Saint Athanasius lived in the fourth century during the time of what used to be considered the greatest crisis of faith ever to befall the Catholic Church, the Arian Heresy. (The Arians denied the Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ). The vast majority of Churchmen fell into this heresy, so much so that Saint Jerome wrote of the period, “The whole world groaned and was amazed to find itself Arian“.
Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria in Egypt for 46 years. He was banned from his diocese at least five times and spent a total of 17 years in exile. He even suffered an unjust excommunication from Pope Liberius (325-366) who was under Arian influence. It is a cold fact of history that Athanasius stood virtually alone against the onslaught of heretical teaching ravaging the Church of his day – begetting the familiar phrase, “Athanasius contra mundum“, that is, “Athanasius against the world“.
The famous convert to the Church, Ven. John Henry Newman, described him as a “principal instrument, after the Apostles, by which the sacred truths of Christianity have been conveyed and secured to the world.” Often referred to as the Champion of Orthodoxy, Saint Athanasius was undoubtedly one of the most courageous defenders of the Faith in the entire history of the Church. If anyone can be singled out as a Saint for our times, surely it is Saint Athanasius. The following letter of his could, almost word for word, have been written yesterday.
“May God console you! … What saddens you … is the fact that others have occupied the churches by violence, while during this time you are on the outside. It is a fact that they have the premises – but you have the Apostolic Faith. They can occupy our churches, but they are outside the true Faith. You remain outside the places of worship, but the Faith dwells within you. Let us consider: what is more important, the place or the Faith? The true Faith, obviously. Who has lost and who has won in the struggle – the one who keeps the premises or the one who keeps the Faith? True, the premises are good when the Apostolic Faith is preached there; they are holy if everything takes place there in a holy way …
“You are the ones who are happy; you who remain within the Church by your Faith, who hold firmly to the foundations of the Faith which has come down to you from Apostolic Tradition. And if an execrable jealousy has tried to shake it on a number of occasions, it has not succeeded. They are the ones who have broken away from it in the present crisis. No one, ever, will prevail against your Faith, beloved Brothers. And we believe that God will give us our churches back some day.
“Thus, the more violently they try to occupy the places of worship, the more they separate themselves from the Church. They claim that they represent the Church; but in reality, they are the ones who are expelling themselves from it and going astray. Even if Catholics faithful to Tradition are reduced to a handful, they are the ones who are the true Church of Jesus Christ.“
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