Mike Aquilina

Hilary at the Vatican

Thursday October 11th 2007, 3:09 am

Yesterday, Pope Benedict turned westward in his patristic studies. His audience talk focused on Hilary of Poitiers. Here’s the unofficial Zenit translation:

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Today I would like to speak about a great Father of the Western Church, St. Hilary of Poitiers, one of the great bishops of the 4th century. Confronted with the Arians, who considered the Son of God a creature, albeit an excellent one, Hilary dedicated his life to the defense of faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, Son of God, and God as the Father, who generated him from all eternity.

We do not have definitive data about most of Hilary’s life. Ancient sources say that he was born in Poitiers, probably around the year 310. From a well-to-do family, he received a good literary education, which is clearly evident in his writings. It does not seem that he was raised in a Christian environment. He himself tells us about a journey of searching for the truth, which little by little led him to the recognition of God the creator and of the incarnate God, who died to give us eternal life. He was baptized around 345, and elected bishop of Poitiers around 353-354.

In the years that followed, Hilary wrote his first work, the “Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.” It is the oldest surviving commentary in Latin that we have on this Gospel. In 356, Hilary, as bishop, attended the Synod of Beziers in southern France, which he called the “Synod of the False Apostles,” given that the assembly was dominated by bishops who were followers of Arianism, and thus negated the divinity of Jesus Christ. These “false apostles” asked Emperor Constantine to condemn to exile the bishop of Poitiers. So Hilary was forced to leave Gaul during the summer of 356.

Exiled to Phrygia, in present-day Turkey, Hilary found himself in contact with a religious environment totally dominated by Arianism. There, too, his pastoral solicitude led him to work tirelessly for the re-establishment of the Church’s unity, based on the correct faith, as formulated by the Council of Nicea. To this end, he began writing his most important and most famous dogmatic work: “De Trinitatae” (On the Trinity).

In it, Hilary talks about his own personal journey toward knowing God, and he is intent on showing that Scriptures clearly attest to the Son’s divinity and his equality with the Father, not only in the New Testament, but also in many pages of the Old Testament, in which the mystery of Christ is already presented. Faced with the Arians, he insists on the truth of the names of the Father and the Son and develops his entire Trinitarian theology departing from the formula of baptism given to us by the Lord himself: “In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”

The Father and the Son are of the same nature. And if some passages of the New Testament could lead one to think that the Son is inferior to the Father, Hilary offers precise rules to avoid misleading interpretations: Some passages in Scripture speak about Jesus as God, others emphasize his humanity. Some refer to him in his pre-existence with the Father; others take into consideration his self lowering (“kenosis”), his lowering himself unto death; and lastly, others contemplate him in the glory of the resurrection.

During the years of his exile, Hilary also wrote the “Book of the Synod,” in which, for his brother bishops of Gaul, he reproduces and comments on the confessions of faith and other documents of the synods which met in the East around the middle of the 4th century. Always firm in his opposition to radical Arians, St. Hilary showed a conciliatory spirit with those who accepted that the Son was similar to the Father in essence, naturally trying to lead them toward the fullness of faith, which says that there is not only a similarity, but a true equality of the Father and the Son in their divinity.

This also seems characteristic: His conciliatory spirit tries to understand those who still have not yet arrived to the fullness of the truth and helps them, with great theological intelligence, to reach the fullness of faith in the true divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.

In 360 or 361, Hilary was finally able to return from exile to his homeland and immediately resumed the pastoral work in his Church, but the influence of his teaching extended, in fact, well beyond its borders. A synod celebrated in Paris in 360 or 361 took up again the language used by the Council of Nicea. Some ancient authors think that this anti-Arian development of the bishops of Gaul was due, in large part, to the strength and meekness of the bishop of Poitiers.

This was precisely his gift: uniting strength of faith and meekness in interpersonal relationships. During the last years of his life, he wrote “Treatises on the Psalms,” a commentary on 58 psalms, interpreted according to the principle highlighted in the introduction to the work: “There is no doubt that all the things said in the Psalms must be understood according to the Gospel proclamation, so that, independently of the voice with which the prophetic spirit has spoken, everything refers to the knowledge of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, incarnation, passion and kingdom, and the glory and power of our resurrection” (“Instructio Psalmorum,” 5).

In all of the Psalms, he sees this transparency of Christ’s mystery and of his body, which is the Church. On various occasions, Hilary met with St. Martin: The future bishop of Tours founded a monastery near Poitiers, which still exists today. Hilary died in 367. His feast day is celebrated on Jan. 13. In 1851, Blessed Pius IX proclaimed him a doctor of the Church.

To summarize the essential aspects of his doctrine, I would like to say that the starting point for Hilary’s theological reflection is the baptismal faith. In “De Trinitate,” he writes: Jesus “commanded to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (cf. Matthew 28:19), that is to say, confessing the Author, the Only Begotten One and the Gift. One alone is the author of all things, because there is only one God the Father, from whom all things proceed. And one alone is our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made (1 Corinthians 8:6), and one alone is the Spirit (Ephesians 4:4), gift in everything. … Nothing can be found lacking in a plenitude that is so grand, in which converges in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Spirit, the immensity of the Eternal, the revelation in the Image, the joy in the Gift” (“De Trinitatae” 2:1).

God the Father, being all love, is able to communicate the fullness of his divinity to the Son. I find this phrase of St. Hilary to be particularly beautiful: “God only knows how to be love, only knows how to be Father. And he who loves is not envious, and whoever is Father, is so totally. This name does not allow for compromise, as if to say that God is father only in certain aspects and not in others” (ibid. 9:61).

For this reason, the Son is fully God without lacking anything or having any lessening: “He who comes from the perfect is perfect, because he who has everything, has given him everything” (ibid. 2:8). Only in Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, does humanity find salvation. Taking on human nature, he united every man to himself, “he became our flesh” (“Tractatus in Psalmos” 54:9); “he took on the nature of all flesh, thus becoming the true vine, the root of all branches” (ibid. 51:16).

Precisely because of this motive, the path to Christ is open to all — because he drew everyone into his humanity — even though personal conversion is always required: “Through the relationship with his flesh, access to Christ is open to everyone, provided that they leave aside the old man (cf. Ephesians 4:22) and nail him to his cross (cf. Colossians 2:14); provided they abandon their former works and are converted, in order to be buried with him in baptism, in view of life (cf. Colossians 1:12; Romans 6:4)” (ibid. 91:9).

Faithfulness to God is a gift of his grace. Therefore St. Hilary asks, at the end of his treatise on the Trinity, to be able to remain faithful to the faith of baptism. One of the characteristics of this book is this: Reflection is transformed into prayer and prayer leads to reflection. The entire book is a dialogue with God.

I would like to end today’s catechesis with one of these prayers, that also becomes our prayer: “Grant, O Lord,” Hilary prays in a moment of inspiration, “that I may remain faithful to that which I professed in the symbol of my regeneration, when I was baptized in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. That I may adore you, our Father, and together with you, your Son; that I may be worthy of your Holy Spirit, who proceeds from you through your only Son. … Amen” (“De Trinitatae” 12:57).