March 18: Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Bishop and Doctor—Optional Memorial
c. 315–c. 387
Declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Leo XIII in 1883
Liturgical Color: Purple (Lenten Weekday)
God is loving to man, and loving in no small measure. For say not, I have committed fornication and adultery: I have done dreadful things, and not once only, but often: will He forgive? Will He grant pardon? Hear what the Psalmist says: “How great is the multitude of Your goodness, O Lord!” Your accumulated offenses surpass not the multitude of God’s mercies: your wounds surpass not the great Physician’s skill. Only give yourself up in faith: tell the Physician your ailment: say thou also, like David: “I said, I will confess me my sin unto the Lord:” and the same shall be done in your case, which he says immediately: “And you forgave the wickedness of my heart.” ~Saint Cyril, Catechetical Lecture 2
When Constantine the Great legalized Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in the year 313, many were hopeful that the sufferings Christians had endured during the first few centuries of the Church had finally come to an end. But the sufferings only changed. Politics entered the Church, emperors inserted themselves into doctrine, and theological and territorial divisions became fierce. The theological divisions in the fourth century were primarily over the divine and eternal nature of the Son of God. Arius, a priest from Alexandria in North Africa, believed that the Father created the Son, making the Son subordinate to the Father and neither co-eternal nor co-equal with the Father. These teachings came to be known as the Arian Heresy. Others believed that the Son was “begotten of the Father,” meaning He existed from all eternity with the Father and was of the same divine nature. This theological battle was initially addressed in the year 325 at the Council of Nicea. However, after the Council of Nicea, the controversy continued until the confusion was finally settled in 381 by the Council of Constantinople. It was in this fifty-six-year period of Church history and controversy that today’s saint was born, lived, and fought for the true faith.
Cyril was born in or near the city of Jerusalem around the year 315 A.D. Little is known about his early life, other than that he was well-educated in the Scriptures and philosophy. It is believed that he was ordained a deacon for the Church of Jerusalem around the age of twenty by Saint Macarius, Bishop of Jerusalem, who was a staunch opponent of the Arian Heresy. After Macarius died, Saint Maximus, another opponent of Arianism, became Bishop of Jerusalem and ordained Cyril a priest when Cyril was about twenty-eight years old. During his priestly ministry, Cyril became a true shepherd of souls. He was entrusted by Bishop Maximus with the responsibility of assisting him as a preacher and catechist. Cyril preached every Sunday and catechized those preparing for the Sacraments of Initiation. A set of twenty-four of his catechetical instructions have been preserved and are remarkable for their content and clarity. The lectures begin with a prologue, followed by eighteen lessons that were taught to the catechumens before they were baptized. The lessons explained what they needed to know about baptism, how to change from pagan morals, the meaning of the Creed, and the errors of Arianism. Once baptized, Cyril’s last six lessons led the neophytes through a period of mystagogy in which they were taught how to live the new life they received from the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and the Most Holy Eucharist, as well as lessons on prayer, especially found in the Lord’s Prayer.
Bishop Maximus either died or was deposed around the year 348, and Cyril was chosen to succeed him. He was ordained a bishop by Archbishop Acacius of Caesarea Maritima, from the metropolitan see just west of Jerusalem. Archbishop Acacius was sympathetic to Arianism, so he and others might have believed that Cyril was also sympathetic to Arianism, which he was not.
Soon after becoming the Bishop of Jerusalem, a miraculous sign, visible to all, appeared over the holy site of Jesus’ crucifixion. A large cross of light, surrounded by a rainbow, appeared in the sky and stretched for about two miles over the city. This sign was initially perceived as God’s affirmation of Bishop Cyril but might have also been a sign of the sufferings Cyril would soon endure. The suffering began as Cyril fought Acacius on two fronts. Bishop Cyril claimed the right of independent governance from Acacius in the See of Jerusalem. He also opposed the Arian Heresy that Acacius taught. As a result of these tensions, Acacius, other Arian bishops, and emperors persecuted Cyril, leveled false accusations against him, and deposed and exiled him from Jerusalem three times during his almost forty years as a bishop.
Despite suffering through these theological and political Church controversies, Bishop Cyril was a true shepherd of his flock, preaching and catechizing just as he had done as a priest. His gentle, pastoral, conciliatory, and humble approach to his ministry led some more orthodox bishops to suspect him of being sympathetic to the Arians. For that reason, after Cyril returned from his final exile in 378, the great Saint Gregory of Nazianzens was sent to investigate him. Gregory’s conclusion was that Cyril was orthodox, which ended all doubt. In 381, the Council of Constantinople gave further clarity on the Arian Heresy, further clarified the Creed of Nicea, and affirmed Bishop Cyril’s office of Bishop of Jerusalem. He returned and remained a holy shepherd of his people until his death six years later. One eyewitness visiting Jerusalem on pilgrimage wrote in her journal that Bishop Cyril’s catechetical lessons were delivered in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and were so well received by the people that whenever he completed a lesson, all the people would enthusiastically applaud.
Throughout the history of the Church, bitter divisions and the persecution of the orthodox defenders of the faith have been prevalent. Those who emerged as saints were those who persevered, remained faithful, never despaired, and continued to spread the pure faith of the Church, given to Her by Christ. Saint Cyril was one of those shining examples. As we honor him, ponder your own commitment to the entire Truth of the Gospel. When challenged, do you shy away, cower, become confused, and give in to despair? Or do you lovingly stand firm in the Truth, retaining hope that, in the end, Christ will be victorious? Seek to imitate this great Doctor of the Church by embracing not only his orthodoxy but also the charity that fueled his zeal for souls.
Saint Cyril, you were a loving shepherd and a firm defender of the Truth of the divinity of Christ. You never wavered in your mission, not even during persecution and exile, but proclaimed Christ Jesus to your flock. Please pray for me, that I will always remain firm in my faith, especially when challenged by a hostile world, and will lovingly proclaim the truth to those who need it most. Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.
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