St. Hilary of Poitiers Nourished His Flock with Truth

SAINTS & ART: Let us pray for more bishops like St. Hilary of Poitiers.

Montbaston Workshop, “Ordination of St. Hilary,” 14th century
Montbaston Workshop, “Ordination of St. Hilary,” 14th century (photo: Public Domain)

If last week we met a variety of saints — many of whom from North America — this week we have something of a dearth: most of the weekdays are days in Ordinary Time. Except for Jan. 13, the feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers.

Hilary was a fourth-century doctor of the Western Church. He was bishop of Poitiers, a city in west-central France, originally founded by a Celtic tribe. 

The 300s were a pivotal century for the Church. It began with the Diocletian persecution, a short-lived but intense anti-Christian campaign (which produced, among others, St. Lucy) in the very earliest years of the century. The epochal moment for the Church came in 313, when Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, legalizing Christianity in the Roman Empire. 

As the Church was able to emerge from the catacombs into the public square, it was riven by a variety of heresies, centered around Christology and the theology of the Trinity. While that may seem abstract to us, it really isn’t: those controversies were connected with how we understood the person and nature, two fundamental concepts that continue to be exceedingly relevant today, because how you understand the person and human nature has a lot to say about sexual morality and bioethics. To resolve these controversies, a number of major ecumenical councils were called, two of the most important taking place in the fourth century: Nicaea I in 321 and Constantinople I in 381. Another name for the Profession of Faith we declare at Mass on Sundays is the Nicaean-Constantinopolitan Creed.

  Hilary didn’t make it to either: he was about 10 years old when Nicaea I met, and he had been dead about 15 years when Constantinople I met. That doesn’t mean he was not tied up with the issues they raised.

Hilary began life as a pagan and was educated as a pagan. His reading of Scripture led to his conversion. His zeal led to him being elected Bishop of Poitiers sometime around 350. Hilary was a married man and had a daughter when he was chosen to be bishop.

He’s primarily known for trying to stop the advance of Arianism into the Church of Gaul (France) and for having suffered greatly for that effort. First, however, what is Arianism?

Arianism was a heresy in the 4th-century that would not go away. In 2011, when the English translation of the Mass was adopted in the United States, the Sunday Profession of Faith changed to employ the explicit word “consubstantial” when speaking of how the Son is related to the Father. That change was not an innovation. It was a more faithful adaptation of the original Creed: both Nicaea I and Constantinople I used the term “consubstantial” to condemn Arianism. 

Put simply, the Arians denied that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, was equal to God. For the Arians, he was subordinate, somehow less. He was not the Son of God “begotten” in eternity, but rather “made” by the Father. (That’s why we say “begotten, not made”).

Contrary to what the Council of Chalcedon in 451 would later teach that Jesus is “true God and true man,” Arianism in the end made him neither but rather some kind of intermediate being. He was not God because he was not eternal or equal to the Father, but he was not just man because “all things were made through him,” i.e., he was present at creation. So the Son of God was actually neither fish nor fowl according to the Arians. 

Although Nicaea I tried to make an end of Arianism, the Church in the fourth century, particularly in the East, was heavily dependent on the Emperors in Constantinople, some of whom were Arians, as Arianism was the “theologically progressive” view of the day. So, despite Nicaea’s teaching, Arians tried to argue they “really weren’t understood” and sought to insinuate their heresy back into the Church through national churches and in individual dioceses. 

That’s where Hilary came in. He resisted the infiltration of Arianism into what we call today the French Church and, as a reward for his efforts, finding himself on the outs with some of the more influential, was exiled for four years from his diocese to Phrygia, a region in today’s Turkey. (Some historians today want to argue that Hilary’s exile was more political than theological.)

During his years in Turkey, Hilary wrote his most important work, De Trinitate (On the Trinity). Like Athanasius in the East, who also vigorously defended Christian orthodoxy about the Trinity against Arianism and suffered exile, Hilary is regarded as an important author in defense of orthodox Christianity. In the fourth-century world, however, the center of gravity in the theological world had shifted eastward, the Western Roman Empire becoming progressively an intellectual backwater so that, important as Hilary was, his stature was somewhat eclipsed by saints like Athanasius. One commentator put it this way: as a Westerner who wrote in Latin, he was regarded with suspicion by the East, while his fellow Westerners thought he was too influenced by the East.

He died in 367.

Our saint is illustrated in this 14th-century work from the workshop of Richard and Jeanne de Montbaston. The scene depicts Hilary’s consecration as bishop.

The Montbastons were involved in the production of books in Paris. Remember, however, that this is about two centuries before Gutenberg and the invention of movable type, so “book production” meant copying and illumination, not printing. This work is an illumination from the Vies des saintes (Lives of the Saints). 

Ordination to the episcopate is the supreme form of priesthood: even the pope is pope only because he is a bishop, the bishop of Rome. Hilary seems to be the first major bishop of his see, arguably the one about whom we have the most historical evidence. 

Ordination to the episcopate normally involves three consecrating bishops: the principal and two co-consecrators. Three bishops appear in this illumination: note the miters on their heads. Hillary is in the center, seated on his chair (cathedra). That chair is what makes the bishop’s main church in the diocese a cathedral. It’s what’s referred t0 when we speak of the pope teaching in an extraordinary manner infallibly: he speaks ex cathedra, literally, “from the chair.” We celebrate the bishopric of Rome, its primacy and its prerogatives, when we celebrate the feast of the Chair of St. Peter on Feb. 22.

Note the king on the far left. Relations of church and state were assuming a new form in Hilary’s day: from persecuted sect, Catholicism had become a legal religion that even enjoyed some favor from the ruling class. How church and state would interact is a long story, from Constantine’s “watching over” the Church (which particularly encouraged the East’s ties between altar and throne) to investiture controversies in the West (who picks bishops: pope or king?) to their permutations today. The Montbastons are producing their illustration after the height of medieval church/state controversies over investiture, but even in Hilary’s day, Arian and semi-Arian bishops sought to leverage political power to support their heresy.

Hilary did not hesitate to nourish his flock with truth, even when it was not popular and personally costly. Let us pray for more bishops like St. Hilary of Poitiers.