January 13 – Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Bishop and Doctor – Optional Memorial

Optional Memorial; Liturgical Color: White or Green

Today’s saint was born a pagan, to pagans, in a pagan city. But his broad and deep education brought him into contact with Holy Scripture, where he found the truth he did not know he was seeking. He became a Catholic through reading. He was to then spend his adult life defending Catholic truth with his pen. The convert converted others and preserved the orthodoxy of the Nicene Creed against the Arian heresy. St. Athanasius called St. Hilary a “trumpet” of orthodoxy against theological error.

St. Hilary was elected the bishop of Poitiers, France, about 350. His learning and intelligence inevitably placed him at the center of the violent theological battles of the 4th century. The Council of Nicea of 325 had left some theological definitions open to incorrect interpretation. A man named Arius caused immense confusion by just such misinterpretation. Arius argued that the words of the Nicene Creed meant that Jesus was less than God the Father, had a beginning in time, and was of like substance to the Father instead of the same substance. St. Hilary was the first theologian from western europe, as opposed to the more theologically mature theologians from Egypt, Turkey, and the Middle East, to see what a grave threat the Arian heresy truly was.

St. Hilary spent the better part of his adult life studying, writing, speaking and arguing to ensure that the Nicene Creed was understood and adhered to throughout the Church. He was even sent into exile by the Emperor for not conforming his views to Arian teachings. But he used his time in exile to read and write extensively, eventually becoming such a thorn in the side to the Emperor that he restored St. Hilary to his diocese. St. Hilary went on to attend various synods of bishops in an effort to maintain the truth of the Nicene Creed against determined opposition at the highest levels.

The life of St. Hilary proves that good theology matters. Bad theology easily leads to bad worship, bad morality, and the decline of true Christian community. To disrupt or correct bad theology is to disrupt or correct bad community. And it is sometimes the obligation of the Church to break up false ideas of the church, of marriage, of family, of government, etc… When certain things are built up, their opposites inevitably are broken up. St. Hilary knew all of this. He knew that bad theology was not just bad in and of itself but that it also had negative repercussions in the lived reality of the Church. When St. Hilary defended theological truth he defended many other truths too.  

St. Hilary, through reading and study you came to love the truths of the Catholic faith. And your love of truth then showed itself in your willingness to suffer for that truth. Help us to know. to love, and to serve the truth of God by knowing, loving, and serving the repository and instrument of His truth on earth – the Catholic Church.


Butler’s Lives of the Saints

ST. HILARY was a native of Poitiers in Aquitaine. Born and educated a pagan, it was not till near middle age that he embraced Christianity, moved thereto mainly by the idea of God presented to him in the Holy Scriptures. He soon converted his wife and daughter, and separated himself rigidly from all un-Catholic company. In the beginning of his conversion St. Hilary would not eat with Jews or heretics, nor salute them by the way; but afterwards, for their sake, he relaxed this severity. He entered Holy Orders, and in 353 was chosen bishop of his native city. Arianism, under the protection of the Emperor Constantius, was just then in the height of its power, and St. Hilary found himself called upon to support the orthodox cause in several Gallic councils, in which Arian bishops formed an overwhelming majority. He was in consequence accused to the emperor, who banished him to Phrygia. He spent his three years and more of exile in composing his great works on the Trinity. In 359 he attended the Council of Seleucia, in which Arians, semi-Arians, and Catholics contended for the mastery. With the deputies of the council he proceeded to Constantinople, and there so dismayed the heads of the Arian party that they prevailed upon the emperor to let him return to Gaul. He traversed Gaul, Italy, and Illyria, wherever he came discomfiting the heretics and procuring triumph of orthodoxy. After seven or eight years of missionary travel he returned to Poitiers, where he died in peace in 368.

Reflection.—Like St. Hilary, we, too, are called to a lifelong contest with heretics; we shall succeed in proportion as we combine hatred of heresy, with compassion for its victims.

Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed. [1894]