of Ephesus when Cyril, supported by Rome and upheld by Pulcheria, established forever our Lady’s title to the most noble diadem that a mere creature can ever wear:
|Cyrillus Alexandrinus, cujus præconia non unius tantum vel alterius sunt comprobata testimonio, sed etiam œcumenicorum Conciliorum Ephesini et Chalcedonensis actis celebrata, claris ortus parentibus, ac Theophili episcopi Alexandrini nepos, adhuc adolescens præcellentis ingenii clara specimina dedit. Litteris ac scientiis egregis imbutus, ad Joannem episcopum Hierosolymitanum se contulit, ut in christiana fide perficeretur. Alexandriam deinde cum rediisset, Theophilo vita functo, ad illius sedem evectus est: quo in munere ita optimi pastoris formam ab Apostolo definitam constanter præ se tulit, ut sanctissimi præsulis gloriam merito sit adeptus.||The praises of Cyril of Alexandria not only have been celebrated by individual writers, but are even registered in the acts of the Œcumenical Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. He was born of noble parents, and was the nephew of Theophilus, Patriarch of Alexandria. While still young he gave proofs an excellent understanding, and after having profoundly studied literature and science, he betook himself to John, Bishop of Jerusalem, to be perfected in the Christian faith. After his return to Alexandria and the death of Theophilus, he was raised to that see. In this office he kept ever before his eyes the type of the shepherd of souls described by the Apostle, and by adhering faithfully to it, earned the glory of a holy Bishop.|
|Salutis animarum zelo incensus coras omnes intendit, ut sibi commissum gregem in fidei et morum integritate servaret, atque a venenatis infidelium et hæreticorum pascuis defenderet. Hinc tum Novati asseclas e civitate expelli, tum Judæos qui furore acti in cædem Christianorum conspiraverant, juxta leges puniri sategit. Singulare vero Cyrilli pro catholicæ fidei incolumitate enituit studium contra Nestorium Constantinopolitanum episcopum, asserentem Jesum Christum ex Maria Virgine hominem tantum et non Deum natum, eique divinitatem pro meritis esse collatam; cujus emendationem cum frustra tentasset, eum sancto Cælestino Pontifici Maximo denuntiavit.||He burned with zeal for the salvation of souls, and took all care to keep the flock entrusted to him in purity of faith and life, and to guard them from the poisonous pastures of heresy and infidelity. Hence, in accordance with the laws, he caused the followers of Novatus to be expelled from the city, and procured the punishment of the Jews whose hatred had led them to plan a massacre of the Christians. His eminent care for the preservation of the Catholic faith shone forth especially in his conflict with Nestorius, Bishop of Constantinople, who declared that Jesus Christ had been born of the Virgin Mary as man only, and that the divinity had been bestowed upon him because of his merits. Cyril first attempted to convert Nestorius, but when he found the task hopeless, he denounced him to Pope St. Celestine.|
|Cælestini delegata auctoritate, Concilio Ephesino præfuit, in quo hæresis Nestoriana penitus proscripta est, damnatus Nestorius et a sua sede dejectus, ac dogma catholicum de una in Christo, eaque divina persona, et divina gloriosæ Virginis Mariæ maternitate assertum; plaudente populo universo, qui incredibili gaudio gestiens, collucentibus facibus domum deduxit episcopos. Sed hac de causa Cyrillus calumniis, injuriis et persecutionibus plurimis a Nestorio ejusque fautoribus impetitus fuit; quas ipse patientissime tulit, ita ut de sola fide sollicitus, quidquid adversus sum effutiebant ac moliebantur hæretici, pro nihilo haberet. Tandem pro Ecclesia Dei maximis perfunctus laboribus, plurimisque scriptis editis tum ad ethnicos et hæreticos confutandos, tum ad sacras scripturas et catholica explananda dogmata, sancto fine quievit anno quadringentesimo quadragesimo quarto, episcopatus trigesimo secundo. Leo decimus tertius Pontifex Maximus Officium et Missam præcarissimi hujus fidei catholicæ propugnatoris et Orientalis Ecclesiæ luminis, Ecclesiam universam extendit.||As delegate of Pope Celestine, he presided over the Council of Ephesus where the Nestorian heresy was condemned, Nestorius deprived of his see, and the Catholic doctrine as to the unity of Person in Christ and the divine maternity of the glorious Virgin Mary was laid down amid the rejoicings of all the people, who escorted the bishops to their lodgings with a torchlight procession. Nestorius and his followers made Cyril the object of slanders, insults, and persecutions, which he bore with great patience, for he cared only for the purity of the faith, and took no heed of what the heretics might say or do against him. At length, after having performed great labors for the Church of God, and having composed numerous works, both in refutation of paganism and heresy and in explanation of the Catholic faith, he died a holy death in the year 444, the thirty-second year of his episcopal consecration. The supreme Pontiff Leo XIII extended to the Universal Church the Office and Mass of this most eminent champion of the Catholic faith and light of the Eastern Church.|
O holy Pontiff, the heavens rejoice and the earth is glad at the thought of that conflict in which the Queen of heaven and earth chose thee as the instrument of her triumph. The East has ever honored thee as her light; the West has long hailed thee as champion of the Mother of God, and now seeks to give stronger expression to her gratitude. A new flower has appeared in our day in Mary’s crown, and it springs from the very soil cultivated by thee. When thou didst proclaim the divine maternity in the name of Peter and Celestine thou wast preparing for our Lady another triumph, which was to be the consequence of the first. The Mother of God must be immaculate.
