St. Hilary of Poitiers

Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly catechesis

weekly general audience october 10, 2007

As part of his ongoing series of teachings on the Early Fathers of the Church, Pope Benedict XVI offered his reflections on St. Hilary of Poitiers during his general audience on Oct. 10.

Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that the importance of our Trinitarian baptismal faith is fundamental to St. Hilary’s teaching.

Dear brothers and sisters,

Today, I would like to speak about a great Father of the Western Church, St. Hilary of Poitiers, a prominent bishop from the fourth century.

In his encounters with the Arians, who considered the Son of God a creature (albeit an excellent creature), Hilary dedicaated his life to defending faith in the divinity of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and in God as the Father, who begot him from all eternity.

We do not have any reliable information regarding most of Hilary’s life. Ancient sources say that he was born in Poitiers, probably around the year 310. He was from a well-to-do family and received a good education in literature, which is clearly evident in his writings. It does not seem as though he was raised in a Christian environment.

He himself tells us about his quest for the truth, which little by little led him to acknowledge God as the Creator and as the incarnate God who died to give us eternal life. He was baptized around 345, and elected bishop of Poitiers, the city of his birth, around the year 353 or 354.

In the ensuing years, Hilary wrote his first work, his Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. It is the oldest surviving commentary in Latin that we have on this Gospel. In 356, Hilary, in his capacity as bishop, attended a synod in Beziers, in the south of France, which he himself called the “Synod of the False Apostles,” since the gathering was dominated by bishops who were followers of Arianism and who, therefore, denied the divinity of Jesus Christ.

These “false apostles” asked Emperor Constantine to condemn the bishop of Poitiers to exile, so Hilary was forced to leave Gaul during the summer of 356.

Importance of the Trinity

In exile in Phrygia in present-day Turkey, Hilary found himself in a religious environment that was totally dominated by Arianism. There, too, his pastoral concern impelled him to valiantly work for the reestablishment of unity within the Church, based on the authoritative faith that was formulated by the Council of Nicaea.

With this aim in mind, he began writing his most important and most famous dogmatic work, De Trinitate (On the Trinity). In this work, Hilary talks about his own personal journey to a knowledge of God, and takes a special concern to show that the Scriptures clearly attest to the Son’s divinity and his equality with the Father, not only in the New Testament, but also in the many places in the Old Testament where the mystery of Christ is apparent.

When confronting the Arians, he insisted on the truth of the names of the Father and the Son and developed his entire Trinitarian theology on the basis of the formula of baptism that the Lord himself gave us: “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

The Father and the Son are of the same nature. Even though some passages in the New Testament might lead a person to think that the Son is inferior to the Father, Hilary gave some precise rules to avoid such misleading interpretations.

Some passages in Scripture speak about Jesus as God, while others emphasize his humanity. Some refer to his pre-existence at the Father’s side, while others take into consideration his kenosis (self-abasement), his descent even unto death. Lastly, others contemplate him in the glory of the Resurrection.

Conciliatory Spirit

During his years in exile, Hilary also wrote the Book of Synods for his fellow bishops in Gaul, in which he reproduced and offered his comments on the creeds of faith as well as other documents from the synods that met in the East around the middle of the fourth century.

Firm in his opposition to the radical Arians, St. Hilary demonstrated a conciliatory spirit towards those who were prepared to profess that the Son was like the Father in essence, trying to lead them, of course, toward the fullness of faith in which there is not only a likeness but a true equality of the Father and the Son in their divinity. This, too, seems to be one of his characteristics: a conciliatory spirit that tries to understand those who still have not yet arrived at the fullness of the truth and to help them — with great theological intelligence — reach the fullness of faith in the true divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Around 360 or 361, Hilary was finally able to return from exile to his homeland, where he immediately resumed his pastoral activity in the local church. However, the influence of his teaching actually extended well beyond its borders.

A synod was held in Paris around 360 or 361 where the terminology of the Council of Nicaea was taken up once again. Some ancient authors think that an anti-Arian turnabout on the part of the bishops of Gaul was largely due to the strength and meekness of the bishop of Poitiers.

Indeed, his gift was being able to unite strength of faith and meekness in interpersonal relationships.

During the last years of his life, he wrote his Treatises on the Psalms, a commentary on 58 of the Psalms, interpreted according to the principle that he highlighted in his introduction to the work: “There is no doubt that all the things that are said in the Psalms must be understood according to the Gospel proclamation, so that, independently of the voice with which the prophetic spirit has spoken, everything refers to the knowledge of the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ — his incarnation, his passion and his Kingdom — and the glory and power of our resurrection” (Instructio Psalmorum, 5).

He sees this transparency of the mystery of Christ and of his body —which is the Church — in all the psalms. On various occasions, Hilary met with St. Martin, the future bishop of Tours, who founded a monastery near Poitiers, which still exists today.

Hilary died in 367. His feast day is celebrated on Jan. 13. In 1851, Blessed Pius IX proclaimed him a Doctor of the Church.

The Faith of Baptism

In summarizing the essential aspects of Hilary’s doctrine, I would say that the starting point for his theological reflection is found in the faith of baptism.

Jesus, he writes in De Trinitate, “bade them to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit (see Matthew 28:19), that is to say, professing faith in the Creator, in the Only-Begotten, and in the Gift.

The Creator of all things is one, because God the Father, from whom all things proceed, is one. Our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made (see 1 Corinthians 8:6), is one, and one is the Spirit (see Ephesians 4:4), God’s gift in everything … nothing can be found lacking in that supreme union which embraces in the Father, the Son and in the Holy Spirit, the immensity of the Eternal, the revelation of the Image, the joy of the Gift” (see De Trinitate 2:1).

God the Father, being all love, is able to fully communicate his divinity to the Son. I find the following phrase of St. Hilary to be particularly beautiful: “God only knows how to be love, only knows how to be Father. He who loves is not envious, and whoever is Father, is so totally. This name does not allow for any compromise, as though God is father only in certain aspects and not in others” (see De Trinitate 9:61).

For this reason, the Son is fully God without lacking anything or being diminished in any way: “He who comes from the perfect is perfect, because he who has everything has given him everything” (see De Trinitate 2:8).

Only in Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, does mankind find salvation. Taking on human nature, he united every man to himself, “he became our flesh” (see Tractatus in Psalmos 54:9); “he took on the nature of all flesh, thus becoming the true vine, the root of all branches” (see Tractatus in Psalmos 51:16).

Precisely for this reason, the path to Christ is open to all — because he drew everyone into his humanity — although personal conversion is always required: “Through the relationship with his flesh, access to Christ is open to everyone, provided that they leave aside the old man (see Ephesians 4:22) and nail him to his cross (see Colossians 2:14), and provided they abandon their former works and are converted in order to be buried with him in baptism, in view of life (see Colossians 1:12; Romans 6:4)” (see Tractatus in Psalmos 91:9).

Faithfulness to God is a gift of his grace. Therefore, St. Hilary prays, at the end of his treatise on the Trinity, that he may remain faithful to the faith of his baptism. This is one of the characteristics of this book. Reflection is transformed into prayer and prayer leads to reflection. The entire book is a dialogue with God.

I would like to end today’s catechesis with one of these prayers, which also becomes our prayer.

“Grant, O Lord,” Hilary prays in a moment of inspiration, “that I may remain faithful to that which I professed in the symbol of my rebirth, 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 be worthy of your Holy Spirit, who proceeds from you through your only Son. Amen” (De Trinitate 12:57).

Register translation