Saint Hilary of Poitiers (Feastday January 13)

Brother John Raymond
January 10, 1999

Sunday after Sunday we profess our Faith by praying at Mass "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, one in Being with the Father." The words we profess are an affirmation against a once very popular heresy called Arianism that spread like wildfire in the 4th century. Arius taught that Jesus was "created" or "made" by the Father, did not exist before this and therefore was not God, at least as we understand God to be. The First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea formulated creedal statements similar to those cited above and condemned the Arian doctrine. Of course the Arian supporters were not happy and tried to undermine the Council. A group called semi-Arians conceded only that the Son was "like" the Father and not equal in Being with Him. St. Athanasius became renowned for his defense of the creedal statements of the Council of Nicaea. St. Hilary of Poitiers also was drawn into this battle.

St. Hilary was born in Poitiers, France at the beginning of the fourth century to a noble and probably pagan family. He was instructed in all the branches of learning including philosophy. In his search for God Hilary chanced upon the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures and was impressed. When he read the verse where God tells Moses "I AM WHO I AM" (Exodus 3:14), Hilary said, "I was frankly amazed at such a clear definition of God, which expressed the incomprehensible knowledge of the divine nature in words most suited to human intelligence." He soon was convinced Christianity was the truth and embraced it. Hilary, married and with one daughter, was so zealous for the Faith that soon he was elected by the faithful and clergy to be Bishop of Poitiers about 350 AD.

Arianism was spreading and threatened to invade Gaul (France), where it already had numerous secret adherents, including Saturninus, Bishop of Arles, who was denounced by Hilary. Bishop Saturninus, along with other Arian adherents, complained of Hilary to the Emperor Constantius, an Arian sympathizer, who had Hilary exiled to the distant coast of Phrygia in the East in 356. In exile Hilary used his time to study including the Arian heresy. He then began to write. His writings that still exist include "On the Trinity," a commentary on the Gospel of Matthew and a commentary on the Psalms.

After three years the Emperor allowed Hilary to go back to Poitiers. We are told by one of Hilary's contemporaries that the exiled Hilary was allowed to return to Poitiers because he was considered "a sower of discord and a disturber of the East" by the Emperor. No one told Hilary he had to go straight back to his home and so he took a leisurely route through Greece and Italy, preaching against the Arians as he went.

In the East the clever Arians composed popular hymns to propagate their errors. Back at home, Hilary started writing his own hymns of propaganda except these were to spread the true Faith. His hymns are the first in the West with a known writer. Hilary died in 367 or 368 and was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church in 1851.

St. Hilary suffered persecution for the sake of what would seem at the surface to be only a matter of words. Some people might shrug their shoulders and say why make a big deal over saying Jesus is "made by" or "like" the Father. But those words are the difference between Jesus being God or not! The same game of words is replayed today in many ways. One such instance is saying a mother is "pregnant" instead of "with child." We talk of a pregnancy being "terminated" or "aborted." Or we speak of a "fetus" and not a "baby." If we would go back to the terminology of a woman "with child" then terminating or aborting this child would be given its rightful name — murder! So words are important and we need to be brave like St. Hilary to stand for the truth that many times is — a matter of words!