Thursday, October 11, 2007

General Audience: St. Hilary of Poitiers

Pope Benedict XVI holds a balloon at the end of his weekly general audience in Saint Peter's square at the Vatican October 10, 2007. REUTERS/Tony Gentile (VATICAN)

~translated by Papa Ratzinger Forum

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, I wish to speak of a great Father of the Western Church, St. Hilary of Poitiers, one of the great bishops of the fourth century.

Against the Arians who considered the Son of God Jesus as a creature - an excellent one, but a mere creature, nonetheless - Hilary consecrated his entire life to the defense of faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, Son of God, God like the Father who generated him in eternity.

We do not have accurate information on the greater part of Hilary's life. Old sources say he was born in Poitiers, probably around 310. Coming from a well-off family, he received a solid literary formation, which one can well recognize in his writings.

It seems he was not raised in a Christian environment. He himself tells us of his journey in search of truth, which gradually led him to an acknowledgment of God the Creator and God incarnate who died to give us eternal life.

Baptized on or around 345, he was elected bishop of his native city around 353-254. In the following years, Hilary wrote his first work, the Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.

In 356, Hilary took part in the Synod of Beziers, in southern France, which he himself called 'the synod of the false apostles', since the synod was dominated by Arian bishops who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.

These 'false apostles' asked Emperor Constantius to condemn the Bishop of Poitiers to exile. Thus, Hilary was forced to leave Gaul in the summer of 356.

Exiled to Phrygia in present-day Turkey, Hilary found himself in a religious context that was totally dominated by Arianism. But even there, his pastoral solicitude impelled him to work strenuously for the re-establishment of unity within the Church, on the basis of the correct faith formulated by the Council of Nicaea.

For this purpose, he started the draft of his most important and best-known dogmatic work, De Trinitate (On the Trinity). In it, Hilary discloses his own personal journey towards getting to know God and concerned himself with showing that the Scriptures clearly attest to the divinity of the Son and his equality with the Father - not only in the New Testament, but even in many pages of the Old Testament, in which the mystery of Christ is already foreshadowed.

Against the Arians, he insisted on the truth of the names Father and Son and developed all of his Trinitarian theology starting 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 any passages in the New Testament might be thought to indicate that the Son is inferior to the Father, Hilary offers precise rules for avoiding such misleading interpretations: Some Scriptural texts speak of Jesus as God while others highlight his humanity. Some refer to him in his pre-existence with the Father; others take into account the state of 'abasement' (kenosis), his descent to human state carried through to death; still others see him in the glory of his resurrection.

In the years of exile, Hilary also wrote the Book of Synods, in which he reproduces and comments for his brother bishops of Gaul the confessions of faith and other documents of the synods convened in the East in the mid-fourth century.

Always firm in his opposition to radical Arians, St. Hilary showed a conciliatory spirit towards those who agreed to profess that the Son resembled the Father in essence, hoping, of course, to lead them towards the full faith, which teaches that beyond mere resemblance, there is a true equality of divinity between the Father and the Son.

I find this characteristic of Hilary: the spirit of conciliation that seeks to comprehend even those who have not yet arrived and helping them with great theological intelligence, to reach full faith in the true divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In 360 or 361, Hilary could finally return from exile and immediately resumed pastoral activity in his Church. However, the influence of his Magisterium actually extended far beyond its confines.

A synod celebrated in Paris in 360 or 361 took up the language of the Council of Nicaea. Some authors of antiquity think that this anti-Arian turn by the bishops of Gaul was due in large part to the firmness and gentleness of the Bishop of Poitiers. In fact, that was his gift: to unite firmness in the faith and gentleness in his personal relations.

In the last years of his life, he wrote the Tracts on the Psalms, a commentary on 58 Psalms, interpreted according to the principle he enunciates in the introduction to the work: "There is no doubt that all the things said in the Psalms should be understood according to the message of the Gospel, such that, whichever voice the prophetic spirit uses, everything relates to a foreknowledge of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ - his incarnation, passion and kingdom - and to the glory and power of our resurrection" (Instructio Psalmorum 5). He sees in all the Psalms this transparency of the mystery of Christ and his Body which is the Church.

On different occasions, Hilary met with St. Martin: Not far from Poitiers, the future Bishop of Tours had founded a monastery which exists to this day.

Hilary died in 367. His liturgical memory is celebrated on January 13. In 1851, Blessed Pius IX proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church.

In summarizing the essence of his doctrine, I wish to say that Hilary found the starting point for his theological reflections in the baptismal vow. In De trinitate, he writes:

"Jesus commanded us to baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit (cfr Mt 28,19), that is, professing our faith in the Author, the Only-Begotten Son, and the Gift.

"The Author of all things is one alone because there is only one God the Father, from whom all things proceed. Likewise, there is only one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom everything was made (1 Cor 8,6). And there is only one Spirit (Eph 4,4), a gift in everything.

"Nothing can be found lacking in a fullness that is so great, in which the immensity of the Eternal, the revelation of the Image, and joy in Giving converge in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" (De Trinitate 2,1).

God the Father, being all love, is capable of communicating his divinity in full to the Son. I find particularly beautiful this formulation by St. Hilary: "God cannot be anything but love, he cannot be anything but the Father. He who loves is not envious, and he who is a Father is one totally. This name does not allow compromises, as though God is a father in some aspects but not in others" (ivi 9,61).

That is why the Son is fully God without any lack or diminution: "He who comes from perfection is perfect, because he who has everything gave him everything" (ivi 2,3). Only in Christ, Son of God, and Son of man, can humanity find salvation. Taking on human nature, He united to himself every man - "He became the flesh of us all" (Tractatus in Psalmos 54,9); "He took on the nature of all flesh, thus becoming the true grapevine who has in himself the root of every shoot" (ivi 51,16).

Because of this, the path towards Christ is open to all - because he has drawn everything into his human being - even if personal conversion is always required. "Through our relation in the flesh, access to Christ is open to all provided they cast away their old selves (cfr Eph 4,22) and nail these to the Cross (cfr Col 2,14);
provided that they abandon their previous actions and convert, so that they may be buried at baptism, with the prospect of new life (cfr Col 1,12; Rm 6,4)» (ivi 91,9).

Faith in God is a gift of grace. That is why St. Hilary asks, at the end of his tract on the Trinity, to be able to keep himself always faithful to his baptismal vows. It is a characteristic of that book: reflection becomes prayer, and prayer turns into new reflection. The whole book is a prayer to God.

I wish to conclude today's catechesis with one of these prayers which is also ours: "Grant, o Lord," Hilary writes, inspired, "that I may be faithful to what 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 merit your Holy Spirit, who comes from you through your Only-Begotten Son...Amen. (De Trinitate 12,57).

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