The definition of Pius IX completes the work done by Celestine and thee. The two days—June 22, 431, and December 8, 1843—are equally glorious in heaven, and were celebrated with like manifestations of joy and love on earth. And so, O Cyril, the whole Church turns to thee after fourteen centuries and proclaims thee Doctor. She sees that thy work is complete, and will have nothing lacking in the homage rendered to thee on earth. Devotion to thee has found its fullest expression at the same time as devotion to the Mother of God. Thy glory is an extension of her glory.
We understand that the greatest honor we can pay to thee is to sing the praises of thy sovereign Lady. We therefore repeat the burning words which the Holy Ghost put upon thy lips on that day of triumph at Ephesus: “We hail thee, O Mary, Mother of God, as the bright gem of the whole creation; the lamp whose light shall never be put out, the crown of virginity, the scepter of orthodox faith, the indestructible temple and shrine of the Infinite, through whom we have received Him whom the Gospels call Blessed, Him who comes in the name of the Lord. Hail Mary, whose spotless and virginal womb bore that Infinite One, by whom the Trinity is glorified and the precious Cross honored and adored throughout the earth.
Hail Mary, joy of heaven, peace of angels and archangels, terror of demons. Through thee the tempter fell from heaven, through thee the fallen are raised up to heaven. The world was held captive in idolatrous folly, and thou hast opened its eyes to the truth. To thee the faithful owe their baptism, to thee they owe the oil of gladness. Throughout all the earth thou foundest churches and leadest the nations to penance. What shall I say more? It was through thee that the only-begotten Son of God shone forth as the light of those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death; through thee that the prophets foretold things to come; through thee that the Apostles preached salvation to the nations; through thee that the dead rise again; through thee that kings reign by the grace of the Holy Trinity. What man could ever adequately praise Mary, who is worthy of all praise?”
If then, O Cyril, the dignity of the Mother of God surpasses all praise, beseech her to raise up among us men capable of praising her as thou didst. May the power with which she armed thee against her foes descend to those who in our days have to carry on the age-long combat between the woman and the serpent. The adversary has grown bolder. This age has surpassed in its denial of Jesus not only Nestorius, but also the apostate Emperor Julian, against whom thou didst defend the divinity of the Son of the Virgin Mother.
Thou didst rain terrible blows upon error. Teach our Doctors how to conquer; teach them to lean upon Peter, to interest themselves in all that concerns the Church, to look upon her foes as their personal enemies, and the only real enemies they have. Our pastors will draw from thy sublime writings that true knowledge of sacred Scripture without which their zeal would be powerless. Christians will learn from thee that they cannot grow in virtue without first increasing their faith and their knowledge of the mysteries of the Incarnate Word. Many souls in these times content themselves with vague ideas.
Let them learn from thee that it is the love of truth which leads us to life. The approach of Lent reminds us of these Paschal Letters which at this season carried to all the announcement of the Feast of Feasts and an exhortation to penance. Our souls have grown soft. Obtain for us a sense of the seriousness of the Christian life, so that we may enter valiantly upon this holy campaign which is to win back our peace with God through the triumph of the spirit over the flesh.